Peacebuilders International (Canada)
Our Impact Why We Exist
The unacceptable truth is that many disadvantaged and at-risk kids who grow up surrounded by poverty, neglect and violence are often presumed guilty when they run into conflict with the law. The criminal justice and corrections systems are not designed for kids. These systems have too few tools which can respond appropriately to the developmental challenges and the extenuating circumstances of at-risk kids. School disciplinary processes also have limited tools for responding to youth in conflict. In their sincere efforts to maintain safe environments on school grounds, principals often resort to suspensions, expulsions and police charges as the preferred disciplinary measures to address youth in conflict without examining the broader circumstances or vulnerabilities of the youth involved.
Imagine any teenager, still developing towards maturity making a typical teenage mistake which turns into a criminal charge. It can be a life changing experience which often defines their future. Once in the hands of the justice or corrections system, the statistical chances of a young person finding a stable and healthy path in life is severely diminished. For youth already at risk due to their socio-economic environment (at least 24 percent of Toronto young people live below the poverty line) the chances of realizing a productive and healthy life path is even further reduced. Despite all of its expense and sophistication, the current system consistently fails to prevent future wrongdoing; the system is focused on looking backwards to dole out punishment. One of our young participants has stated, “If Peacebuilders weren’t here, I wouldda (sic) gone to court, maybe get whateer the sentence would be, gone back and did it again.”
Furthermore, the cost to society for a young person who has become habituated to the cycle of conflict is enormous. The annual cost of youth detention easily ranges from $50,000-$100,000 per youth. In contrast, it costs Peacebuilders about $5,000 to work with a young person who has been diverted to Peacebuilders’ Kids Justice Clinic, report back to the Court, and have their charges withdrawn. “Peacebuilders is not a magic pill; instead it is an agent of positive change motivating—not forcing—people to talk openly about how they can learn from their mistakes.” – Father of a youth participant. Peacebuilders’ approach accomplishes much more than targeted intervention into individual charges; hundreds of volunteers have been trained in restorative practices of conflict resolution, adding valuable skills and resources to the communities they live in, which can be applied to a variety of other contexts outside Peacebuilders’ programs. Peacebuilders is therefore developing a sustainable community model where youth can be continuously supported by trained mentors. This is promoted through workshops and trainings that Peacebuilders has delivered to dozens of schools and organizations, expanding the knowledge and use of restorative practices. Over the past dozen years operating our Peacebuilders restorative justice programs in the courts and the schools, Peacebuilders has learned that the best justice for at-risk kids and the best societal investment that can be made to prevent future conflict is to keep at-risk kids in school. It is the primary goal of the Kids Justice Clinic. The programs that we run at the Clinic introduce a respectful, restorative and healing approach to conflict resolution and ethical leadership through participation and dialogue in community supported peace circles. We believe that the long term impact of this approach will not only protect but also enhance public and community safety and solidarity.
Our Story What We Do
Peacebuilders was launched as a not-for-profit in 2002. The following year the publication of “Peacemaking Circles: from Crime to Community.” The book incorporated the knowledge of Canadian aboriginal circles as practiced by Mark Wedge, Chief of Carcross/Tagish First Nation, Council of Yukon First Nations, Judge Barry Stuart, then the Chief Territorial Judge of the Yukon, and Kay Pranis from the Minnesota Department of Corrections. This work became a cornerstone of Peacebuilders’ programs and facilitator trainings. Peacemaking Circles, as described by Wedge, Stuart and Pranis, are very closely related to Aboriginal Circles. They use a Talking Piece, which may be a sacred eagle feather. Circle Keepers open the circle with a smudging ceremony and the teachings of the Medicine Wheel are a foundational theoretical and life-skill component of a Peacemaking Circle.
In 2006 Peacebuilders acquired charitable status and also transitioned from the use of Peacemaking Circles to its own brand of circle, the Peacebuilding Circle, which does not use the traditional aboriginal practices referred to above. The change was necessary out of respect for aboriginal circle practices which could not be honoured in the context of Toronto’s urbanized, diverse, and geographically dispersed communities. Very few of the youth referred to our Kids Justice Clinic were aboriginal; it was therefore necessary to develop a purely secular, non-aboriginal circle practice. Accordingly, Peacebuilders’ Circle Keepers will not permit the use of a sacred eagle feather unless there is an Aboriginal circle participant who allows such use. Peacebuilders also does not engage in smudging nor does it attempt to engage circle trainees in discussions about the Medicine Wheel or practices surrounding it.
Nevertheless, Peacebuilding Circles retain the core elements of the peace circle; participants are seated in a circle, an object chosen is used as a Talking Piece which is continuously passed to each member of the circle, and the process is managed by two trained, impartial facilitators who pose questions and lead the discussion. This process allows the Peacebuilding Circle to uphold a restorative philosophy, combined with dispute resolution approach, consensus building principles, and a structured communications process.
 Pranis, K., Stuart, B., & Wedge, M., Peacemaking Circles: from Crime to Community,(Living Justice Press, 2003)
Peacebuilders’ Kids Justice Clinic operates out of an office at the 311 Jarvis Ontario Court of Justice. Here, youth who have been charged with a criminal offence can be referred to Peacebuilders, where they then participate in weekly, after school, Peer Youth Circles Program, followed by an individualized Restorative Youth Circles (RYC) Program. Peacebuilders also offers a Kids Lunch Program for any youth in court to receive a free meal.
Since 2004, the award-winning RYC Program has successfully diverted over 600 kids charged with various criminal offences out of the justice system before trial. The process of the core court diversion program is as follows:
Referrals: Crown attorneys and defense counsel refer their clients to the program upon review of their charge.
Intake: Peacebuilders Court Programs Manager interviews and evaluates prospective youth who can be referred to the program, then conducts an intake interview with youth and negotiate terms for their participation.
Peer Groups: Youth participate in a series of safe and non-judgemental group Circle sessions (after school) designed to open dialogue between youth about ethics, respect, the implications of their decisions, and the many personal issues, emotions and fears confronting each person, which can be the root cause of conflict.
Circle Keepers: Youth are assigned to two well- trained community volunteer Circle Keepers, who welcome the youth into a process to prepare them for the Peace Building Circle designed to address the particular charge of a youth as presented at court. Circle Keepers review details of the police charge with the youth and discuss the process of participating in a restorative Peace Circle.
Circle Participation: Circle keepers then engage the additional Circle participation of other individuals who may contribute to this restorative justice process: parents, the victim or their representatives, school teachers, and community representatives.
Peace Building Circles: A number of Peace Building Circles are conducted until the Circle keepers determine that the young person has been able to take responsibility for their actions; develop a plan to make amends, and identify attainable and productive future goals with the support of their community and parents. Ideally, the Peace Building Circle has created new mentors and community supports for both youth at risk and affected victims.
Report: The Circle Keepers responsible for working with an assigned youth write a formal report to the Court, outlining the progress the youth made throughout the sessions, the topics that were discussed, and any action plan that had been achieved. The youth often writes their own letter, apology, thought piece, poem, or other creative expression that reflects upon the lessons they have learned. Upon review of these documents, the young person’s charges are almost always withdrawn.
Peacebuilders also works in schools to develop a preventative solution to youth crime.
We understand the concerns of schools when dealing with troubled kids. Schools want to provide safe spaces where children can learn, but often lack the tools to accomplish this. Peacebuilders has been working inside the schools to understand and resolve this issue through our Pilot Project at Eastdale Collegiate Institute. Instead of resorting to suspension, expulsion, or calling the police to deal with crisis, Peacebuilders is able to offer a proactive solution. At Eastdale we’ve seen that improving school climate and training teachers and administration in conflict resolution methods through Peacebuilding Circles empowers schools to prevent the escalation of a crisis.
Now, with a Strategic Collaborations grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, Peacebuilders is entering a three-year partnership with Justice for Children and Youth, the Toronto Police Service and the Toronto District School Board to develop the policies and protocols for an early police diversion of at-risk kids in Toronto to keep kids in school and out of the justice system altogether. This Pilot Project will also have oversight from the City of Toronto, Osgoode Hall Law School, and the Ashoka Foundation.
Our Programs How We Do It
Peacebuilding Circles place ethical literacy skills at the very core of every Peacebuilders’ program. Properly facilitated Circles create safe, trusting spaces which enable participants with the courage to speak from the heart, listen respectfully to others, reflect critically upon ethical issues, take responsibility and make better choices. Each of these essential steps sets the stage for positive, personal change of circle participants. Circles also help kids acquire self-esteem and recognize that they can re-direct their lives in a positive direction.
The role of the Circle Facilitator is challenging. While permitted to share truly from their personal experiences, and thus not required to retain their “neutrality” as they would in other processes (as judges, arbitrators, mediators), they must nevertheless retain their ability to manage the circle process impartially so that no participant is seen to be preferred over the others. This is particularly important where there is conflict between the participants; the Circle Facilitators must step outside their own prejudices and frailties. This is a special leadership attribute.
Once the Circle facilitator acquires the trust of the young person referred to the program they must proceed to undertake a review of the facts to determine what happened that led to the charge. The search for the truth is an essential step. Responsibility of the young person must be proportional to their actual level of culpability. Then, the young person, with the support and advice of the other circle participants, can agree to an action plan to make amends if necessary and determine the appropriate next steps.
What You Can Do
There are many ways to support the work of Peacebuilders in promoting access to justice for at-risk youth. You can contribute:
1. Your influence. By advocating on our behalf, we can realize a more just society that supports, rather than punishes vulnerable youth.
2. Your participation. By offering your time as a volunteer for our programs, you can directly impact at-risk youth and help support them in achieving a better future.
Your financial support. By donating funding on a weekly, monthly, or annually basis; offering a gift to commemorate special occasions or events; or directly supporting our programs, you allow Peacebuilders to continue this important work. Peacebuilders operates solely through generous public and private donations. Your support will allow us to continue to serve the most vulnerable youth in our community. Donations are used to:
· Train community volunteers to mentor at-risk youth through Peacebuilding Circles
· Develop and enhance our training materials and curriculum to continuously offer the best facilitation and support services to youth
· Provide youth with tokens and meals to access and participate in Peacebuilding Circles
· Support youth after programming through on-going access to a youth worker and additional resources such as career counseling, resume building services, arts programs etc. according to their unique needs and interests.
If you are interested in becoming a sponsor or wish to make a donation, please visit our website here: http://peacebuilders.ca/donate/.
For volunteer, internship, and committee opportunities, visit our website at www.peacebuilders.ca