Onashowewin: the way we see justice

05/31/2018, Winnipeg, Canada, Clara writes:

Let my overseas experience begin

April 18th, my departure's day

I arrived in Winnipeg, Canada, a few weeks ago. When I left my small town in the province of Varese, Lombardy, I left a country in bloom, in the middle of spring, to then land back in time. Literally back in time, as there is a seven-hour time zone difference with Italy, and back in terms of the advancing of the warm season. In Winnipeg, spring is not as colourful and fragrant as Italians would imagine it to be. When I got here, there was muddy snow melting on the edge of the streets and bare trees waiting for me. However, the cold-looking welcome of the city was the opposite of how I was greeted by its friendly inhabitants. I am particularly lucky as even so far from home, I found people waiting for me in Winnipeg. One of them is Mareike, who came here as winner of the 2013/14 edition of the Cassin Prize four years ago and she has never left. She gave me a tour of the city and she will introduce me to various community-based social initiatives. This will help me widen my perspective on poverty-related issues in the city and on local initiatives that are trying to address them. In the near future, I hope to present you the programs I learned about, but today I will tell you about the organization where I will be working for the next 6 months, Onashowewin Restorative Circle and introduce the concept of restorative justice, on which my degree theses for both degrees focused.

Ice sheets on the Assiniboine river

Onashowewin (an Ojibway word meaning “the way we see justice”), is a restorative justice organization to which the Winnipeg police and the Crown can divert youth and adult cases that they think might benefit from going through an alternative conflict resolution process. The organization works with people who have minor charges such as mischief, theft, minor aggression cases, possession of weapon, fraud, etc: they do not accept murder and aggravated assault cases. If the offenders participate in the workshops and/or private meetings scheduled with the Community Justice Worker, the charges will be stayed and deleted from their criminal records if no further crimes are committed during the following year. The organization also welcomes people who have not broken the law. Anyone can participate in the programs offered if they feel they would benefit from them; it is enough to come, fill out an intake form and agree on a “brave path” – listing the workshops and activities to attend – together with the case worker.

First visit to Onashowewin

Restorative justice launches an important challenge: seeing the perpetrator of the crime not as a criminal, but as a person who has committed a mistake causing damage to the victim and/or to society. Following an alternative path to the punitive one (which does not mean taking the crime lightly), the offender has the opportunity to recognize his/her responsibility and to repair the damage caused. Restorative justice also gives importance to the victim, recognizing that the “person harmed” (as Onashowewin calls them) suffers a trauma which is often difficult to overcome. With this in mind, a meeting between the offender and the victim, in a safe environment and with the help of an impartial third figure (who can be a mediator or a facilitator depending on the used tool: victim-offender mediation, family & group conferencing, community restorative boards, healing and sentencing circles, etc.) can help repair and overcome the conflict. The victim has the chance to learn about the motivations underlying the criminal act and to make the offender understand the pain she or he caused. The accused can understand the repercussions of his/her actions and take responsibility for them.

At Onashowewin, the concept of restorative justice is integrated with the principles and teachings of the indigenous cultures, in order to indicate the path for what is called "a good life". Community Justice Workers try to understand why the person has undertaken a negative path, their personal and social background and the traumas that do not allow them to live a good life. Most of the participants are indigenous and have had a difficult life.

This is what my international experience will be about. In my next article, I will explain more in detail what Onashowewin does and the context in which it works.


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