There are compelling reasons to pursue restorative justice, not only within First Nation communities but in education and mainstream society as a whole, a TRU symposium heard Friday.
Experiences such as those of Ian and Marlyn Ferguson — who spoke of their experiences after the death of their son at the hands of criminals — show how principles such as respect, inclusion, compassion and forgiveness can heal wounded families and communities.
The Ladner couple were guest speakers at the second annual “RJ” symposium, hosted by the university’s Office of Student Affairs and sociology department.
“To think that punishment equals justice is a very narrow view,” said sociology instructor Alana Abramson, who teaches restorative justice. “We need to balance the scales sometimes. We know that punishment has limited effect.”
Unlike conventional justice, restorative justice engages victims and perpetrators in a circle of involvement where they meet face to face. Community safety and security remain primary considerations, but the process of defining appropriate sanctions or sentencing is a shared one that advocates say results in more effective and constructive outcomes for all involved.
Three universities in Canada have practised restorative justice, including UVic and Dalhousie University, where it was used when a group of 13 dentistry students was confronted for misogynist rants on a private Facebook page. At TRU, restorative justice is only beginning to be used.
“It is a new movement,” said Dona Lemieux, a student case manager in the Office of Student Affairs.
“At TRU, it’s still in very early stages,” Abramson added. ”Secondary schools are leaps and bounds ahead of universities in using this. Elementary schools are wonderful places to have this model.”
At the same time, they noted that restorative justice has not been embraced by mainstream society because it’s felt to be too lenient, “an easy way out,” for offenders.
The Ferguson’s lost their son 10 years ago through violence and criminal circumstances that initially left them stunned and bewildered.
Graeme, 27, was taking courses to become a police officer and supported himself as a dockworker. Facing credit card debt, he agreed to be a “drug mule,” taking two suitcases of cocaine to Ottawa. However, after arriving there, he had a change of heart, left the bags on a bus and headed home to Vancouver.
“You don’t get to change your mind,” Marlyn said. “You end up in jail or you end up dead.”
He was ordered back to retrieve the bags and was eventually kidnapped by a group of seven individuals who imprisoned and tortured him in a warehouse in Montreal. After he was released, Graeme collapsed on the street and died of blood clot in his lungs caused by the beatings.
A police officer showed up at Ian’s workplace to inform the family.
“The story was unbelievable,” Marlyn said. “Our son? No way. He’d never even had a speeding ticket. He was a young, happy-go-lucky kid.”
They held the funeral at the same church where their daughter was wed 10 days earlier, the last time they’d seen Graeme.
“This was like a movie; this was our new life.”
Four of the people responsible were arrested within eight months, tried and convicted with sentences ranging from three to 10 years. The grieving Fergusons wanted to meet with a young man, Kim, who was involved. They wanted to learn more about the circumstances of their son’s death initially and felt only resentment and hatred toward those responsible.
When they met, Marlyn first hugged one of her son’s killers and said she forgave him.
“I felt we really needed to meet. I advise anybody in this position to take full advantage of restorative justice and you will resolve some of your issues. A load was taken off our shoulders.”
She grew to realize how vulnerable young people can be — her son and those responsible for his death — when they take desperate measures due to relatively minor challenges such as debt. Two of the culprits were paid $100 apiece for the kidnapping; they both received five-year sentences.
“Restorative justice has worked. It has changed our perceptions,” said Marlyn, who speaks to RJ circles at various institutions, including prisons.
She recalled her son with fondness for the little boy with a learning disability, who grew to help his peers when they were bullied.
“It’s putting those restorative memories back in your head for those 27 years that happened, not for those six days in a warehouse.”