'Sulah' program aims to address hate crimes through restorative justice

The Coalition of Muslim Women K-W and Community Justice Initiatives have collaborated on a new restorative justice program called Sulah to address hate crimes in Waterloo region.

Helping people understand why actions are hurtful more impactful than punishment, Sarah Shafiq says

Marchers call for more restorative justice approaches at a rally for Tina Fontaine in Winnipeg in 2018. A new program called Sulah aims to use restorative justice to address Islamophobia, racism and hate crimes in Waterloo region. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

A new program called Sulah has been running for about a year in Waterloo region and aims to handle hate crimes through the restorative justice process.

It means rather than going before a judge for some kind of sentence, like a fine or jail time, the accused goes through a process where the people impacted by the crime talk to them about what it means to them and they develop a resolution.

The program is a collaboration between the Coalition of Muslim Women of Kitchener-Waterloo and Community Justice Initiatives.

Sarah Shafiq, the co-ordinator of Together Against Islamophobia for the Coalition of Muslim Women of KW, calls the work they're doing "pretty groundbreaking."

"When we think about punitive approaches, and if a hate crime had occurred already, there is definitely that response to punish," she said.

"But really, what will that achieve? How will that person's views change, the person who has committed that act?" she added. "It seems that it would be more useful to try this other approach of accountability."

Shafiq says sulah is a common term in numerous languages around the world. 

"The actual meaning of the word is reconciliation and this is a term that many, many folks coming from outside Canada are familiar with, resolving conflicts through reconciliation," she said.

Sarah Shafiq is the co-ordinator of Together Against Islamophobia with the Coalition of Muslim Women of K-W. (Kate Bueckert/CBC News)

Providing space for collaboration

A number of Muslim women were trained as mediators to take part in the reconciliation process, Shafiq said,

In the past three months, they have worked on four cases, which Shafiq says is positive news because they didn't really promote the program. Now, the program has received a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to expand.

Julie Friesen, director of programs for Community Justice Initiatives, says it was important for them to partner with the coalition because it's "something that neither of our organizations can do alone."

"We are not experts in Islamophobia and a lot of our mediators are white," Friesen said.

Instead, their role is to connect members of the a community to provide an opportunity for them to identify what's concerning to them and then find ways to move forward when a hate crime occurs.

"And that's not us telling them what to do. It's providing that space for people to together try to figure out how can they build something together that is better than it was before," Friesen said.

How it has worked for Indigenous cases

The idea of restorative justice is not a new one, although the Sulah project itself is. Community Justice Initiatives is a leader in restorative justice and has even expanded the program to Guelph in the past.

But another area that has seen it work really well is in Indigenous peoples court.

Amanda Trites is a Native court supporter through The Healing of the Seven Generations. She says when cases are allowed to move through the restorative justice process, all the people involved gather in a circle.

"Sentencing, instead of it being the way a normal court is, everybody is in a circle and everybody gets a chance to talk, to discuss their feelings on a case and what they feel is appropriate. And it gives the individual who has committed the offense the ability to tell their story," she said.

"The way Indigenous people look at restorative justice is, it's not [that] this individual has a problem. It's [that] we failed this individual in guiding them in the appropriate way. And how can we bring them back."

Trites says the process doesn't work if the accused refuses to accept any blame for what they've done. But for many cases, the process is healing and people involved feel justice is served.

She would like to see it used more often. 

"Our current justice system is basically a box ... like you have to follow very strict procedures, guidelines, protocols and restorative justice is more of a circle approach. So it's kind of hard to make two things fit together that aren't meant to fit together," she said. "It's a continued fight to try and change the system to work in the best manner."