We’re finally learning what Dalhousie’s restorative justice is all about. The recent letter posted on Dalhousie’s “Culture of Respect” site makes it obvious. What it’s about, apparently, is community standing on the sidelines. It’s about current and future patients, staff, sexual assault survivors and others affected by the Gentlemen’s club, waiting in respectful silence for the Gentlemen to emerge from behind closed doors, to tell us that all has been made well. Not to worry our heads about it. Just relax in the chair.
In December, when the restorative justice plan was revealed, friends who were patients and some who were Dalhousie faculty and staff contacted me in disbelief. They could not understand why this experiment had President Richard Florizone’s blanket support. Now perhaps it is clearer: The process allows Dalhousie to proclaim that something wonderful is being done, while insulating that process from all community criticism or even any scrutiny.
But historically, “privacy” isn’t something that has protected women, as a group. Just the opposite. By characterizing sexualized harms as purely private matters, rape culture is supported. For decades police wouldn’t enter a home where a woman was being beaten: it’s a private matter, and a man’s home was his castle. Sexual abuses in schools, on sports teams, and in youth clubs were not matters to be spoken about, nobody’s business. Better not to endanger the good mission of the worthy organizations. As we know this created an atmosphere that enabled the worst abuses. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, much to the delight of pimps, johns, and other abusers.
This no doubt very earnest letter from participants shows exactly why those who care about ending rape culture are so concerned about these in-house processes for handling it, and why we’ve been trying to curtail their use in workplaces, schools and spiritual organizations. Anyone who dares to say that public organizations’ handling of sexist harassment is a public issue is accused of interfering with the secret “process.” Anyone who says that the community (in the form of current and future patients, sexual assault survivors and their families, and everyone else affected by these major institutions and professions) has a stake and a role and a voice is cast as undermining the agency of the targeted students. And that’s exactly what rape culture needs to flourish. To set up opposition and divisions between those targeted and the community. To divide and conquer. To play up class differences. To try to shame community women into accepting a de-politicized view of rape culture.
Another term that sometimes gets used interchangeably with restorative justice is community justice. Just exactly how did community become the enemy here?
We have to look back into the history of restorative justice initiatives in Nova Scotia to fully understand this. In 1998, the Nova Scotia Restorative Justice Initiative brought in sweeping measures that would have included all crimes under its umbrella. This initiative was the brainchild of political and academic elites who saw themselves as benevolent saviours. They spoke in terms of “breaching the wall” and “getting to” the victims of violent crime as if that were the holy grail of restorative justice: controlling and manipulating survivors of violence and abuse. Never mind that community might have different ideas about what’s needed from the justice system (such as equality, safety, shared power and resources, decarceration and group reparations), never mind that women were terrified of having to face their rapists in a “sentencing circle,” never mind that the police themselves were also afraid of some women’s stalking, over-the-top violent ex-husbands. Women’s organizations, with the full support of people and communities across this province, said no to this plan, no to the lack of consultation and respect, no to decriminalizing violence against women even further. And the ivory tower folks were not able to shove it on Nova Scotians that time.
Certain professors have had a rock in their shoe ever since. They have continued to do their best to promote their personal vision (and pet projects) for justice in Nova Scotia, without real community involvement.
So Dal Dentistry presented a perfect opportunity for those who had been waiting with bated breath to experiment with anything resembling a sex crime. As usual though, they once again underestimated the community. Nova Scotia has one of the most highly victimized populations when it comes to sex crimes, it is the home of Rehtaeh Parson’s family, and the home of the SMU rape chants. And it is the home of some tough, down-to-earth people. Nova Scotians know that how public institutions address sexism and sex crimes affects all of us. It’s not possible to tell Nova Scotians to silently wait anymore while authorities dither and protect the status quo.
At the same time, many who are not fans of restorative justice for sex crimes nevertheless support the targeted Dalhousie womens’ choices. They should have the best experience of privately meeting with the offenders that they can have, if that’s what they want for their own healing. But the universities’ and the profession’s responsibilities don’t end there, not by a long shot. These are public institutions with public impacts and the community (including other students) has a right to examine and critique what’s being done (or not being done) outside of those meetings.
This letter, published so prettily on Dalhousie’s “Culture of Respect” website, leaves me skeptically wondering, why, after so many weeks of silence, are the messages mainly about protecting the all-important and mysterious “process” instead of any substantive results? Why does it devalue community responses and demonize community survivors for speaking up, instead of supporting all Nova Scotians in caring about this issue? Why does it dovetail so neatly with the long history of leaving out the community part of Dalhousie’s justice initiatives?
Authority is trying their neat trick again, of defining out of “community” those they can’t control. Current and future patients, staff, survivors and survivor organizations and the larger Halifax and Nova Scotian community have been deemed irrelevant to this restorative process. Therefore these Nova Scotians should just stay silent, and let the “process” do its work, apparently.
But the genie is out of the bottle, and it can’t really be put back. Nova Scotians know that we all have a stake in ensuring that our public institutions and professionals are safe, respectful and responsible to all Nova Scotians. Those in charge of restorative justice at Dalhousie are lagging behind what the greater community already knows about sexism and sex crimes: That community silence does not protect us or help in any way. Community silence should not be a requirement for any process that says it’s addressing rape culture. Because community silence is rape culture. And that’s everyone’s business.
Photo: Giulia van Pelt