Restorative justice program now an option for adults in Fort McMurray region

Adults in Wood Buffalo can now take part in a restorative justice program, that up until recently was only available for youths.

Programs offers opportunity for victim and offender to come to an agreement

Fort McMurray courthouse is shown in a file photo. Adults in Wood Buffalo can now take part in a restorative justice program, that up until recently was only available for youths. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

An alternative justice program aimed at helping victims and offenders meet face to face and find a resolution is now expanding to allow adults to enter into the program.

The program became available to Wood Buffalo adults on March 31, and is part of the restorative justice pilot project. Previously, it was only available to youths in the region. 

Nicole Chouinard, manager for the RCMP support team and victim's services for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, said the program is an alternative to the regular justice route. The RCMP are a partner for the program, and officers are trained on how to refer cases to the program.

Participants can go through the program before or after charges are laid and go through a community circle. 

In the circle, the victim and the offender are able to talk openly and come to an agreement. There's a facilitator and support for the victim and offender, and RCMP if required.

The concept is based on Indigenous healing circles. 

"It is very victim-based," said Chouinard. The offender has to take accountability for their actions, "and be willing to repair the harm that they have caused."

The circle creates an accountability agreement about what the offender can do to repair the harm to the victim. It can happen at any point in the process, before charges are laid, after and even after someone is sentenced.

"The whole point of the circle is to help with the healing, build those connections and to be able to move forward," said Chouinard.

There are two facilitators in Fort Chipewyan and 12 in Fort McMurray, but services are offered throughout Wood Buffalo. 

There are already two adults with applications for the program, said Chouinard.

Janelle Fleury, board co-chair of the Fort McMurray Youth Justice Committee, said the program has made a huge impact for victims. 

When matters go through court, the victim can feel "that the focus then becomes on the law that has been broken rather than the harm that has been caused and this process gives the victim that agency again, she said. 

Fleury expects to see more referrals for adults going through the program. 

"We really hope that the community will be supportive and we can build some awareness," said Fleury. 

She said when the offender doesn't have the chance to make amends, it increases the chance of recidivism and shame. 

Fleury said they see the most referrals for cases of assault. Usually the contract has three measures, typically including an apology and other reparations, including anti-bullying courses, counselling or mentorship programs.

She wants victims to know the process is available and the committee is looking for more partners so they can send offenders to volunteer at more locations. 

Supt. Mark Hancock, officer in charge for the Wood Buffalo RCMP detachment, said the program "empowers the victim."

"It gives people the chance to face the people they did the harm to and not have to get, possibly, a criminal record for something that could be dealt in another way." 

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam said he wants the program to be paired with solutions that better people's mental health.

He said many of the people going to court are struggling with addiction and need help.

Through the program, Allan hopes to see more people getting the help they need, rather than getting caught in the legal system.

It's something Allan has been in favour of for years.

"It's a positive step forward," said Adam.