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The Restorative Approach in Nova Scotia: A Partnership of Government, Communities and Schools
Mary Shafer
Laura Mirsky, International Institute for Restorative Practices, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Posted 2011-04-01

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In Restorative Collaboration: The Nova Scotia Restorative Justice Program (www.iirp.org/article_detail.php?article_id=NjI5), Jennifer Llewellyn, professor of law at Halifax’s Dalhousie University and director of the Nova Scotia Restorative Justice Community University Research Alliance (NSRJ-CURA), described the foundations of the province’s restorative justice program. (The paper was delivered at the 2009 IIRP World Conference, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA.) This article focuses on how the restorative approach is being implemented in school and community settings within the province.

In its twelfth year, Restorative Justice Nova Scotia (NSRJ) shows promising results in schools and communities, through a vibrant partnership between government and the community.

“Traditionally,” said Llewellyn, “Government strategies carve kids up instead of treating them in an integrated way, but kids come in one body. They need an integrated response. Government ‘silos’ result in cracks for them to fall through. We asked, ‘Why don’t we start looking at the children and their integrated reality?’ This allows us to think in more collaborative ways.”

NSRJ is delivered by a network of community-based agencies, each with responsibility for defined regions (www.gov.ns.ca/just/rj/contact.asp). “This model is one of the core strengths of the success of our program,” said Llewellyn, who works with both the government and community agencies — partners within NSRJ. The government of Nova Scotia deserves credit for keeping the program alive through three very different administrations, she feels, but this wouldn’t have been possible without community collaboration.

There is now a significant interest across Nova Scotia to bring the restorative approach to schools. Said Pat Gorham, director of crime prevention for the Nova Scotia Department of Justice, “Our provincial government is trying to find out what the capacity might be for RJ in Nova Scotia, identifying frameworks that might be put into place for schools that want to participate. The work has largely been from the community up. All pilot programs are at the local level, with individual school administrators opting to commit to a restorative approach, supported by regional RJ agencies.”

The Tri-County Restorative Justice agency exemplifies this integration; it handles diversion of police-referred youth, and it founded Bringing Restorative Justice into Schools, the first project to develop a program using restorative approaches within schools in Nova Scotia. This program trains students throughout the province as RJ facilitators.

Attorney Emma Halpern began her work in restorative approaches as a project manager for this program. Said Halpern, “We began with a discipline model, using student facilitators for restorative practices, and have expanded to using teacher circles in classrooms, talking with administrators and staff about how to engage and discuss to create a culture of respect, and reaching out into the larger community through classrooms.”

“What we’re really [trying to achieve] is a culture shift, which takes a lot of thought and a lot of time,” she continued. “This is far more than a checklist of ‘Are you using circles? Have you had a restorative conversation today?’ What it takes is to have everybody in that school thinking differently about how they relate with each other and the community at large.”

Program benefits have included a more positive and collegial environment among staff, resulting in fewer staff absentee days, a higher level of student involvement in school life, and dramatic reductions in discipline referrals.

The International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) Canada is also training Nova Scotia schools, headed by director Bruce Schenk and aided by trainer Gola Taraschi, coordinator and coauthor of the Best Practice Standard and Learning Curriculum for the Restorative Justice Program of the Nova Scotia Department of Justice (created through a collaborative process between community agencies and government).

Schenk and Taraschi have provided some training in the Restorative Practices Framework (in conjunction with and in support of the work already developing in the province), which includes Introduction to Restorative Practices and Using Circles Effectively and trainings, assemblies and meetings for parents and students, in about 10 schools in urban and rural areas throughout the province, including those in Halifax, Yarmouth and Amherst.

Schenk is very encouraged by the progress at these schools. École St. Catherine’s Elementary School, in Halifax, was among the first in Nova Scotia to implement a restorative approach. “The kids are doing really well,” he said, “But a real testament to the restorative mind-set there is that there is no staff conflict. People love coming to work.” Schenk credits St. Catherine’s former principal, Richard Derible, now safe schools consultant to the Halifax Regional School Board, for his leadership in moving the program forward at the school.

Nova Scotia’s collaborative partnership model has been extremely helpful in supporting restorative practices in schools, said Schenk, citing the partnership with Tri-County Restorative Justice. He was also encouraged that Pat Gorham, in her new role as provincial crime prevention coordinator, is collaborating with the Department of Education to create an overall strategy for developing restorative approaches in schools, saying, “Nova Scotia has the opportunity to become a restorative province. RJ is already entrenched in restorative justice for youth. There could also be a province-wide restorative approach in schools.”

Shelburne Regional High School has reaped benefits from both Tri-County’s Bringing Restorative Justice into Schools and IIRP Canada’s Restorative Practices Framework, seeing an 80-83% reduction in office referrals and suspensions after two years of involvement with the restorative approach.

Shelburne principal Mary Manning explained her restorative approach to discipline: “I’ll sit down with the student to ask what happened. We don’t ask ‘why’ because that’s a blaming word. I think sometimes they honestly didn’t see their actions as something that impacts others.”

Manning recalled a case where a potentially violent racial incident was brewing: “I went in with my little restorative questions card [with questions used to respond to challenging behavior and to help those harmed by others’ actions — www.iirp.org/books_n_videos_info/restquescards.php] and started a circle. It always starts off really stiff. But there’s always a point where there’s a shift. Finally someone says something so real and honest that everyone feels the shift. They realize they’re not there to be yelled at, but so everyone can get at the root of the problem.” Ultimately, the circle helped build relationships and avert any violence.

Students trained to be facilitators prepare fellow students for restorative circles and for challenges and questions they might receive afterward. “It empowers them,” said Manning. “We bring in students we’ve identified as leaders to ask them to proactively start conversations about issues we see arising. They then work on presentations around that issue, which they present to the whole student body during gatherings called ‘Coffeeless Coffeehouses’ at lunchtime, or in poetry jams, performances, skits and other creative presentations using restorative frameworks.”

Shelburne also employs the restorative approach to resolve issues between students and teachers, as in a circle that was held with a teacher and students who had been acting out as a group. The teacher learned that her lessons were moving ahead before the students could grasp previous concepts, so they were becoming frustrated. The circle helped the teacher remedy that situation.

Manning envisions the program in her school spreading throughout Nova Scotia. “My hope is that students will carry on thinking about [restorative approaches] outside of school, in relationships with friends and family, realizing there is power in conversation.”

Schenk thinks that what distinguishes Nova Scotia from other Canadian provinces is that it has a solid, grassroots base, supported by the government. Some provinces’ programs are school-board based and therefore don’t have connections to the wider community or government funding. Others are grassroots-based but don’t have ongoing government support or systems in place. “Nova Scotia has a really strong sense of community,” he concluded. “It’s small, and people have a long history of working together to face challenges: the closing of the fisheries, harsh weather. It’s part of their ethos: looking after one another.”

The Community Justice Society delivers the Restorative Justice Program in the Halifax Regional Municipality, contracted by the Nova Scotia Department of Justice. It targets at-risk youth, ages 12 to 17, including those from under-resourced families and African Nova Scotians. Executive director Yvonne Atwell said that the Society utilizes volunteers, recruited from diverse organizations, universities and businesses, who receive about 40 hours of training to facilitate restorative sessions. Atwell reports an 89% success rate for these sessions, saying, “There will always be the 10-15% of young people for whom nothing will work. But [the session] is usually a single instance for most youth we work with, and they don’t re-enter the justice system.”

Community Justice Society initiatives also include its group home program, Restorative Options For Youth In Care, which holds circles inside the homes, and the Community Conferencing program. Atwell relayed a Community Conferencing case in which students were bullying a New Canadian (immigrant) boy from Somalia because they didn’t understand his language and culture. Learning of the escalating situation, facilitators met with people in several small circles to build group capacity for dialogue. The conferences proactively resolved the situation before any great harm was done. “The first time I sat in a circle,” said Atwell, “I realized this was a community development tool, and that’s how I’ve seen it ever since.”

The Mi’kmaw Legal Support Network (MLSN) is the only provincial Aboriginal justice system in Canada. MLSN has been responsible for justice services to Nova Scotia Aboriginal youth for more than a dozen years and more recently is also focusing on justice issues with Aboriginal adults.

Executive director Paula Marshall has been involved with MLSN since it was created to address government justice systems’ unsatisfactory handling of Aboriginal youth justice issues. Government programs mandated in 1995, which required consideration of alternative measures for first-time Aboriginal youth offenders, were inadequate, said Marshall. “These programs didn’t help youth understand the consequences of their actions, and no victims were included in the processes. This didn’t fit with Aboriginal culture.”

MLSN’s founders interviewed numerous Aboriginal offenders, victims, elders, police and community members to learn what justice meant to them. “We heard so many stories around traditional justice,” said Marshall. They heard about the traditional New Year’s feast, when tribal chiefs apologize for all the wrongs committed the previous year and people have the opportunity to acknowledge the hurt and to forgive. In another story, an elder recalled the time he broke a window when he was a boy, and his father made him walk back and forth for five days outside the victim’s home until he could apologize, and his apology was accepted.

These stories illustrate an essential concept of Aboriginal justice, said Marshall: mutual forgiveness. “The offender must apologize to the victim, but the victim must also forgive the offender, or the hurt goes on.”

In 1999, said Marshall, “a restorative justice wave hit North America, Nova Scotia got on board, and we were in style. These were things we were already doing.” MLSN capitalized on this movement. Today justice processes are in place, developed with NSRJ and the Tripartite Forum, a partnership between the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq, the Province of Nova Scotia and the Government of Canada, formed in 1997.

“Traditionally we had talking circles and consultation with elders and community leaders. Now we have justice circles where we hold an offender accountable before a panel of community members trained to help participants in the circle.” Justice circles handle offenses ranging from attempted murder to shoplifting. This began as a program for first-time youth offenders and has since expanded to include repeat offenders and adults.

Other processes include sentencing circles and healing circles. In the latter, victims and offenders meet to discuss ways to repair harm.

In one healing circle, a girl stole a young mother’s purse, discovered there was no money in it and threw it away. She was caught, charged with “Theft Under $5,000” and referred to MLSN. Had the case been handled by the court, the impact on the girl would have been negligible. But the healing circle gave the girl an opportunity to hear directly from the victim about how she’d been hurt by the “petty” theft. The purse hadn’t contained any money, but it had contained milk tokens, which the mother urgently needed to feed her baby. It had also contained treasured photos (now destroyed) of the victim’s late grandfather, who had raised her, which she had looked at whenever she felt lost.

All these processes stress the community’s responsibility for repairing harm. The majority of crime by Aboriginals, added Marshall, is directed at other Aboriginals, often family members. “Incidents affect families and polarize communities,” she said. Circles are about finding ways for people to live amicably within the community.

Other MLSN processes include circles to help offenders reenter the community when they’re about to be released from incarceration; post-release support circles to help offenders function in the community; victim support services to help them navigate the criminal justice system; a court worker program that helps accused offenders through the criminal justice system; and the Mi’kmaw Venture Program, which has successfully reduced youth crime and substance abuse by reconnecting youth with the natural world.

These programs are widely utilized by members of Nova Scotia’s 13 First Nations, all of which are involved with the administration of MLSN, said Marshall. In the future she hopes MLSN can address one of their “most vulnerable programs,” a three-year victim-support services pilot, as well as programs to address family court, domestic violence, Mi’kmaw family and children’s services, and men’s issues.

On June 15–17, 2011, the Nova Scotia Restorative Justice Community University Research Alliance and the International Institute for Restorative Practices are presenting the 14th IIRP World Conference, “Institutionalizing Restorative Practices: Building Alliances Among Practitioners, Policy Makers and Scholars,” in Halifax. The keynote speaker is world-renowned criminologist John Braithwaite, perhaps best known for his book Crime, Shame and Reintegration and his work on responsive regulation and restorative justice. Braithwaite’s speech in Nova Scotia over a decade ago helped inspire the founders of NSRJ. He will be back to share his insights and current research. For more on the conference go to www.iirp.org/ns11.