My last blog, entitled “What Does It Mean to be a Man Today?” waswritten in response to alleged sexual violence by public figures like Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby. I reflected on the confusion of maleness that most men deal with today and the “missing community of men”—the importance of men teaching other men about what it is to be a healthy man.
Shortly after that blog, the Dalhousie Dentistry School scandal broke open as we became aware of allegations that a number of male dentistry students wrote horrific misogynistic comments targeting female classmates in a private Facebook group. Clearly, those men have not benefited from a healthy community of men.
The president of Dalhousie University, Dr. Richard Florizone, in what he describes as fulfilling a request from many of the victims, has been pursuing a “restorative justice” response to what happened. In response, there has been a huge backlash of people expressing indignation about the use of a restorative approach instead of punishment.
It has become clear that Dr. Florizone’s quest for “restorative justice” has become a massive cultural flashpoint. I find the public response sobering. I have been appalled by the press coverage of the issue, which in my view has been extraordinarily uninformed. Voices have clamored, accusing the president and Dalhousie of wanting to “slip things under the carpet” through the use of restorative justice.
There are any number of directions one could take in trying to make sense of our collective responses to the Dalhousie matter. I understand the fact that this touches deeply issues of systemic, institutional gender discrimination and power imbalances. I get that it triggers each of our own issues with sexuality. I get that we likely feel helpless in trying to understand where this behaviour comes from and how to respond effectively. I accept and even welcome the fact that there will be different perspectives. And I get that there is significant misunderstanding about what restorative justice is and isn’t.
But let me focus briefly on just two themes. First, I have been struck by how deeply the “punishment paradigm” seems to reside within all of us. So powerful is this impulse that in the Dalhousie case it runs roughshod over the expressed needs of most of both the victim/survivors and the perpetrators. The press has whipped up a mob frenzy worthy of Shakespeare where loud, even hysterical voices advocate for simply banishing the perpetrators. But as Dr. Jennifer Llewellyn, professor of law at Dalhousie and one of the world’s leading figures in the restorative justice field, says, “banish them to where?”
Second, it strikes me that as a society we have a very hard time dealing with victims/survivors. When Justin Trudeau sanctioned two of his MPs accused of sexual impropriety, he was vilified in some quarters for not listening to the victims/survivors. When Dalhousie’s President listened to the desire of the majority of the victims/survivors to pursue restorative justice, he was vilified for listening to them. I have heard ardent feminists argue that the victims are too vulnerable to know what they really need or what further victimization is surely coming their way through restorative justice—a remarkably patronizing, disempowering stance towards the Dalhousie women. And how empowered do the victim/survivors feel when 40,000 people sign a Change.org petition to override their preferred way of getting their needs met?
Let’s take a sober step back and have a considered look at our responses. The press needs to take some responsibility for its knee-jerk reaction. Thankfully, some of that appears to be starting. The Globe and Mailpublished an editorial in support of the restorative justice process at Dalhousie. Eva Marszuski, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, wrote a helpful piece, also in the Globe. On December 21 Jennifer Llewellyn gave a highly articulate interview on a CBC-Maritimes call-in radio show. And our colleague Dorothy Vaandering, professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland, published a fine piecein the Telegraph.
In a related vein, Anne Martin, Shalem’s Director of Restorative Practices, has just published an article introducing our restorative work in faith communities in the newsletter of the Church Council on Justice and Corrections. Some of that work has involved sexual offending.
I recommend all of these. I’m grateful for them. I’m grateful to Dr. Florizone for his understanding of restorative justice and his courage to pursue it despite extraordinary pressure not to, pressure that includes the threat to withdraw donations to Dalhousie. And I’m grateful that in the province of Nova Scotia, restorative justice is essentially the default option in response to youth crime.
Let’s have a considered response that genuinely listens to the needs of everyone affected by the misogyny targeted against Dalhousie women.
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W. is Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network and a certified Restorative Justice Trainer.