vancouver’s shootings and restorative justice

mural in canadaon tuesday, there was a shooting in my neighbourhood, on vancouver’s fraser street. pretty scary – it was less than three blocks from my grandson’s daycare. there has been a rash of gang activity and violence in vancouver in the last few weeks.

like anyone else, i’m asking myself, what’s going on? what happened to vancouver? and what can we do about it?

this led me to interview a friend of mine who is very passionate about restorative justice. what is restorative justice?

restorative justice is one way to respond to a criminal act. restorative justice puts the emphasis on the wrong done to a person as well as on the wrong done to the community. it recognizes that crime is both a violation of relationships between specific people and an offence against everyone – the state.

restorative justice programs involve the voluntary participation of the victim of the crime and the offender and ideally members of the community, in discussions. the goal is to “restore” the relationship, fix the damage that has been done and prevent further crimes from occurring.

restorative justice requires wrongdoers to recognize the harm they have caused, to accept responsibility for their actions and to be actively involved in improving the situation. wrongdoers must make reparation to victims, themselves and the community. (thanks to the government of canada department of justice)

here is the interview:

was there a specific moment in your life that made you become interested in restorative justice?

a combination of things. i saw a movie about it, a woman whose son had been killed falling off the truck that was being driven by someone under the influence. now she’s going around with the young man who drove that truck, speaking to high schools. at the same time, the reena virk trial happened. the way the virks handled the whole thing really impressed me. also, the truth and reconciliation commission happened during the same time. so i saw a different way of dealing with crime and very serious issues of life and death.

you’re so passionate about many things but i’ve never seen you delve so deeply into an issue. why this?

the future of the world depends on it. it’s a civilizing force. what we’re doing isn’t working. i see that humanity makes these quantum leaps at different points in history. i think this is the leap forward we need. instead of guilt and punishment and retribution and anger, we need something else – although you do need the anger, it’s an important part of the restorative process.

plus i’m always impressed by the people who do it. i saw bishop desmond tutu when he was in vancouver and had a chance to talk to him for a few minutes. there was something about him, there was so much peace about him, there was a joy and a peace about him, i want something of this. he had this deep inner sense that there was a way out. and he was involved in this way out, he was living it.

people who do this work seem so steady and on course.

what are your thoughts on the current wave of violent crimes in vancouver?

i think it’s scary. i confess i have a little bit of trouble seeing how restorative just can be applied to it. these people that are shooting each other, i suspect it’s to do with gangs. they seem different from the rest of us. i have trouble thinking of these people going to their jobs, worrying about their mortgage. i’m having trouble having empathy for them. that would be a huge step, if restorative justice would work for them but i can’t imagine it, that needs a bigger mind than mine. there’s a part of me that wants to say, go at it, just leave the innocent people out. of course that doesn’t sound very restorative.

what’s needed is a willingness to participate in the process. are gang members ever going to be willing to sit down and see the other side?

restorative justice doesn’t work for sociopaths. these people in my mind are sociopaths. but on the other hand i wouldn’t want to write anyone off.

it’s the willingness. you have to sit down and be willing to hear the truth. sadam hussein for example still thought he was right right when he was executed. not a candidate for restorative justice!

what do you say to the idea that we need harsher punishments?

that’s just what hasn’t worked. which of course puts in a different light what i just said. the highest crime rates exist in the places where the harshest punishments are given. i totally get that people who have lost someone would want harsh punishment. but it just doesn’t make the person who carries out the punishment feel better, it’s costly, it doesn’t work – but i understand it!

i know if anyone did something to someone who i love, i would want blood, that’s my first reaction. but eventually i hope i would come around because it doesn’t work.

can you tell us about a restorative justice case that really impressed you?

the art project on the side of a store here in vancouver, my sister’s closet. my sister’s closet has an alley right on the side of it and had been a target for graffiti for a long time. the owner of the property is an elderly asian man who constantly had to clean it up. he couldn’t understand why he was a target all the time. the restorative justice program restart approached him to do a mural there and he agreed.

the restart project took a group of teen grafitti artists through a number of workshops. they sat down with the property owner and the store, they had to hear what it cost them, how unsafe it made them feel. they had to reflect on how it affected them to hear this. ultimately they all designed and made the mural. the property owner even participated a bit. he was quite impressed by one of the young men and decided to sponsor him through art school. now we have this beautiful mural. the kids have vowed not to do any more graffiti. a lot of them have ghone on to do much better. the property owner shows the building proudly. some of the police took some kids under their wing.

a lot of the kids that are doing this are feeling disenfranchised, they have a home that’s not so good, they don’t have a mentor. this is what they got from the program.

it’s possible that these people who do violent crime started out like this, too, and they never found a way to really connect to a mentor.

in the grand scheme of things, graffiti is not a big crime. some of the grafitti is art, but some of it is marking. grafitti leads to a lack of respect. they also found that most of the graffiti people were with horrible attitudes towards women, with non-existent respect. this seems to carry over. they didn’t seem to have a lot of respect for themselves either.

photograph of mural by emrld_cicada


  1. Isabella,

    Firstly, let me express my sympathy for the family of the victim in the shooting last Tuesday – a simply horrific event.

    I certainly see the merit behind restorative justice, and in the example of graffiti, I would imagine that its application toward smaller crimes might even help in the prevention of more serious crimes.

    That said, for more serious crimes, such as last week’s shooting, I don’t think jail terms can or should be avoided.

    Andrew’s last blog post..Thoughts for a nation in shock

  2. thanks for your comment, andrew!

    the way i understand restorative justice, it does not necessarily avoid jail terms. for example, in the reena virk case, the offender in question certainly served a jail term.

  3. Very interesting indeed. Knowing from prior blog posts that you are from the Vancouver area, I was actually wondering if the shootings would make their way into your blog! I am very concerned about the drug violence that has been increasing in various parts of Canada, Vancouver included, even though I live in New York. To solve this organized crime problem, I think we need to re-examine and re-vamp our drug policy (we being really a lot of the Western world, the US being the worst offender, even though, tragically, our drug policy failures impact other countries… just look at what’s going on in Mexico right now! But I think Canada certainly has progress to make as well! I’m a huge fan of Insite in Vancouver – I think that’s such a step in the right direction, and despite all the controversy surrounding it, it’s continued successful operation is an inspiration beyond Vancouver’s city limits!) Anyway, I think restorative justice is very much a part of this. It reminds me in some ways (not exactly) of CeaseFire programs that I believe have been tried in Cincinnati and other places in the US, even those those are prevention programs – not for dealing with crimes after the fact. I would have to learn more about the formal tenets of Restorative Justice before commenting in too much more detail, but it sounds very in line with my own personal philosophy regarding criminal justice and drug policy in general, where there is an emphasis on rehabilitation and much more attention paid to the data and science and facts of what works and what doesn’t as opposed to just revenge.

    One thing though, I think it’s unfair to call, as your friend did, those involved in the recent shootings and gang violence outbreaks sociopaths. The vast majority of people involved in organized crime of this nature are confused, lost kids who come from tragic backgrounds. I’m sure you have sociopaths mixed in there, but the occurrence of that sort of pathology int he general population is extremely (extremely!!!!) rare, and not something that can be determined from afar. I strongly believe that regular humans can do horrible, horrible, horrrrrrible things, and still have goodness in them. That, and armchair psychoanalysis isn’t something I generally support.

    But, all in all, thanks for writing about this important topic, thanks to your friend for being interested in and working so hard to support alternatives to the current criminal justice paradigm, and thank you for giving her a voice!

    Katharine’s last blog post..“A sexual enthusiast, grandad Darwin wrote enormously long poems about the sexual parts of plants and…”

  4. It may be that Andrew is correct and violent crimes demand jail/prison time. And yet, the criminal justice system has so little to offer those who have already been hurt. The purpose, it seems, is punitive or isolation; those who have hurt others are being punished and kept out of the population to eliminate the potential for
    re-offense against any one of us…at least for a time. Though it is true that when the fellow who hurt me was in prison, I was comforted that he could not find or hurt me again for a time, it felt safe but unsatisfying. A crime victim gets hurt, does his or her part for society — reporting, maybe participating in an investigation and offering testimony if necessary. But the crime is considered a crime against the state. There is little acknowledgement of the personal, even intimate nature of crime — a human hurting another human. I have an interest in restorative justice conceptually and wonder if maybe a framework could evolve in relation even to violent crimes. But I do not know if it could be beneficial for an offender and if it is not, then it would be just more punishment. I am certain, however, that it offers victims a greater opportunity for ‘justice’ than courts and prison can offer — through a direct acknowledgement of responsibility and some measure, maybe small but meaningful, of restitution or contribution to the cost of healing. I am trying to learn more about it; hope you keep addressing it here. Thanks.

  5. Isabella,

    Thanks for your clarification with respect to the issue about restorative justice not being a substitute for jail terms.

    Certainly, I can see Lin’s point – criminal punishment is handed down for crimes against the state, and do little in the way of assisting victims with the healing process.

    I cannot speak from personal experience in this regard, but I could certainly imagine that having the offender take whatever action is reasonable in order to make restitution to the victim would be a helpful and constructive step. And in cases such as violent crime or sexual assault, where the damage cannot be undone, then at least a genuine apology and acknowledgement of wrongdoing may prove to be of some (albeit inadequate) consolation to the victim.

    Andrew’s last blog post..Thoughts for a nation in shock

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