WINNIPEG — Everyone is forgivable, even society's worst offenders, say the facilitators of a program they believe is a new approach to restorative justice.
Wilma Derksen and Adam Klassen describe Journey to Justice as a group of volunteers with varied backgrounds meeting with prison inmates to explore issues of justice.
"You don't need to be an expert, we want to have all kinds of people involved," Klassen said.
Restorative justice is a centuries-old practice in which victims confront their offenders and offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions.
At an information evening June 30, Klassen said rather than putting victims before their offenders, Journey to Justice is recruiting six or seven community members to meet with the same number of inmates of Stony Mountain Institution.
The institution is a federal medium-security facility located in Stony Mountain, 20 km north of Winnipeg.
The volunteer group will prepare by exploring the meaning and purpose of issues such as rehabilitation, forgiveness, accountability and punishment. If more volunteers want to be involved, additional groups will be formed.
Klassen is with Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba which has partnered with Winnipeg's St. Leonard's Society, whose role is to gather together a group of prisoners at Stony Mountain.
The prisoners will participate in the same exercises and explore the same issues from their perspective. As the two groups grow they will be brought together, with the first session planned for September.
Funding for the project is being provided by the restorative justice branch of Correctional Service Canada.
Derksen, whose daughter was murdered in 1984, is serving as a liaison between the groups. Her grieving process led her to start a program called Journey Toward Forgiveness.
She co-ordinates meetings of victims and offenders at Stony Mountain where victims can ask the questions that don't get asked at a trial. Derksen said in their grieving she and her husband decided their only way forward was to forgive.
Klassen said victims want information, "and their biggest question is, 'Why?' It's amazing how victims will never hear the answer. Far too often a victim's voice is drowned out by all the other voices. The victim should be heard first," he said.
"Victims need to gain control again, they also need some kind of vindication or restitution, something done that shows some kind of giving back, some accountability."
Klassen said offenders need to gain a greater understanding of empathy and responsibility and encouragement in personal transformation including confronting addictions. "In Stony Mountain, 80 to 90 per cent of the inmates are addicted to something," he said.
Klassen said after their release, inmates need support to re-enter the community in a positive and hopeful way. "After getting out, an inmate will often go right back to where they were before," he said.
Together the groups will engage in restorative justice activities such as listening exercises, storytelling workshops, sharing circles, presentations from professionals in the field, "and most importantly sharing with each other," he said.
"This will be a place where the voice of the community is heard."
Participation in Journey to Justice has no impact on an inmate's sentence.
The two groups will also have the opportunity to work together on a project, something practical, that can in some small way allow the offenders to give back to society in a form other than fulfilling a prison term.