1. On Race and Justice

The Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children. Photo: Nova Scotia Archives
The Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children. Photo: Nova Scotia Archives

Yesterday and Thursday , Tim wrote about the Andrew Younger case in the context of zero tolerance domestic violence laws.

That got me thinking about the restorative inquiry for the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children. In the Younger case, even though neither party wanted charges laid, zero tolerance policies on domestic violence forced the case through court. Tim and Parker Donham both raised questions about the ability of the courts in this situation to provide justice. While Premier McNeil’s premise for firing Younger is his “untrustworthiness” due to his lying/mistaking (depending on whose story you believe) the date that he knew about parliamentary privilege, it seems obvious that the real problem is that Younger’s refusal to appear undermines the role of the court and places him above the law.

This leads me to thinking about the role of restorative justice. It’s interesting that in this case, where neither party wished to pursue any legal consequences, and a restorative approach would seem to be the most appropriate remedy, this approach was not available. Of course, restorative justice is not recommended in cases of domestic violence and sexual assault, but then again, that didn’t stop the process from being used at Dalhousie in a situation of sexual harrassment/rape threats against women.

My point is here that Premier McNeil, in firing Younger, has made it clear that the courts are the appropriate venue for justice, and that regardless of the destruction of lives/careers that may result, we must uphold the role of the law and of the courts in charging and in prosecuting issues of violence.

Premier Stephen McNeil
Premier Stephen McNeil

Clearly, the Colored Home is not the same case. Rather than intimate violence/a private dispute between two people (depending on your perspective), the Colored Home deals with decades of systemic abuse, neglect, deliberate defunding, indifference, racism, and horrific sexual and physical violence and exploitation against African Nova Scotian children in the most vulnerable situation. My point of comparison is not that the circumstances are the same. And certainly, as I pointed out over and over in the case of the Dalhousie dentistry process, while I am clearly not an advocate of incarceration, if it’s okay for poor and racialized people to be charged and jailed and have records that destroy their lives, rich white men shouldn’t be exempt. I’m sure the many Indigenous women I can think of, for example, who have been charged with breaches and even given time for not showing up to testify in their domestic violence cases, would love to have Younger’s literal privilege to avoid legal consequences.

What I am thinking about, though, is how throughout the inquiry process for the Home, court has not been seen as a remedy for the residents to seek justice. It’s worth pointing out that although Darryl Dexter was heavily criticized for refusing to move forward with an inquiry, and even though Stephen McNeil advocated for an inquiry upon taking office, as the process has developed, it has moved into a “restorative inquiry” that actually seems designed to avoid many of the same problems that Dexter was reluctant about in the first place. Whether or not it is a good thing, a restorative inquiry — really a restorative justice process — is not the same thing as a public inquiry as it was originally understood, and it seems that part of the push to make the process restorative is precisely to avoid the “destruction” that Dexter identified as a consequence of inquiries.

My question with restorative justice, and the thing I am thinking about with the courts in relation to the Younger story, is that I have a hard time believing that if generations of white children were victimized in the same way that there would be no charges laid, no consequences for all the people who knew, who should have known, who were told, for all the people implicated in the abuse many of whom went on to other careers, for everyone who covered it up and perpetrated harm for years, and that a lack of criminal consequences would be promoted as “healing” and “reducing harm.”

There is a particular way that African and Indigenous people and communities are urged to forgive and to “get past it” that is not employed when white people suffer harm or injustice. And because African and Indigenous people have to survive in majority white societies, and because we have endured generations of justice being denied, and because Black people have turned to religion to make it through, and because to live “in a state of rage” is exhausting and toxic, and because we have had to get over and get over and get over a million slights and pains and abuses and barriers and hatreds, and because we are generous and continue to have faith in goodness and for so many other reasons, one survival tool is for us to believe in forgiveness.

And my criticism is not of the residents, who have fought so courageously for years where they were silenced and dismissed. I have nothing but admiration for them. My questions are around why on a systemic and societal level, forgiveness and healing and restoration seem solely to be the solution when it is the pain and injustice and violence towards our communities — and then the same courts that are used to disproportionately imprison us and destroy our families and communities are suddenly not an instrument of justice when harm is done to us.

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 8.59.19 AM

This rhetoric of forgiveness and Black communities was critiqued and explored after the Charleston shooting. Hannah Rosin posed the question, “Is the instinct to forgive also a product of racism?” Institutionalized forgiveness at the level of the state is a different matter than personal ethical forgiveness. When governments endorse restorative “healing” practices for the injustices of certain communities, but prosecute other crimes, we are not talking about moral beliefs, but about how systemically historic injustice rooted in racism is treated.

(Ironically, perhaps, virtually every movie on civil/human rights is set in the courtroom, which I have always contended is intended to argue that sure, Europeans enslaved and oppressed you, but ultimately justice is done through those same “enlightened” systems so there’s no need to radically question or change white supremacist society. The system is self-correcting.)

When I look at the terms of reference for the restorative inquiry, I see a lot of language around “empowering” communities, but none about holding those responsible accountable.

Children at the Home for Colored Children in an undated photo.
Children at the Home for Colored Children in an undated photo.

The inquiry will “examine” racism, but it is careful to say nothing about any consequences for that racism. There is a lot of vague language around “ensuring this doesn’t happen again” and “reckoning with racism” but no actual concrete examples of how this will happen (and how do we reckon with and change 500 years of racism and white supremacy? How do we “seek an end to racism” in a society built upon genocide of Indigenous peoples and the expropriation of land and resources? How can that be a serious goal?)

What does “examine” really mean? That people will talk about their pain, and the terrible things that happened to them due to racism, and then it’s examined and then what?

A lot of this language sounds good, but when you actually think about what it is saying, there is no suggestion of actual political change: we can “empower” or “affirm” African Nova Scotians, but don’t expect to get jobs, housing, education, fair representation in court, community controlled policing, an end to mass incarceration or real concrete solutions to any of the other actual conditions of racism that African Nova Scotians live with daily (and of course, how could an inquiry grant those things?).

There’s already been financial compensation through the settlement, of course, but I can’t help but wonder in all this language who this really heals and affirms. Does it affirm Black people as equally deserving of justice, or does it affirm white society’s ability to let themselves off the hook while feeling good about “engaging in conversation” and “building connections?” Does it affirm the need for radical change and an end to white supremacy, or does it affirm the comfort of white society with established systems, the belief that if we just have a bit more conversation and develop a bit more “understanding” then racism will go away because people are essentially good after all, as if racism isn’t deeply embedded in capitalism.

There is no zero tolerance policy for racism, that’s for sure.

While restorative justice processes preceded the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, it was that post-apartheid process that has served as the model and popularized the process for addressing historical injustice. In all the mythologizing of the South African process, however (Mandela forgave!) there has been little attention to assessing whether this process was actually successful. Stuart Wilson argues that:

Stuart Wilson
Stuart Wilson

Restorative Justice is often held up as a virtue promoted by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC.) In granting amnesty and foregoing retributive punishment, it has been argued, the TRC promoted healing, harmony, and reconciliation. Restorative Justice should instead be understood as a political myth to which some Truth Commissioners mistakenly appealed while grasping for a moral justification for amnesty. No such justification — even in terms of a refined conception of restorative justice — is available. The article takes an analytical approach to retribution, forgiveness and mercy and uses plausible definitions of these concepts to suggest that restorative justice — as conceived by the TRC — failed to take full account of the value of retribution, and the meanings of forgiveness and reconciliation. If we are to make moral sense of what happened when the TRC dispenses amnesty, it cannot be as a serious attempt to promote an alternative form of justice, but as a tense and agonizing compromise necessary to maximize the moral gains of transition from apartheid to non-racial democracy.

In other words, rather than “ending racism,” the TRC was a compromise with white supremacist society, because to actually reckon with racism and white supremacy would require change to political, social and legal systems so radical that it would require the uprooting of all institutions. The TRC substituted moral rhetoric of forgiveness, mercy, and healing for the language of real political change. Using this process as a model in other African communities raises the question of whether these processes are about actually “ending racism” or whether they are about placing the moral burden yet again on African/Indigenous people to compromise, and build, and heal what we are not responsible for in the first place.

So it is that McNeil holds up the importance of the courts in the Younger case, but when African Nova Scotians are the victims, the promised inquiry becomes not about charging, or prosecuting, or consequences, but about “examining” and “educating” and “understanding.”

There is zero tolerance for assault, unless that assault is on Black children, in which case, we need to “build” and “collaborate.”

But this rhetoric of healing and reconciliation from the government is never accompanied by an acknowledgement that the court system is unjust to African Nova Scotians, that mass incarceration of Black people exists, that police terror in our communities is a reality, that the white justice system has never served us.

Clayton Cromwell died in the Burnside jail.
Clayton Cromwell died in the Burnside jail.

When Black inmates die in a crowded, drug-saturated jail, and a mother cannot get answers, what are we going to “affirm” about our communities then? When young Black people bear the lifelong stigma of criminal records for drug dealing, but then Trudeau talks about legalizing marijuana (meaning that now the same thing that got federal sentences when it was Black people trying to pay bills is okay for white businesses to make a profit from,) are we really “empowering” our communities? If we are talking about justice, without eliminating mass incarceration of Black people, what are we really talking about? Whose conversation are we having?

And without that recognition, and without an end to laws and practices that disproportionately arrest and imprison Black people, what meaning does restorative justice really have? Are we really rethinking anything about justice as long as these conditions exist? Without that recognition, I can’t believe that restorative justice is truly conceived as a challenge to racist society, but rather as yet another way to ensure, as Langston Hughes said:

Lies written down
for white folks
ain’t for us a-tall:
Liberty And Justice — 
Huh! For All?

2. What do we do with our rainwater?

Cam Thanh Community House. Photo:
Cam Thanh Community House. Photo:

I like the muted shade in the opening paragraph of this article about the Halifax Central Library losing an architecture award to a building in Vietnam:

“A small building in Hoi An, Vietnam featuring bamboo roofs thatched with coconut leaves beat out the much grander Halifax Central Library to win World Building 2015 in the civics and community category at an international architectural festival in Singapore.”

Like ew, bamboo and coconut? That’s like just junk from nature. Our “much grander” building has all glass and shit! Like, basically that Vietnamese “building” is like a nest and probably a bird could have built it with like dirt and leaves and stuff. Ours was built by Danish people. Okay, their building like waters the grass and everything, but 6,000 people visit ours! Boo ya!

3. Um, what?

Ryan William Morris drove drunk, crashed his car, and fled the scene of the crime. But it’s not a problem! See, he’s a police officer! After the grave injustice of this officer of the law being removed from his job, he has been reinstated, and presumably is free to drive police cars and hopefully not crash any of them into power poles. He will also be free to hand out beatings to other people who flee the scene of their crimes, and then charge them with resisting arrest and assault on a police officer.

Ah, justice.

4. I don’t understand this story.

I’ve been trying to puzzle through the motivations on this story but I’m really at a loss.

So a local moose hunting guide and other local residents are protesting a Mi’kmaq hunt to reduce the moose population.

I don’t get it. Obviously the protestors are hunters, so are they protesting killing moose? Don’t they kill moose? Are they mad that Mi’kmaq people get to kill moose but they don’t? So this isn’t a protest about hunting or culling moose but a protest about Mi’kmaq hunting rights? Is he just mad that he’s a settler and Indigenous people exercise their rights on unceded territory and that’s so unfair that they get like one hunt and white people don’t get anything except all the stolen land in the entire country? Or are they into killing moose but only in moderation? Slower killing of moose? I’m deeply confused.

Dennis Day, the hunting guide, says:

“I don’t want a bunch of damage done, that’s not getting our point across, but I can’t control what the local people do.”

But I don’t understand your point! Why are you protesting? Why are you camping there? You never explain this!

Anyway, I hope you WEAR ORANGE while you’re camping in the moose culling zone.

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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    Everything El Jones says is right on point–again. But so what? As another writer once noted, so long as the masses remain “slumbering, apathetic, hidebound, inert and dormant” nothing will change. That is not to say they can’t change–just that they won’t. At least not until we realize we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

  2. Thought provoking article on the variability of justice, depending on who was wronged.

    This land was taken by force from the natives by the French. Then it was taken from the French and the natives by the British. Then that became Canada. The the injustices that were done to get us to this point are part of history. They can be discussed, even regretted, but they can never be undone. There is simply no way the land will ever be returned to the natives, who themselves have become altered as a result of the European occupation.

    Fair or not, all Canadian law is built on that foundation, and it’s the same for other modern nations resulting from European conquest.

    That said, I’ve also found it particularly unsatisfying that AKAIK nobody has been prosecuted for the abuse rendered at the Home for Colored Children. It was said the original records needed to support such prosecutions were lost or deliberately destroyed years ago. I wonder why? If I’d successfully evaded the consequences of having murdered somebody 50 years ago, I could not rest easy knowing those police records would have been destroyed just because they were old.

    It has been said that the HCC was run by the black community for children of the black community and an intrusive investigation would end up mostly damaging the black community.

    It has also been claimed that at least one of the individuals cited as an abuser lives in HRM today. Maybe he will be called by whatever inquiry will follow? If so he will be an exception, since most of the major villains in this piece must have passed on while successive NS governments avoided dealing with it until Dexter.

    I guess justice is a work in progress.

    1. What I should have written to make my point better was…

      “Fair or not, all Canadian law is built on that foundation, and it’s the same for other modern nations resulting from European conquest. There are limits to modern justice.”

  3. I really appreciate you bringing up the South African example of “reconciliation”. Many people believe that apartheid ended in South Africa because Nelson Mandela was so nice and well spoken and stuff and believe that all racism (and -isms) will end when the oppressed people start “behaving respectable”.

    The reality was, as you said, that it was a purely pragmatic compromise – in 1994, they were getting really close to civil war, with armed actions and assassinations occuring on a regular basis (e.g.: and no more American support because the Cold War was over. They arrested a few commanders known for the most egregious abuses (such as Eugene de Kock) and let all the political leaders go. PW Botha, who bombed neighboring African countries and created de Kock’s death squads, was *fined*.

    As to the question you asked – about what would happen if this wasn’t just black kids: in the UK, the abuse of hundreds of children by a trusted children’s show host has lead to a wide-ranging *criminal* inquiry into some of the most powerful figures in that society from that time period and era, right up to and including Margaret Thatcher herself. Those deemed responsible who are fit for trial have been arrested and jailed ( That was probably never on the table in this case, was it.

  4. Ahh yes, the double edge of restorative justice. And thanks for noting the role of capitalism in the absolute imbalance of power. We are all going to have to contend with the issues of power inherent in the conflation of democracy with capitalism, and probably sooner rather than later. Glad for your insights, El.

  5. Is anyone else as disturbed as I am by the creeping ideological fascism and double think of a majority of so called “progressives” out there? The blatant bias, hypocrisy, inconsistencies, strawmen and ad hominem attacks that have been used to shoehorn this Younger story into a fictional narrative are disappointing. It’s getting worse every time another”scandal” pops up. This is the type of crap I’d expect to see on Fox news … except with races and genders reversed. You guys are better than this.

  6. El writes : ” …. I have a hard time believing that if generations of white children were victimized in the same way that there would be no charges laid, no consequences for all the people who knew, who should have known, …..”
    The Home Children :

    ” IT IS A STORY that defies belief. It seems inconceivable that a British government would order the migration of tens of thousands of its children to far- flung corners of the globe, severing, at a stroke, all connection with family, country and past.
    But after the Second World War, ministers, aided by respected charities including Barnardos, the Salvation Army and the Catholic Church, did exactly that, emptying the nation’s orphanages of a generation of children, some as young as four, who were shipped to Australia, Canada and other outposts of the empire.

    The children were told their parents were dead. In fact, many of them, destitute after the war, were very much alive and believed their children were in temporary care. When some sought to reclaim their children from the orphanages, they were told they had been adopted…….”

    and : ” Children were cut off from families and some falsely told they were orphans in programme that sent 150,000 abroad between 1920 and 1967 ”

    ” Between 1869 and the late 1930s, over 100,000 juvenile migrants were sent to Canada from Great Britain during the child emigration movement. Motivated by social and economic forces, churches and philanthropic organizations sent orphaned, abandoned and pauper children to Canada. ”

  7. and yes there has never been a satisfactory answer given to the public as to why no charges in the abuse perpetrated through an agency that was supposed to be serving the most vulnerable

    i also do not think white people should be in charge in any respect of restorative justice for that situation

  8. Thank you for the great piece on restorative justice. A pat on the head, an evasion of responsibility, a trick played by the powerful on the powerless. This piece should be required reading for judges, legislators and educators. Bravo!

  9. I don’t know the details of this case but “Zero tolerance” for DV often translates into “let’s give the girls a taste of their own medicine” and is used to prosecute self-defending women, or women who lash back after months or years of beatings, or women who precipitate their beating by “starting it” so they can at least control the timing, etc.

    Last time I looked Younger looked muscular, was in a position of power over a staffer, etc.

  10. Nice to read something that challenges and totally blows apart a societal perspective that has been unchallenged for many decades.