FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. — A new restorative justice program is being planned for Fort St. John, picking up from the North Peace Justice Society, which disbanded over two years ago.
The program will be delivered by the newly formed group Peace River Justice, which plans to incorporate as a society, bringing the service to Fort St. John, Dawson Creek, the Peace River area, and Northeast BC First Nations.
Program Coordinator William Mazanek presented the program concept to Fort St. John city council at their September 11th, 2023 meeting, with the help of Thor Scafte, the organization’s Senior Restorative Justice Mentor.
Scafte has lived in Fort St. John since 1965 and wants to bring his decades of experience as a restorative justice facilitator and professional mediator.
“It’s a tremendous program and can do well for the community if we can get it off the ground here and get it going,” said Scafte.
The Fort St. John RCMP are more than willing to help with a new program, he added.
Mazanek is new to restorative justice and comes from an oil and gas background, but is eager to start taking on case files, as he feels the punitive model isn’t working in Canada – it only teaches offenders how to be better criminals.
“If you allow the community to assist in their own restorative justice progress and allow them to heal in a way they believe in, this enables members to come up with a way,” he said. “And it’ll reduce harm in their communities.”
The court system isn’t community-based or focused on reducing harm, added Mazanek.
Restorative justice, by contrast, allows the offender and victim to face each other – finding a solution and addressing the harm together. Typically, a memorandum of understanding or agreement is signed at the end of a session – outlining what both parties want the solution to be.
“Community influence over the outcome because you’re agreeing to this in a circle of your peers and your people,” Mazanek said. “So, you’re talking about it – that offers a meaningful change to the community, they can see the change results from the circle.”
The community-based focus of restorative justice also aligns with the values of many indigenous cultures in Canada. The nature of the files which can be brought to the program is also wide-open, from minor offences to drunk driving causing death – it’s up to the community.
The new program’s executive director, Jabala Sjödin, is Indigenous and will bring their expertise as an Indigenous Justice Strategist. Sjödin was unable to attend the city council meeting, with Mazanek presenting the new program in their stead.
City council clarified that the previous restorative justice program was never cancelled by the city, who was partnered with the society. The North Peace Justice Society disbanded on its own accord and stopped applying for funding and permissive tax exemptions.
Many councillors volunteered their own time to be adjudicators, said councillor Trevor Bolin, noting local MLA Dan Davies was also an active participant, sitting on the board for the previous society.
“I think it’s fantastic that you’re getting the program off the ground again,” said Bolin.
Mayor Lilia Hansen said the city strongly believes in the value of restorative justice and is more than willing to support a new program and society.
“I feel we picked up the pieces. It was a provincial program to start with, they stepped back,” she said. “It was something, you know, council believed in, and so we stepped up financially as well.”
Councillor Bryon Stewart was also very involved with restorative justice and was an adjudicator when the program first started in the early 1990s. Stewart was also a probation officer in a previous career – forwarding files from the RCMP to avoid the court system, sending youth to circle sentencing instead.
“It was often a very useful tool for the community, and I’m happy that it’s starting again. In all likelihood, I’ll volunteer again,” he said.
A timeline to launch the new program has yet to be set, but the organization is currently looking for a suitable office space in Fort St. John.