It's been twenty years since Alan Edwards, a Restorative Justice facilitator in Edmonton, began working in the field. It's a career that can take its toll on a person, mentally and emotionally, but for Alan, it's what he was meant to do.
"To sit with someone and listen to them talk about their deepest pain and sorrow can be difficult," he says. "But there is something so special about building a bridge between people so they can each get what they need to move forward in their lives. It's why I do what I do."
As a young man, Alan went through training in conflict resolution for the workplace. At one point, one of the trainers mentioned the fact that the skills they were learning could be applied between victims and offenders for the purposes of restorative justice. Alan was immediately intrigued and knew that's what he wanted to do. From there, he spent six years as a restorative justice facilitator in the community and the last fourteen with CSC's Restorative Opportunities Program. In 2016, he received the National Ron Wiebe Restorative Justice Award for his work.
CSC’s Restorative Opportunities program offers people who have been harmed by a crime a chance to communicate with the offender who caused the harm. How that looks will depend on each person and their specific needs, says Alan.
"Restorative justice is about three things: harm, accountability, and reparation," he explains. "The whole point of the process is to reduce people's suffering in the aftermath of violence or crime. It's about an offender making things right. Maybe that means he or she finally tells the truth about what happened. Maybe it's a symbolic gesture by the offender to live his or her life a certain way in honour of the victim. Or maybe it's something like the offender offering to pay for the gravestone of the victim who died. It will look different for each person who participates, but at its basic level, it's about the victim getting what they need in a safe and respectful manner."
Alan still remembers every single case he's worked on, though some do stand out. For him, a mother who lost her son to an unprovoked act of violence in a bar was one of them.
"She wanted to meet the offender who killed her son," explains Alan. "The offender agreed to participate in the process because, as he said, he was willing to give her anything. We worked for nine months with them to prepare, and when the day finally came to meet, she showed up with six pages of questions for the offender. She started in on them and quickly realized that she didn’t care about his answers. Her needs in that moment changed. Instead, she wanted him to sit and listen to what it was like for a mother to get a call in the middle of the night telling her that her son had been hurt and was in hospital, and for him to die. One of the things I feel happiest about with that particular situation is that we, as facilitators, were able to create a flexible enough space for her needs to change."
For the offenders, it's a different experience but one that is important as well, says Alan. The vast majority of those who choose to participate have experienced significant childhood trauma and neglect. In fact, he says, in all his years working with offenders, he can only think of one who had a childhood he would consider “normal.” But it doesn't excuse what they have done, and that is why these offenders come to the table with a willingness to take responsibility for their actions.
"They are trying to chart a new path in their lives and to make things right," says Alan. "So often I hear, 'I don't want to be the guy who hurts people - I want to help people and make things right.' All of them are negotiating a new identity for themselves. Violence can destabilize an identity, and so this is an opportunity for them to make a choice about who they want to be in the world from now on."
And that, in a nutshell, is what Alan's role as a facilitator is. It's about preparing victims and offenders to have a dialogue. It's about supporting victims as they seek what they need to move forward. And it's about supporting offenders as they navigate a new beginning in their lives. It's not an easy job, but for Alan, he couldn't imagine doing anything else.
"It's an incredibly special place to be walking with people as they try to move their lives forward," he says. "To help them reduce their suffering and get to a better place in their recovery is enormously special to me."