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Crown attorney studies reserves

CAPE CROKER, Ontario ? After 16 years of prosecuting criminals in Ontario, Crown Attorney Rupert Ross knows the traditional white man's justice system doesn't always work.

That's why he has traveled across Canada visiting Indian reserves searching for an alternative.

'It is the Aboriginal people of Canada who have helped me come at the issue from a different direction, for they have given me a different way of looking at victims, at offenders and the crimes that ensnare them,'' Ross said.

Understanding the 'teachings'' has been a difficult learning curve for a white man who studied law in Toronto and had little knowledge of Aboriginal ways until he spent 11 years as a fishing guide in Northern Ontario to learn some of the native ways.

Now he is an advocate of restorative justice and recently came to the Chippewas of Nawash reserve at Cape Croker on the shore of Lake Huron to talk to the 700 residents who are close to establishing their own alternative justice program.

The way an Aboriginal scientist studies a plant illustrates a different way of looking at things that can carry over into the criminal justice system, Ross said.

The western scientist focuses on all parts and properties of the plant, analyzing its root, stem and leaf system, an Aboriginal scientist, by contrast, looks at the role the plant plays in the meadow, he said.

'The Aboriginal eye is trained to see not the plant in isolation, but the vast web of relationships connecting it with all other things.''

When Ross applied that principal to the theft of a bottle of rum from a couple's home a different picture emerged.

'To the offender, all he did was steal a bottle. To the court, while indeed he invaded their privacy, it was only for a moment, involved no physical confrontation and only resulted in a $20 loss,'' Ross said.

But to the couple, who no longer feel secure in their home, 'it was an injury which remained long after the case was closed.''

Bringing the victims and the offender together in a non-confrontational manner can help both offender and victim.

The victim meets the intruder and realizes that he isn't a monster who is going to rape and murder them.

'And hopefully, the offender realizes that he has done a lot more than steal a bottle of rum,'' Ross said.

While such conferences between victim and offender don't always work 'they have a better chance of rehabilitating offenders than anything I know.

'The process is nearly always emotional because it gives an opportunity to learn from each other as human beings directly, '' said Ross. 'When you have emotion there's a better chance that communication takes place. It's much more powerful than having a judge yelling at an offender,'' said Ross.

He points out that restorative justice is not a substitute for traditional justice.

'But the two can work together, hand in hand,'' he said.

Ross is the author of two books on restorative justice 'Dancing with A Ghost'(McClelland and Stewart) and 'Returning to the Teachings' (Penguin). They are a model ideally suited to the justice system's search for methods to recognize the needs of victims of crime, he said.

While based on a native model, restorative justice is working well off the reserves. Programs are in place in the United States and Canada, Britain and in New Zealand where the Maori communities pioneered some of the techniques.

The Cape Croker band council is progressing toward a restorative justice program. Needs assessment, survey and community input have all been part of the process, band councilor Isabel Millette said.

Millette also cautioned it's not a substitute for traditional justice.

While there is still much work to be done, Millette has found support for the concept from local police and prosecutors.

'There is a need to look into alternative sources for our membership to make sure they are given the opportunity to have a chance, '' she said.

The Cape Croker group will also have to find financial support for staff to administer the program, which will likely also require significant commitment in time and training from volunteers.

Millette said she expects the Cape Croker program to begin with young people not adult offenders, but Ross argues that restorative justice can be helpful for a wide range of offenders and offences.

'The attraction is that the focus is switched from the offender to the community and the victims of crime.''

The encounters between offender and victim or the victim's family are often ''surprisingly effective in breaking through an offender's tough guy exterior, releasing a flood of heartfelt confusions, sorrows, regrets and the like,'' Ross said.

He does caution that such conferences can't be used when the offender is a psychopath who may enjoy seeing a victim's pain.

'A sadist who takes joy in learning how deeply he has hurt shouldn't be part of this. Fortunately those kinds of offenders are rarities in the criminal justice system,'' Ross said.