This February, Nicole, an education student at Lakehead University and a Project Officer for the Ontario Justice Education Network (OJEN) headed back to her alma mater, Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (DFC) in Thunder Bay, to deliver a four session justice education project that compared and contrasted sentencing circles with sentencing hearings.
The workshop took place in a Native Studies class at DFC, a First Nations high school run by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council. In the first session the students were introduced to the basics of the Canadian criminal justice system, the legal principles that have come from the Supreme Court ruling in R v. Gladue as well as the fact scenario for R v. Desmoulin – the pretend case they would be using for both the sentencing hearing and sentencing circle.
The second session was led by Kate, a member of the local criminal bar, and Jennifer, a Restorative Justice worker from Nishnawbe Aski Legal Services Corporation (NALSC). They started the session by asking the students to choose what they thought was an appropriate consequence for minor criminal offences. This lead into a discussion about the concept of sentencing and an introduction into how the court develops consequences or sentences. In the second part of the session, students prepared arguments for the R v. Desmoulin fact scenario and participated in a mock sentencing debate to determine what Desmoulin’s sentence should be.
In the third session, the same case was used as the basis for a sentencing circle and was facilitated by Jennifer. Jennifer brought in a local elder and ran the mock circle the same way that she runs real circles at NALSC. After the program, Jennifer asked the students to consider the differences between the sentences arrived at with the two methods – with the sentencing hearing the sentence involved jail time, whereas with the circle the offender was put on probation, had to complete community service and write a letter of apology to the victim.
On their website, Nishnawbe Aski Legal Services describes the circle process.
The Circle process is about healing. It is not intended to be adversarial. Rather, its purpose is to create an open and safe environment in which participants can discuss what happened; understand the conflict; and talk about how to deal with what happened. The Circle provides an opportunity for all community members to help resolve conflict, create healthy relationships, and learn positive ways of dealing with conflict.
The students came away with a better understanding of these two ways of determining a sentence. Their insights are reflected in the collages that they created as a culminating activity. Each group of students created two – one that represented their experiences in the sentencing hearing and one that represented their experiences in the sentencing circle.
The collage on sentencing circles includes the words story, voice, coming full circle, unforgettable; while the collage on sentencing hearings has the words power, change and has several pictures of men in suits without their heads.
by Bryn Bamber
 “Restorative Justice,” Nishnawbe Aski Legal Services Corporation, accessed May 1, 2015, http://www.nanlegal.on.ca/article/restorative-justice-127.asp