In my previous two articles, I argued that the Canadian criminal justice system is broken, and that the deficiencies of this system primarily affect Indigenous people and people of colour. These articles grew out of my research as part of my PhD in criminology at the University of Alberta. Here, I’d like to share what I’ve learned about Indigenous approaches to justice, acknowledging my perspective as a settler Canadian. While there is no single theory or model, as I have studied the work of Indigenous scholars, I have been struck by the focus on healing and repairing harm—and how this mirrors the way of Christ.
Justice as Healing
Reading about the Canadian justice and prison system can be disheartening, evoking a desire for immediate solutions. But the first step toward changing the system is to change the way we perceive offenders and to re-evaluate our desire for punishment and government-inflicted suffering.
In Justice as Healing: Indigenous Ways, a collection of essays edited by Métis lawyer Wanda McCaslin, James Youngblood Henderson writes that “the exotic passion of Eurocentric society for labelling people criminals and making them suffer” and an “intolerance of human frailties” justifies social control by violence. In simpler terms? We tend to view weakness with disdain. We are quicker to punish the person who fails to live up to the cultural ideal of the “self-made individual” than to walk alongside them. This is true across all ages, genders and races in western culture. A growing number of scholars are asking, “Why do we prefer to punish people instead of heal them?”
What does this question evoke in you? Anger at the perceived injustice of letting “bad people” who do “bad things” go unpunished? I invite you to consider a different approach to harm. Did you know that offenders are often victims of violence and suffering before they are perpetrators? While punishment may satisfy a desire for revenge, it doesn’t solve any real problems.
It’s not a new idea that punishment is ineffective in preventing further crime beyond temporarily warehousing offenders, in the case of incarceration. While white scholars are catching up to this fact, Indigenous thinkers have long advocated that we resist justice as force. They suggest it is paradoxical to believe we can bring about justice by heaping violence and suffering on perpetrators. This only repeats the cycle of harm (indeed, two out of three recently released offenders will recommit crimes within the first three years).
A second teaching found in Justice as Healing is that of “being a good relative.” The idea of “all being related” is a backbone of Indigenous views of healing. I wonder how we would feel about crime and criminals if we imagined our brother, sister, mother or father caught up in the system? I believe our dehumanized view of criminals would falter. Further, empirical research shows that the impact of incarceration goes beyond the convicted individual to also affect their family and community.
What about society? A secular viewpoint may not recognize the innate value of all people. As followers of Jesus, the second most important commandment that should guide our lives is to love our neighbours as ourselves. The Indigenous framework of “being a good relative” is more consistent with God’s call on our lives than the rhetoric of punishment, hard-edged justice and a rapid dismissal of convicted offenders as less human than the rest of us. Do we see them as brothers and sisters in Christ?
A final teaching from Justice as Healing that I’d like to mention is the principle of “respecting communities.” If you pay close attention to how Indigenous authors describe authority and leadership, it’s easy to see the emphasis and importance placed on community. McCaslin writes: “It is painful for us to be separated from [our community], and it is painful for us when they are in pain. Our healing and their healing are interwoven.”
One of the most discouraging findings in the last decade of crime research shows that incarceration (which tends to concentrate in specific neighbourhoods) does not make communities safer. In fact, it undermines families, community agency and the ability to enact informal control. It disrupts rather than empowers. If we were to position urban communities at the heart of the criminal justice question, we would see that crime is a manifestation of social ills and disadvantage, rather than of individual deficiency and failure.
Yet we must not view this process of healing as only necessary for Indigenous people. This healing is desperately needed in wider Canadian society. Research professor and author Brené Brown writes about schadenfreude, which is the emotion of pleasure at another person’s suffering. According to Brown, this emotion is pervasive in western culture. Moreover, when a person experiences schadenfreude, there is decreased activity in the part of our brain that processes empathy and increased activity in the reward centre.
Translation? The more we rejoice in the punishment and suffering of others, the less empathetic we become—and the more we crave the feeling. Schadenfreude is particularly attractive in a group setting and creates a “counterfeit connection.” Brown says that any connection built on the suffering of others does not last. To be clear, a victim’s sense of relief when their perpetrator is held accountable is not the same thing. My point is that our society is rife with schadenfreude, weakened “empathy muscles” and artificial connection. We need healing.
Justice as healing is not a pillar of our contemporary Canadian system, but it has often been the grounding for Indigenous people. They possess an understanding of justice that “restores the peace and equilibrium within the community” and “reconciles the accused with their conscience and the individual(s) they have wronged,” according to a report by the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry Commission of Manitoba.
Bruce Western, a leading academic expert on incarceration in the United States, recently noted that prisons effectively function to “strip people of their identity.” American criminologist Joan Petersilia concludes that confinement “creates its own set of psychological pressures, which in some instances uniquely disable prisoners for free world reintegration.”
Dave Woodhouse, who worked as a correctional officer in a Canadian institution for 16 years, describes the violence and racism that dominates prison culture among inmates and guards in his book West Yard. He writes about an inmate who made his way onto the roof of the prison and threatened to jump. The supervising guard on duty that day yelled, “Go ahead and jump!” cavalierly encouraging him to take his own life.
No one person or group, either inmates or guards, is responsible for the prevailing culture in prisons across North America. But one thing is certain: this is not a culture in which healing and rehabilitation can flourish. For many Indigenous communities, the underlying ideal of justice as healing is the desire to heal in a manner that allows offenders to feel connected to their cultural identity, rather than stripping them of it. This approach has been neglected and undermined in the Canadian justice system, which has historically ignored and dismissed the languages, practices and traditions of anyone other than the white Canadian. How can we seek to “rehabilitate” people and better society if our approach to those affected is detached and ignorant?
Michael Gauthier, a member of the Taykwa Tagamou First Nation, has been a police officer, correctional officer, Aboriginal community development officer, parole officer and youth worker. As part of his PhD, he designed a community-based research project in which Indigenous men who had encountered the criminal justice system participated in “restorying circles.” Led by community elders, a restorying circle is a group exercise that allows participants to reflect on the thoughts playing on repeat in their minds about identity and shame, and recreate the narrative. They also engaged in various cultural practices such as smudging and healing circles, and in doing so regained a sense of dignity and hope for the future. Gauthier describes the tremendous resilience the men demonstrated.
Reading about the intermingling of trauma, hope and resilience among these criminal-justice-entangled Indigenous men is eye-opening. Our government (and the public at large) both over-emphasize criminal culpability and conveniently dismiss the remarkable strength of these men. Not only is it a massive failure on the part of the system, but it is also a missed opportunity for us to learn from Indigenous ways to offer a justice approach that heals and improves, rather than destroys and neglects.
Learning to Mend
As I delved into the research and literature written by Indigenous thinkers, I was moved by how their approach to harm mirrors the justice and mercy we see in Christ. The white, Eurocentric criminal justice system does not. It neglects mercy and redemption; it does not mend, and it does not offer hope. We have so much to learn.
I believe the first step toward change is casting aside what we think we know about crime. A favoured argument for prisons is that of individual responsibility; if some people who live in disadvantaged communities do not commit crime, doesn’t everyone have the choice to be a law-abiding citizen? The logical conclusion is that crime starts and stops with individuals. This ignores the accounts of poverty’s devastating effects on health, hope and intergenerational trauma. It ignores shocking resilience in the face of oppression. It reduces complicated and beautiful individuals to a handful of choices. It also gives space for the wrongful conviction of innocent people, likely because of preconceived ideas about their individual identities.
We must do better at seeing people first and foremost as human beings made in the image of God. What does this mean for me and you? First, we must do away with our culturally steeped ideas about right and wrong, good and bad. If we read God’s Word, we will quickly see that some of our tightly held ideals are not God’s but those of the world. Second, we must listen. We must listen to people whose lives look different than ours, for they hold invaluable wisdom. Listening requires humility, meaning we must be prepared for correction and to change our thinking. This is my prayer for us today.
Rebekah McNeilly is the social media and resource co-ordinator for women’s ministries in the Canada and Bermuda Territory. She is completing a PhD in criminology at the University of Alberta.
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