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Restorative Justice - A Path Forward

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,


In today’s post, we will be looking at restorative justice within the Canadian criminal justice system. While the term ‘restorative justice’ is relatively new, the practice has deeply rooted origins in Indigenous culture and traditions. [1]

Image: CBC News, www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/manitoba-justice-system-modernization-strategy-1.4568641

Restorative justice differs from the standard Canadian approach to justice in that it focuses on repairing the harm caused by crime or conflict. While traditional sentencing focuses on punishment and deterrence for the offender, restorative justice involves all parties affected by a crime, including the victim, offender, and other affected parties, such as family members and community members.


In the landmark 1999 case of R v Gladue, the Supreme Court of Canada endorsed restorative justice as a model to help reduce the overrepresentation of Indigenous offenders in Canadian prisons. The Court defined restorative justice as:

“…an approach to remedying crime in which it is understood that all things are interrelated and that crime disrupts the harmony which existed prior to its occurrence, or at least which it is felt should exist. The appropriateness of a particular sanction is largely determined by the needs of the victims, and the community, as well as the offender. The focus is on the human beings closely affected by the crime”. [2]

In addition to being overrepresented as offenders, Indigenous people are overrepresented as victims of crime. Generally, victims of crime play very little role in the criminal justice system. After filing a complaint, they may be called on as a witness, and will be given an opportunity to make a victim impact statement, but it is uncommon for a victim’s opinion to be considered for sentencing. The justice system is not set up to “repair” the victims in any way. Restorative justice programs offer a better approach to repairing harm for all parties involved.


In March 2022, Alberta courts launched a Restorative Justice Pilot program. Participants in the restorative justice program may be referred to community conferencing, Victim Offender Dialogue, Circles of Support and Accountability, Family Group Conferencing, Peacemaking Circles, Youth Justice Committees, or any combination of those listed. [3] The process chosen is specific to the needs and preferences of the parties involved, and both the offender and the victim must consent to participation in restorative justice.


Image: theconversation.com/two-eared-listening-is-essential-for-understanding-restorative-justice-in-canada-185466

Call to Action 30 calls upon all levels of government to “commit to eliminating the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in custody”. [4] Restorative justice programs, such as the one in Alberta, are one way that governments are working to fulfill this goal.


While restorative justice is a step in the right direction, there is still work to be done. Currently, in Alberta, restorative justice is only available in criminal courts, and only once offenders have been charged with a crime. To build a stronger community, restorative justice should start before an offender is charged.


Others have been critical of the bureaucratic nature of restorative justice when done through the Albertan justice system. Bigstone Cree Nation has its own type of restorative justice system for its community, led by Helen Flamand. Flamand believes that “anytime you take a bureaucratic approach to any type of healing model as it relates to justice, things get complicated,” and suggests that “governments stay out of the way and let communities take the lead and let us do restorative justice as we see fit.” [5]


Flamand’s sentiments highlight the conflict between the implementation of Indigenous-led legal solutions and the incorporation of Indigenous legal traditions into the Canadian legal system. While the goal may ultimately be legal autonomy, restorative justice programs provide a culturally sensitive and adaptive approach to addressing crime.


Additionally, the Court’s direction in Gladue, to consider restorative justice as a way to reduce the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system, has yet to make a substantial impact. The percentage of Indigenous offenders has continued to increase compared to non-Indigenous offenders.


To increase the positive impact of restorative justice, funding could be diverted from the conventional court processes and directed towards restorative justice programs. Training for community partners who can facilitate the programs and processes would ensure greater accessibility to the program. As restorative justice becomes more engrained in the Canadian justice system, we hope to see a greater impact on the lowering of incarceration rates. With this goal in mind, we hope that the resources will be made available to make this happen.

Until next time,

Team ReconciliACTION YEG.




[1] Brattleboro Community Justice Center, “Indigenous Roots of Restorative Justice” (16 Oct 2019), Brattleboro Community Justice Center, online: <www.brattleborocjc.org/blog/indigenous-roots-of-restorative-justice>.

[2] R v Gladue, [1999] 1 SCR 688 at para 71.

[3] Beverley Browne, “Alberta Courts’ Restorative Justice Pilot Project Framework” (last visited 27 Feb 2023), Alberta Courts, online (pdf): <rjalbertacourts.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/ABCRJ-Referral-Guidelines-Framework-1.pdf>.

[4] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action” (2015), online (pdf): National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation <www.nctr.ca>.

[5] Andrea Huncar, “Alberta considers legislation for upcoming provincewide restorative justice program” (9 Dec 2022), CBC News, online: <www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/alberta-restorative-justice-bigstone-ifsaa-1.6681456>.

Image: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/manitoba-justice-system-modernization-strategy-1.4568641


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