Volunteers in Williams Lake have been facilitating restorative justice for almost 20 years.
Getting its start in 1997 as a response to Williams Lake being the auto theft capital of Canada, the local committee has grown from a handful of volunteers to fluctuating between 35 and 45 active volunteers handling almost 50 files a year.
In November, the group invited guests to its monthly meeting held at the Pioneer Complex, including some of the people responsible for starting the program.
One of those original members was retired RCMP officer Jacques Drisdale who was trained in restorative justice with the RCMP in eastern Canada.
“We were the second community in B.C. to adopt restorative justice,” Drisdale said of Williams Lake. “The first one was Fernie and we had heard about the successes they were having.”
In those early days, the group also trained people in 100 Mile House.
“When I asked for feedback one of the RCMP officers there told me it was just awesome and he could see it being the way to go,” Drisdale said.
John Andrews, also one of the original members of the group, said one of his first experiences with the program was attending a meeting in McLeese Lake with First Nations police officer named Geordie Findlay.
“We went to McLeese Lake School, met with two moms, two dads and two little boys,” Andrews recalled. “The crime that night was that the two boys had entered a lady’s house, eaten her cookies and stolen two cans of coke from the fridge.”
Andrews said he remembers leaving the meeting with a sense it had been handled really well and he saw what restorative justice could do.
Donna-Marie Cyr credited the generosity of the community making the program a success from the very beginning.
“Once we went to Prince George to make a presentation and someone asked us if we did not get funding how did we have an overhead projector,” Cyr said. “We said that’s because of our community. That’s from the school board, we got here by a police car and in Williams Lake people support us by giving us meeting rooms.”
Sandra Hawkins came on board in 1998 and said it helps that the group was started by an RCMP officer and that the RCMP were on board from the start.
Retired school counsellor Jim World said one case that sticks out in his mind involved a man who already had 92 convictions when he caught shoplifting.
“The officers involved thought maybe sending him back to jail wasn’t the right thing to do and asked us,” World recalled.
Members of the RCMP, including Insp. Warren Brown, the man’s family, the chief of his community, and other participants were part of the restorative justice circle.
“The family told us the story of his life,” World said. “That’s the real power of the story telling because there’s an explanation. It’s not an excuse, but there is an explanation more often than not.”
Eventually it was decided the man had to take a letter of apology to the place of business he had robbed.
“He was not allowed to go to the business, but the Chief of his band said he would go with him and Insp. Warren Brown said he would go with him too,” World said. “To my knowledge has been a good community citizen ever since then.”
Xeni Gwet’in Coun. Marilyn Baptiste said a few young people from her community have gone through Williams Lake’s restorative justice circles and she has attended every single one of them.
“In that process you are helping to bridge the gap between our nations and hopefully that will bring some more resolution to and reconciliation of the racism of our cultures,” Baptiste said.
One of the greatest things in the circles is always the sharing and the stories, she added.
“The First Nations process is longer and harder to sit through, and a lot of people will choose to go through the regular court system because they don’t want to face their own communities, but that facing of the community is part of the healing process.”
Mayor Walt Cobb thanked the volunteers for their work and said it never ceases to amaze him how generous people are in Williams Lake.
“Thanks for all you do on just a shoe string,” Cobb said.