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‘The women who came forward’

By Katie Ingram

Jennifer Llewellyn is a United Church member, a law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax and a restorative justice expert. She has consulted on many cases, including the 2014 incident in which male Dalhousie dentistry students posted misogynistic comments about female classmates to a Facebook page.

On restorative justice: Restorative justice is an idea that says that justice is fundamentally about securing relationships where people can enjoy respect, dignity and mutual care and concern for one another. It tends to not only be concerned with a particular incident, but with understanding what that breach of the law means. We need to be addressing underlying and broader issues that have brought people into conflict and created conditions for harm.

On the influence of the United Church:
Both of my parents were ministers who focused on social justice. They helped me to understand justice, what’s required, what we owe to one another and how we can ensure just relationships. From peace groups and nuclear disarmaments to the Nestlé boycott and anti-apartheid activism, I learned at an early age that justice is not only about legal systems and the law.

Photo by Todd Arsenault
Photo by Todd Arsenault

On criminal justice versus restorative justice: Our criminal justice system does one thing particularly well: it incapacitates people from doing further harm, often for a relatively short period of time. It doesn’t do very well on meeting the needs of victims, addressing the harms. Incarceration is a pretty blunt instrument. It hasn’t shown itself to be particularly good at rehabilitating or changing people’s minds, behaviours or the circumstances that caused them to behave in ways that made other people unsafe. In reforms that are inspired by a restorative approach, we’ve seen a deeper understanding of the needs and harms experienced by victims, but also the circumstances of crime and criminal behaviour.

On sexual assault cases: The Jian Ghomeshi case [a former CBC radio broadcaster who was charged with multiple counts of sexual assault, and acquitted last spring] raised a lot of questions about our current criminal justice processes in meeting the needs of sexual assault victims. Sexual assault cannot continue to be understood purely as incidents between individuals. In order to respond adequately, to ensure justice and safety for women in our society, we need justice processes that are much more robust in terms of understanding the root social causes of sexual assault and seeing those as systemic issues. We need a system that can generate better solutions.

On the Dalhousie dentistry school incident: The women who came forward asked for a different process, which told us this was not just an issue of a few bad apples who said harmful things. They saw what was reflected on that Facebook page as being about those men, but also about the dental school in which they were being educated, the society in which they were living and, more importantly, the profession they were about to enter.

A restorative approach was better able to meet their needs and to address the issue as they understood it: it wasn’t just one of individual harm, but one of systemic discrimination. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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