RESTORATIVE JUSTICE — Six participants from Saskatoon attended the Catholic Connections in Restorative Justice conference Sept. 19-21 near St. Anne de Beaupre in Quebec. From left: Blake Sittler, director of pastoral services for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon; Dr. Michael Cichon, St. Thomas More College; Peter Oliver, community reintegration chaplain with The Micah Mission; Dianne Anderson, co-ordinator of restorative ministry in the Diocese of Saskatoon; Russ Powell, chaplain, provincial corrections; Rev. Kevin McGee, vicar-general for the Diocese of Saskatoon; and Bishop Gary Gordon of Victoria, who serves as Bishop Ponens of Prison Ministry for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. (Photo submitted by Blake Sittler)

Conference gives witness to effectiveness of restorative justice

SASKATOON — Ninety-five representatives from the Canadian Catholic Church convened at a conference just outside St. Anne de Beaupré in Quebec Sept. 19 - 21 to talk about restorative justice.

The conference was organized by Catholic Connections in Restorative Justice (CCRJ) Network and was identified as a founding event.

On the face of it, a little gathering of under 100 people, in a somewhat remote part of Quebec, might seem rather insignificant — a bit like a birth in a manger, says Peter Oliver, community reintegration chaplain with The Micah Mission, one of six participants from Saskatoon to attend the event.

“Time will tell: but a ‘star’ was seen, the scent of sheep was in the air, and ‘a few kings’ showed up,” according to Oliver, expressing hope for new direction and energy around Restorative Justice as a result of the gathering.

The idea of a conference had been under discussion for some time, says Oliver. In 2007 Rev. Ted Hughes (one of its architects) invited a group of chaplains to journey to Rome for an International Catholic Commission for Prison Pastoral Care (ICCPPC) conference.

“The conference included people from all over the world, an audience with the pope and a truly international window into restorative justice,” relates Oliver. “One thing that also surfaced in conversation was the felt absence of any national Canadian Catholic leadership in the area of restorative justice. At the time, no one jumped up and said, ‘Let’s do something about it,’ so it was a couple of years before anything else happened.”

In about 2009, the American Catholic Church made some overtures to the Canadian Catholic Church about the possibility of holding a North American conference on restorative justice, which unfortunately did not materialize, adds Oliver.

“Still, God writes straight with crooked lines, so things continued to develop.”

The Americans redirected their attention and held a conference in California and the Canadians started to think about holding a smaller, specifically Canadian event.

Conversations along the way included both Hughes and his friend Bishop Gary Gordon of Whitehorse (now Bishop of Victoria). “Bishop Gary is also Bishop Ponens for Prison Ministry, which is to say, he flies the restorative justice flag for the Canadian Catholic Church,” Oliver describes.

“Bishop Gary began to focus the direction and intention of a conference and Father Ted became Regional Chaplain in Kingston — close to another friend, Deacon Mike Walsh,” notes Oliver. “Deacon Mike has been in the restorative justice game for some time but his first 30 years were spent in the computer industry, where organizing and promoting major corporate events was more than just a sideline. Mike had the time and passion to do the hard work of looking for funding, setting up conference calls and thinking about the kind of event that would help people to connect.”

Oliver adds: “Then in October of 2012 the need to get serious about the issues of prisons and restorative justice got a whole lot more urgent, thanks to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.”

Toews took offence at a part-time contract for a Wiccan minister put out by Corrections Canada. “He responded by terminating the contract, but to avoid issues of discrimination he also cut 48 other part-time contracts, including 18 non-Christian and 31 Christian chaplains,” says Oliver.

“At that point, it became very clear that the Catholic Church in Canada had all but abandoned prison ministry and had a miniscule influence in decisions that would have a major impact in federal chaplaincy. Bishops all over the country were put on alert and people at the grassroots were feeling motivated to do something.”

In April 2013, 15 representatives from dioceses and institutions across Canada gathered in Toronto to chart a course forward. This meeting became the impetus for a three-phase process that Gordon articulated as Identify the Community, Gather the Community, and Grow the Community.

CCRJ got to work on the first phase of identifying the community, which was to gather a large national database of Catholics who are involved in restorative justice work. This led to the second phase of gathering the community: a conference in Quebec.

“The Conference of Catholic Bishops was meeting at the (same) centre, and the CCRJ conference would follow immediately afterward,” notes Oliver about the somewhat obscure location. This meant that three bishops were included among the 95 attendees, and Salt + Light Television was also in attendance. “All that had the potential to get things going,” he says.

“From my perspective, the star was keynote speaker former Lieutenant Governor and Provincial Justice Steven Point. Justice Point is also a former chief of the Skowkale First Nation. He gave the opening address, which was a powerful reminder of the heartache that First Nations people experience in our country and the enormous contribution that their culture and teachings can make to the work of restorative justice.”

For diocesan restorative ministry co-ordinator Dianne Anderson of Saskatoon — one of only a few First Nations people in attendance — Point’s talk, presence, and example were the high point of the conference, adds Oliver.

“I sat with Dianne and Justice Point in the lounge during the evening that followed. His compassion for her was truly an affirmation of all the sacrifice she has put into reaching out to people in prison and walking a path of healing.”

Pope Francis’ call to “get close to the sheep” was evident in conference speakers who could share first-hand the healing work of restorative justice. These included people who had been incarcerated and people who had been harmed by crime.

“Their testament gave witness to the effectiveness of this model of justice and spoke to the strength of the human spirit. They filled us with hope,” says Oliver.

“Of course, what happens next is as important as what happened in the past,” he adds, about the next phase identified by Gordon: to grow the community.

In addition to Oliver and Anderson, others attending the national conference from Saskatoon were Blake Sittler, diocesan director of pastoral services; Dr. Michael Cichon of St. Thomas More College; Russ Powell, provincial corrections chaplain; and Rev. Kevin McGee, vicar-general for the Diocese of Saskatoon.

“The Spirit blows where she wills, so who knows what might happen next. It’s bound to be a delight,” predicts Oliver.

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