It was May 1974 and the two Elmira teens were charged with public mischief.
Their rampage included 24 slashed tires, a damaged flashing traffic signal, smashed car windows and slashed car seats. A church and private residence were also vandalized as well as a boat trailer and a gazebo.
Probation officers Mark Yantzi and Dave Worth suggested that both teens apologize and make restitution for vandalizing the property of 22 people in Elmira, instead of going to jail. They asked the presiding judge, rather than prison, “what if the youths met their victims face to face?”
This, they suggested, would allow the youths to apologize directly to the victims and pay for damages. Judge Gordon McConnell agreed, setting a new legal precedent in Canada and the first court sanctioned restorative justice process was initiated.
Subsequent meetings profoundly impacted both the teenagers and their victims.
“This was an opportunity that the probation officer Mark Yantzi saw, so he was assigned these youths. He included in his report, that this would be a therapeutic opportunity, by bringing victims togethers with the offenders,” said Stacey Colliver, director of Community Relations at Community Justice Initiatives (CJI) in Kitchener.
From the first successful meeting between youth who committed crimes and their victims, CJI’s founder and first Executive Director, Mark Yantzi developed the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP) which grew and quickly gained credibility in the community.
Today, hundreds of referrals are received from the adult and youth court systems in Waterloo Region. Community Mediation Services was also developed, offering conflict resolution options for individuals, neighbours, families, and various groups in the community.
These programs range from sports mediation for local teams, to mediations for faith communities and in the workplace. Referrals are received from many community agencies including community agencies, families, neighbours, police and city bylaw departments.
CJI began under the umbrella of Mennonite Central Committee and was incorporated as a charity in 1982. Today, it is an agency with about 20 staff members and more than 200 volunteers, all applying restorative justice in over 17 different program areas.
For more than 40 years, CJI has successfully applied proven, restorative justice principles to a variety of community issues.
The Elmira Story, more commonly known as the Elmira Case, has also kick-started restorative justice movements across Canada and internationally, in over 50 countries worldwide.
“These teens were young. There were also family issues so in considering them and their past, it was thought, will jail time really serve a purpose? Will it make them better or worse? This will still enable them to take accountability for what they have done, just in a different way,” Colliver said.
CJI says that it envisions connected, peaceful communities where all conflict is resolved in a restorative way. It has helped people find peace and reconciliation in many areas of conflict. It also believes that in many situations, restorative justice should be the first response when responding to individual, community, family and institutional conflict.
According to the organization, by applying restorative justice responses, it can address root causes of conflict, creating a lasting, positive impact as people move forward with their lives and relationships.
“Restorative practices have been used in the past by Mennonites and many Indigenous groups, but this is the first time it was court sanctioned and CJI stemmed from this and we still engage in this mediation where victims and offenders come together. And since then, it has grown including so many different capacities,” Colliver said.
CJI also offers an Elder Mediation Service since recognizing elder abuse as being an issue in Waterloo Region.
CJI provides restorative practices in schools, group support for survivors of sexual trauma, support for women leaving the prison system, a group for men wanting to breaking cycles and build more productive lives and a youth group where participants can make connections and build friendships.
CJI says restorative justice can be a very difficult process. It takes a lot of courage to meet face to face. However, it believes it is neither “soft on crime” or “hard on crime”, instead it is more effective than the traditional system.
It also says restorative justice is “smart on crime”. Incarceration and other punitive measures do not create accountability. Addressing crime according to the expressed needs of the victim can bring about meaningful restitution, increased feelings of safety and essential changes in attitudes and behaviours.
According to the organization, restorative justice processes have been shown to be more effective than the traditional system in reducing recidivism and have high levels of satisfaction from both victims and offenders.
“This has really grown since the Elmira case,” Colliver said. “And we are just so fortunate to have such a supportive community.