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From Silos to Circles: Reclaiming Restorative Practices
Romola Trebilcock, Correctional Services Canada, Ottawa, on assignment with Real Justice

Posted 2000-08-12

Paper by Romola Trebilcock presented at the "2nd International Conference on Conferencing and Circles," August 10-12, 2000, Toronto, Canada

Black Elk stated, “In the old days when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came from the sacred hoop of the nations and so long as the hoop was unbroken the people flourished.”

I commence this presentation with this image, because while I believe I worked effectively in the criminal justice system from my earliest years, I began to do my work much more mindfully after I reflected on this vision. I see in the pattern of my past the themes of separation and segregation juxtaposed against the search for community and belonging.

The image encouraged me to bring into synthesis many segmented themes in my life—my mixed heritage with roots in India, British Guyana, the French protectorate of Mauritius, South Africa and Canada; my racially defined existence first in South Africa and then later here in Canada with my inherited family; and finally my development as a female corrections and justice system social worker in a punitive and hostile environment.

Over the course of the ensuing decades, I have had the opportunity to work in many components of the criminal justice system, and it has been a challenging and often disturbing experience. Gradually I have moved away from an unthinking acceptance of the silos of the mainstream system—police, courts, corrections—magnified in the image of the fenced prison, to embracing the circles of the restorative process.

I entered the work world of the criminal justice system fresh out of years of the safe study of English literature 25 years ago. Over the years, I have realized how well reading prepared me for my work—for what is literature about but the exploration of the nature of relationships between people, their place in community, their individual and combined strengths and shortcomings, the complexity of the challenges and choices they face daily, and the struggle between good and evil.

And in the seventies, we studied the anti-hero, the isolated human being, the alienated angry or desolate outcast, searching desperately for meaning and a place of belonging in a dehumanized, industrialized, urbanized world. This was captured for me in the poignant lines in T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “There will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.”

And on further reflection, when I thought of the complex role we have come to expect enforcement officers to play in our communities, the image of preparing a face to meet the other struck me strongly. I realized we want cops to be tough and frightening if the other is the “bad guy,” but friendly and responsive to us, the “good guys.” This understanding of relationships and differences is fundamentally different from the perspective of indigenous peoples who say we are all related and that I am because you are.

I was fortunate that my first work experience was in a community-based halfway house. Here in Canada, the halfway houses of the seventies evolved out of the efforts and vision of individuals whose lives of social alienation had been further eroded by the isolation and dehumanization of prison life. And in this setting I learned about the needs and dreams of offenders scarred by lives of crime and punishment, and of their desperate search for community and belonging.

I still remember vividly Daryll Hamilton, a 20-year-old federal offender, who, newly on the street in his torn, tight jeans, after the deprivations and isolation of prison, epitomized Rod Stewart’s poignant song, “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” After the sobering experience of a federal prison term at a very young age, he decided to escape the poverty and social chaos of home and family and community in the East coast, to pursue the dream of connecting with the one stable member of the family, now established on the “right side of the tracks” in the West, his prison plumbing certificate promising prosperity and the good life. Well, his fragile dream was quickly deflated by the rejection he encountered. Shortly after, back in the East, he was shot to death hiding in a closet in some minor altercation with police. His image has remained with me over the decades, a reflection of the desperate human search for belonging in a hostile and uncompromising world.

Years later, I read something interesting in a report on street youth prepared by the John Howard Society in Saskatchewan. It suggested that young people commit acts of wrongdoing at similar rates across socioeconomic and racial lines—what is significant is how society responds to the wrongdoing. With some youth, parents respond; with others, the schools and guidance counselors; with others, church representatives; and with yet others, police, lawyers and the court system and prison authorities. And it is apparent that the socioeconomic status determines whether the intervention is personal or connected with the life of the individual or whether the response is increasingly distant and institutionalized.

It is no wonder that the individuals caught in the criminal justice system come from marginalized and impoverished socioeconomic environments, and that they are the recipients of an indifferent and isolating justice.

It is also interesting to note that in colonized countries, the indigenous peoples and the racially identifiable people are disproportionately represented at every level of the criminal justice system—in policing, the courts and corrections. Certainly here in Canada, this is plight of Aboriginal peoples.

This brings me to a consideration of the notion of justice. What we are beginning to acknowledge in Canada is that an isolating and incomprehensible system of justice has been imposed on peoples with vastly differing ideologies and has enforced their subjugation and oppression.

Elder William Commanda, some 30 years ago, discussed the word JUSTICE with former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. You have spelled it wrong, he said to Mr. Trudeau. Oh no, that is how we spell it in English, Mr. Trudeau replied. No, insisted Elder Commanda, it should be spelled JUST US. Decades later, it is still an image drawn upon by Aboriginal justice activists. Yet others break down the work into two critical components—JUST ICE. Both plays on the word lead one to consider notions of community and relationships. As I noted briefly earlier, Indigenous peoples of North America emphasize in every prayer that “we are all related”; in South Africa, the spirit of Ubuntu affirms that I am because you are, that my humanity is inextricably linked with yours.

I remember Elder Alec Denny saying that in his Mi’qMaq language, there was no word for justice. If someone did something wrong, he said, it meant one of two things—he did not know better, therefore he had to be educated or taught right; or else he was sick, and therefore he had to be healed.

Recently I reviewed some interesting research on aging offenders undertaken by Correctional Services Canada. It suggests that younger offenders commence involvement with the criminal justice system at early ages and typically have histories of graduating from youth misdemeanors and offences, to probation, jail terms and federal prisons. They commit property offences, and acts of violence generally involve unknown victims, as in armed robberies. Older offenders, who enter the system later, commit more sexual offences and homicides, generally with known and vulnerable victims, and appear to have deep-seated personal and interpersonal problems.

It seems to me that we should be making greater efforts to address the actions of the former group more effectively at the earliest opportunity—perhaps then we shall be able to divert more people away from the destructive cycle of recidivism and imprisonment. Conferencing presents as one of the most effective approaches to promote.

In Canada, innumerable studies, reports and justice inquiries have established that Aboriginal peoples are ill served by the mainstream punitive, retributive, justice system; the reality is the same for other indigenous peoples.

Over the years of the Decade of Indigenous Peoples, the voices of Aboriginal peoples and their vision for a different approach to wrongdoing have grown in strength and influence, and together with other restorative justice advocates, they are transforming our criminal justice system.

Terry O’Connell learned about family group conferencing through the Maori in New Zealand, and seeing immediately the potential of the process, developed the scripted version of conferencing for use in policing in Wagga Wagga. When I first learned about his work in this area, I was immediately fascinated, and everything I read—research from Australia and New Zealand, the work of John Braithwaite and Donald Nathanson—confirmed for me that this was one of the more significant interventions in the criminal justice system.

In essence what I liked about conferencing, and indeed still value today, is the potential of the process to give voice to the people whose voice has been taken away from them by systems—by teachers, priests, social workers, police, lawyers—and to oblige them to problem solve and resolve conflict. It is a process that encourages the expression of emotion, unlike the reality of the mainstream justice system, and it provides the opportunity for community interaction and engagement. It brings victims and offenders together to face each other, and it keeps the offender’s focus on the individual/s harmed, and not on an invisible and distant “Regina.” It teaches both responsibility and compassion and contributes to the healing of individuals, communities and relationships. It contributes to the democratization of society, as John Braithwaite described at the Vermont conference on Building Strong Partnerships.

I attended the first North American training session in family group conferencing organized by Ted Wachtel in 1995 and I have promoted the process since, with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who have moved the process forward nationally under the title Community Justice Forum; to the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police; and to Aboriginal and mainstream justice practitioners across the country.

Over the past decade, I have had the unique opportunity and privilege to work in Aboriginal corrections, policing and justice in Canada. As I became increasingly involved with Aboriginal justice approaches and circles, I found myself engaging more closely with community, and this experience has added an incredible dimension to both my personal and professional life, and to my understanding of our need as a society to move from the isolation and exclusion to community and inclusion. Within the circle, one has both the right and the responsibility to find and express one’s voice.

Indigenous cultures across the world are reclaiming the circle process for healing and development. As they share their heritage, they are contributing to restoring balance and harmony in a global context, in culturally unique yet fundamentally consistent and coherent ways. The re-awakening of this ancient wholistic consciousness is essential to the paradigm shift from the segmented divisive ideology of western society to the inclusiveness of restorative relationships. We who are largely a part of the mainstream society need to incorporate humility and respect in our efforts to integrate these principles and restore harmony and balance in our lives and our communities.

Conferencing and circle sharings are processes that can transform our ability to communicate with each other, understand each better and resolve our conflicts in healthy and productive ways. They have the distinct characteristic of being accessible to many more people and communities than other intervention programs and their potential for utilization beyond the criminal justice field remains largely untapped. So it seems to me there is much exciting work ahead of us as we strive to develop well-being and harmony in communities.

I am pleased to be involved with conferencing in Canada at a much closer level at this time than when I first learned about in the mid-nineties.

I have followed Ted Wachtel’s efforts to wave the flag for family group conferencing internationally over the past five years, and I have admired his zeal, generosity, commitment and passion for the process. His passion and that of his family emanate from years of working with troubled youth. His entrepreneurial spirit encompasses and embraces the visions and aspirations of many international voices, and he has a unique ability to make a difference by creating synergy and drawing so many hard-working, committed people together.

I am glad to have the opportunity to work with Real Justice Canada, and I look forward to our collaboration in advancing conferencing and other restorative, community development practices and values nationally and globally.