What Could Restorative Justice Mean for Vancouver’s Court System?

Clair MacGougan has long believed in the principles of restorative justice. But there was no hiding his reservations when he was recently asked to participate in a pilot project to try to launch the initiative in Vancouver. “I was cringing a bit,” admits MacGougan. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get involved with something where there wasn’t the political will to make change.” Fair enough; he’d been through it before.

It was over a decade ago when Evelyn Zellerer first approached MacGougan, who is executive director of the Hastings Sunrise Community Policing Centre, about running a restorative justice pilot program.

As one of the leaders of the civilian-run HSCPC, MacGougan had a “good sense of what worked and what didn’t,” he recalls. “One of the things I always felt was lacking was just how long it took to resolve everything, and how hard it was on the people. Often the problems weren’t resolved.”

Different from the traditional criminal justice approach that we all know—still probably most effectively boiled down by Law and Order’s “two separate, yet equally important, groups” summation—restorative justice is a global social movement that seeks to find ways to include everyone affected by a conflict or crime in the process of repairing the harm, and to shift how communities think about and achieve justice.

It’s had success in jurisdictions around the world, but when Zellerer and MacGougan first partnered to try to incorporate the concept in Vancouver, it didn’t take. “There was never an appetite to put money into it,” says MacGougan. “Many cities throughout the world have given all sorts of resources, but Vancouver didn’t.”

The pilot was ended after a few years due to a lack of funding, but Zellerer, who holds a PhD in criminology from SFU and is the founder of Peace of the Circle, didn’t stop trying to bring the concept to the city.

About a year and a half ago, she started to have conversations with Catherine Bargen and Aaron Lyons, co-founders of restorative justice advocacy firm Just Outcomes.

“Vancouver is our home and it doesn’t have a community-based funded restorative justice program, which is an anomaly,” says Zellerer, pointing to municipalities like North Vancouver, Abbotsford, Richmond and Langley.

So when Zellerer went back to MacGougan recently, she was able to bring along with her a list of stakeholders that had shown interest in taking part in an initiative called Building Partnerships for Restorative Justice in Vancouver. There are now dozens of individuals representing numerous organizations on the list, including those in traditional places of power, such as an abundance of city councillors and representatives from the Vancouver Police Department and provincial ministries.

“When I heard the people she was pulling together and talked to some of the city councillors about it, it sounded like they have more of an appetite now,” says MacGougan. “Just by bringing people together to see it differently, the way Evelyn and her partners have done it, they’re not telling us the way it needs to be, they’re just creating the space. Restorative justice is a term that many different people have different ideas about what it can be.”

There are also a number of other groups represented, like Black Lives Matter Vancouver, Qmunity and Women Against Violence Against Women, to name a few. The stakeholders met in early April and late May, and hope to keep an open dialogue in framing what restorative justice in Vancouver might look like.

“We need to create a table that is owned and set by people both who have typically had a seat and those who have not,” says Lyons. “The idea isn’t a table owned by the establishment with others invited. It’s a co-created table, and that really speaks to what restorative justice is about—a different vision of power and the distribution of that power, and how we collaborate across communities and systems.”


Though MacGougan’s assertion that restorative justice can mean different things to different people isn’t wrong, the voices behind Building Partnerships for Restorative Justice in Vancouver seem very much aligned in their individual approaches.

The current legal system, argues Bargen, will ask what happened, who’s to blame and what punishment they deserve. “And then that’ll play out,” she says. “The questions that restorative justice starts with are who was harmed, what are their needs and who is responsible for those needs; who needs to be involved.”

Though restorative justice has been part of Canada’s justice system for over 40 years in some form or another, a 2016-17 Department of Justice study found that over half of Canadians weren’t familiar with the concept.

After being given a thorough explanation, 62 percent of those surveyed believed that it would provide victims of crime a more satisfying and meaningful experience than the mainstream criminal justice system. And 87 percent indicated that victims should have access to restorative justice if they wish.

Proponents argue that the framework for restorative justice is essentially applicable to every-thing from a murder charge to shoplifting. But the outcomes will vary from case to case, and different processes have arisen around the world for delivering those outcomes. Peacemaking circles were first developed in the Yukon and are now used widely, while in New Zealand, family group conferencing has been deployed to great effect. Other strategies include victim-offender mediation and tribunals.

Many of these processes bring the offender face-to-face with the victim or victims, and Lyons acknowledges that, in some cases—such as sexualized violence—that’s not always going to be the best tactic. “That’s an area of some contention, and an important caution within restorative justice because of the power dynamics in play within cases like that,” he says.

“If there’s going to be a restorative response in those cases, it needs to be in careful collaboration with groups who work to end gender-based violence and understand the dynamics of those kinds of offences intricately.”

The most common under-standing of the concept is as a diversion program, something to keep cases out of the courts. And while it can be applied at that level, restorative justice isn’t synonymous with diversion.

“It can occur outside the system altogether, at a community level, in unreported crimes, at a diversion level, in parallel with a court process; can occur after sentencing, after there’s been periods of incarceration,” says Lyons. “Really at any point in the continuum where there’s been harm.”

Restorative justice can also be applied in the workplace, where Bargen argues that there’s something of a “polarized view” when it comes to dealing with wrongdoing. “Either you ignore what’s wrong—or fire people,”
she says.

“Those seem like the two options, whereas restorative justice provides pathways toward new alternatives. How do we address what’s wrong in meaningful ways? What does accountability look like, and how do we build a new future together once we’ve taken that accountability and built something that connects us and is more effective?”


When we talk on the phone in late May, Vancouver councillor Michael Wiebe is getting ready for his own upcoming court date. Wiebe, a member of the Vancouver Green Party and one of the stakeholders in the restorative justice initiative, is set to stand trial in front of the B.C. Supreme Court for an alleged conflict of interest that could cost him his job.

“It’s a very intimidating place, even for someone like myself—male, Caucasian, wearing a power suit. I feel uncomfortable in that situation,” he says. “We need to make sure we’re creating a place to solve critical issues and make sure that justice is done and dealt with in a different way.”

Restorative justice has proven effective in cities across the globe and closer to home. The Manitoba provincial government noted in 2019 that its justice modernization strategy, which heavily employs restorative justice, helped reduce court backlogs and dropped the prison population. In the U.K., both independent and government studies have found that restorative justice methods have left the victim more satisfied and has reduced recidivism rates.

So what might it look like in Vancouver? “This is a city of neighbourhoods,” says Wiebe. “It’s a very complex city; each neighbourhood is very different and I don’t think restorative justice is going to be right for everyone right away. But I do think it’s an approach that we need to support, pilot and work with the community on what works and what doesn’t.”

Likewise, Bargen, Lyons and Zellerer believe that much of what it looks like will be up to the stakeholders involved and how they see it filtering through their communities.

“We hope that people have these kinds of more relational and humanizing opportunities, no matter where they might be within the system,” says Lyons.

For Zellerer, it’s been a long journey stuffed to the brim with international speaking tours and training engagements. And it’s time to bring it home. Though she’s going to support the stakeholders to conduct restorative justice however they collectively see fit, she has her own ideas on what it could become.

“Many of us have a vision of flipping it so that a restorative approach is the first response, and the criminal justice system becomes our backup,” she says. “When it’s required and appropriate, people will always have access to their rights going through courts, determining guilt, addressing constitutional issues. There are certain things the courts may do well. It’s just that most of what they do needs to go through the community instead.”