I am about to start my third year at the Schulich School of law, and I spent the summer interning at the Restorative Research, Innovation, and Education Lab (“the Lab”). I had taken Public Law in first year with the Director of the Lab, Jennifer Llewellyn, so I knew that the Lab existed. I knew it did “restorative things.” What I wasn’t clear on, however, was what “restorative” really meant.
I understood that people charged with criminal offences could be referred to restorative justice. However, limiting the potential of restorative principles to criminal law does not do them justice, as it turns out that restorative principles can apply pretty much anywhere there are people.
Indeed, I learned early on that there is a linguistic distinction between restorative justice and a restorative approach. My impression is that restorative justice connotes a response to conflict or harm, typically in the criminal context. A restorative approach, although closely related to restorative justice, is broader and speaks more generally to strengthening relationships and supporting healthy communities. It is about living restoratively.
This post will touch on two things I discovered in my time at the Lab: how broad restorative principles are in terms of where they can be applied, as mentioned; and the depth of restorative justice with respect to what it can uncover in individual instances of harm.
“Restorative Communities” and Just How BIG Restorative Justice Can Be
The internship job description mentioned “restorative communities” as one of the main projects to which the intern would be assigned. There’s a page about it on the Lab’s website, which I read in preparation for my interview. Still confused, I also Googled “restorative communities.” I didn’t come across anything that helped me understand what they actually were.
I weighed the options when I was doing the interview: do I ask what a “restorative community” is at the risk of sounding unprepared or foolish? Can I use the old “tell me more about X” trick, deftly transforming apparent ignorance into innocent curiosity and eagerness to learn?
I ended up asking, and I nodded along as the interviewers gave me a helpful answer that still left me wondering (as I would later learn when I tried to explain what I was working on to others, the “restorative community” is not the easiest concept to convey in a few short sentences). Thankfully, my colleagues gave me a detailed set of instructions at the start of my internship that included key words, so I had a research anchor.
In my reading, I started to see that the concept of a “restorative community” doesn’t lend itself particularly well to a formula, which makes it quite difficult to explain. What’s required for a community to be restorative depends so much on the particularities of the community in question. One of the best ways to learn about restorative communities is probably to do exactly what I did—read tons of articles and webpages about it (or, I discovered, just talk to Professor Llewellyn for five minutes).
Here’s roughly my sense of what a “restorative community” is:
It’s easy to say a “restorative community” is about a culture shift grounded in relationships, rather than about a bunch of discrete restorative initiatives. It is harder to think about how that can work in practice. Some cities around the world have called themselves “restorative cities” and have put immense effort into training as many people as possible in key sectors (schools, social services, etc.). The tricky part is that, while knowledge-sharing of some kind is surely required so people understand what a restorative approach is, a restorative approach is not about learning a set of rules or procedures to use in given situations. It is about seeing things differently, which is a higher hurdle. Restorative work is about just relations, rather than about any particular practices.
My sense is that a restorative community is therefore not about achieving some discrete goal, but rather about the process of striving for a sense of inclusive community and healthy relationships, of living well by each other. A restorative community is something that grows and spreads as people see it in action. They see the positive results and start to think about how the principles could be transferred. They look at their own organizations, workplaces, or families, and think: what can be done to strengthen these relationships, to make this a healthier and happier place to be?
In this way, a restorative approach is proactive rather than reactive. It is about what can be put in place so that conflicts are less likely to arise, and so people have the tools to resolve them in a healthy way when they do. It is about creating the circumstances for people and communities to thrive and understanding the contexts that might lead to conflict.
When conflicts do arise, restorative responses can tackle them deeply and holistically, as will be described in the next section.
Restorative Justice as a Different—Not Weaker—Form of Justice
Significant misconception surrounds restorative justice. In particular, there is often a sense that restorative justice is a slap on the wrist for a wrongdoer, that it is a way for people to avoid taking responsibility for the harm they have caused; however, accountability for one’s actions is essential to restorative justice. The emphasis just shifts from the individuals (who broke what rule, and what punishment do they deserve?) to the harms (who was harmed, and what needs to happen to repair that harm?).
A restorative approach to harm seems better equipped than more traditional, punitive models to address systemic issues. The “Report from the Restorative Justice Process at the Dalhousie University Faculty of Dentistry” offers a strong example. In that case, women in the dentistry program at Dalhousie discovered offensive comments about them on a Facebook group made up of their male colleagues. Dentistry students—both most of the men involved as well as women in the program—voluntarily took part in a restorative process. There was a strong reaction from students and the wider community. Many thought the men should have been expelled.
I read the report as part of some research into restorative policies and practices on university campuses. The whole report was fascinating to read because of the harmful and misogynistic culture that this one set of complaints revealed in the dentistry school. The process identified contextual factors that contributed to an environment where comments like those made in the Facebook group seemed acceptable (although, of course, they never were acceptable). These factors included structural problems in the program itself that created a stressful and competitive environment, rumours of favouritism, poor processes for dealing with discriminatory behaviours, and inconsistent standards for professionalism.
Importantly, the report is clear that these environmental factors do not excuse the men’s behaviour, and the men themselves took responsibility for the harms they caused. However, deconstructing the culture around the Facebook comments was crucial for understanding what would need to change in the Faculty of Dentistry in order to prevent similar behaviours in future, strengthen relationships, and create a more robust sense of community and collegiality. Similarly, the restorative process had the men in the Facebook group put in the work to understand the harm they caused and try to make things right. This sort of deep analysis and reflection would never have happened if the men had simply been expelled. Restorative justice, therefore, holds great potential for positive change.
I finished this blog post on the last day of my internship, and it helped me reflect on what I learned and what I will carry with me. I’d be interested in doing work in the future around restorative justice, but even if I don’t, how I think has shifted. There were times in law school where I felt like there were gaps, and this may help fill in some of those gaps. At the very least, now I know there are other ways of doing things. I am grateful for the experience.
I want to wrap up with a huge thank you to the others who work at the Lab. They have created a welcoming and inclusive workplace, and that is encouraging as I head into my final year of law school.