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Building a better path to restorative justice in Manitoba

Rachel Power is a community justice worker with the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO). She helps provide restorative justice programming to offenders from First Nations communities in the province. Credit: MKO


A new referral process is making restorative justice easier to access in Manitoba. This more direct path to alternative justice is the result of collaboration between Indigenous leaders and various agencies.

Edwin Wood is the Justice Program Manager with the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), which represents 26 First Nations in the province.

He says Indigenous people who are incarcerated struggle with issues that don't get addressed in the justice system.

Wood says the traumas associated with Canada's residential school system, the Sixties Scoop, and the imposition of European values, religions, and laws are still being felt today and manifest themselves through the social and criminal problems that plague Indigenous communities.

One way to change that trend is by using a community approach and restorative justice.

Instead of giving out fines or jail time, like in courts, restorative justice places an emphasis on repairing the harm. While each First Nation in Manitoba is unique in how it handles restorative justice matters, often the victims, offenders and community members take part in the process. Together they hold the offender accountable for their actions, support the victims, and help the offender reintegrate into the community.

"Our goal is to reduce the overrepresentation of Indigenous Peoples in the justice system," says Wood, who notes that incarceration rates for Indigenous adults in Manitoba are among the highest in the country.

Building a better system

In the past, an offender's route to restorative justice could have started with police, where the process was sometimes difficult to identify and map out. Changes began in 2015, when Manitoba unveiled its Restorative Justice Act, followed three years later by the province's Criminal Justice System Modernization Strategy. The latter initiative clearly identified restorative justice as an important way to reduce incarceration rates in Manitoba prisons.

"We were then tasked with improving the pre-charge diversion rate," says RCMP Sgt. Rod Downey, Restorative Justice Program Manager in Manitoba.

In collaboration with Manitoba Prosecutions and Restorative Justice Branch, the RCMP created and implemented in 2019 a new, more efficient restorative justice referral process. The referral process started as a pilot project in eastern Manitoba in November 2020, and expanded to the rest of the province by March the following year.

Cpl. Lacey Clarkson, the RCMP's restorative justice co-ordinator in Manitoba, subsequently held meetings with officers throughout the province, hearing concerns and considering ideas.

How referrals work

Referrals are the same for all RCMP detachments in Manitoba and can begin on the day there is contact with an offender. If the officer thinks the offender is a good candidate for restorative justice, and the offender agrees to follow the program, they refer them to the Restorative Justice Branch (RJB) and the process can begin.

The process has now been simplified for officers by allowing them to send all referral documents by encrypted email. "The RJB email box means RCMP members don't have to go searching for an agency that provides restorative justice anymore," says Clarkson.

An offender's age, severity of their offence, their criminal history, and other related information determines whether they are a good candidate for restorative justice. Offences often referred for the process include assault, assault with a weapon, uttering threats, theft, break and enter, mischief, and fraud.

The RCMP does not refer crimes such as domestic violence, impaired driving, sexual assault, and serious drug charges.

If Manitoba's Restorative Justice Branch accepts the offender, they will be referred to an agency that delivers restorative justice programming — such as MKO. When the offender completes the restorative justice programming, their case file is closed by the RCMP. If the programming is not completed, the file will go back into the court process.

Clarkson credits Manitoba's Restorative Justice and Prosecutions branches with creating the infrastructure that supports restorative justice referrals. She says the process gives officers an efficient way to deal with restorative justice files. "What we want to do is make it as easy as possible for officers to choose restorative justice if that's what they feel will benefit the victim, offender and community," says Clarkson.

Connecting with the offender

Eventually, restorative justice files land on the desk of people like Rachel Power, a community justice worker with the MKO. She and her 11 colleagues are on the frontline of providing restorative justice programming to offenders from First Nations in northern Manitoba — many of which are in remote or fly-in communities.

The community justice workers log many hours connecting with restorative justice candidates, accessing or providing programming, such as anger management or addictions counselling, and ultimately guiding them through the process. Power says many candidates say they are scared of the court system. She and her colleagues remind offenders that the restorative justice process is not about being punitive, but holding people accountable and helping them leave the criminal justice system behind.

"Many of them feel they have no one to turn to in the courts for help and they're scared of the possible outcome," says Power. "Our clients are just so grateful to complete the restorative justice process and have the opportunity to get the help they need."

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