Simon Fraser University is a leading expert in restorative justice, with its Center for Restorative Justice and student-run RJ Club. SFU student Christina Ma describes a powerful university event which brought together a diverse groups of students — residence student leaders, UBC students, post-graduate students, master students, Aboriginal students, Christians and Sikhs — to engage in a process of truth-telling and transformation.
In the Fall 2014, a group of diverse, collaborative students met to discuss past human rights abuses in Canada. Made up of SFU Residence student leaders, UBC students, post-graduate students, master students, Aboriginal students, Christians and Sikhs, the gathering consisted of peoples coming together for one sole purpose – reconciliation and dialogue. The three part workshop series, called Through Our Eyes, was hosted in partnership with Reconciliation Canada, the World Sikh Organization, Inspirit and the Restorative Justice Club at SFU. Its aim was to bring together students from all kinds of backgrounds and unite them in empathy and understanding to one another’s sufferings. It was arranged by Sukhvinder Kaur Vinning, who is an inspirational and caring leader. One of her key passions is to empower youth and give them an opportunity to share their story.
We began with an exercise highlighting the history of human rights abuses in Canada. As each of us stood by the timeline laid out of the floor, we were given time to reflect on the diversity of people represented in these sufferings. Whether it was the Chinese head tax, the Komagata Maru incident or the closing of the last Residential school in 1996, it seemed like each one of us could have been implicated in these incidents. We then opened the space by sitting in a circle and talking in turn. This traditional form of communication – the circle – is often so powerful in facilitating dialogue because each person is given a safe space of time to speak. Each voice is heard, no matter how quiet, and each view point is valued.
By creating a safe and confidential environment founded on active listening, we allowed ourselves to empathize with one another. We had the honour of hearing the story of an intergenerational survivor of the Residential School System – and when she shared her story, she opened the floor for others to share their story in the same honest and courageous way. People felt safe enough to speak about their past experiences of racial discrimination, bullying or any other type of pain. It was through open and honest conversations, where each person was given a platform to express their own story without holding back, that we facilitated reconciliation within ourselves and among others. There were no regular restrictions of political correctness and those of different faith backgrounds were able to express concepts of their walk in their faith with authenticity, boldness and open-mindedness.
The second part of our workshop series was the Facilitator Training, or the Reconciliation Leadership workshop. Here, students from the first Reconciliation Dialogue workshop were given the opportunity to deepen their understanding of reconciliation in leadership and put their skills into practice. Many of the students were Residence leaders on campus who took the training as part of their staff training credits. They expressed the value of the workshops, especially in facilitating conversations on sensitive topics such as human rights abuses. We explored the meaning behind values based leadership and expressed our own value systems in the group. We then interpreted ways in which we could stand by those values in real life experiences. Some values included respect and responsibility.
The third and final workshop in our series was a film and video workshop that sought to educate change makers on how to use new media to express their viewpoints. On a college budget, students were shown how to create make shift tripods out of everyday items and how to shoot and edit their own video that can be used as a platform for their voices to be heard. The result of the one day workshop was a short video summarizing the transformative effect of the Through Our Eyes workshops, and the power of open communication to promote understanding across cultures and backgrounds.
My experience in the three part workshop series was incredibly eye-opening. I learnt that when young adults are given an opportunity to engage in the exchange of ideas and empathy, powerful reconciliation happens on an interpersonal and individual level. Suffering is not hierarchical, but a deeply subjective experience. Whether trauma is induced by school bullying, or racial exclusion, no suffering is deemed less worthy than another human’s suffering. We created a safe, respectful environment among strangers who soon became friends, and each person was given the ability to express the roots of pain in their own lives. By listening to one another and valuing each person`s experience, we had a transformative effect on one another. Whether through sharing joy or pain, my own hope, as a Restorative Justice practitioner, is that we can learn to reconcile by considering the viewpoints of others. It is only then that we can think critically about ourselves and the world around us with the hope of creating a positive and resilient future. My lesson was exceeding simple and incredibly effective: when a few courageous youths are ready to engage in sensitive topics in a small SFU classroom – reconciliation begins.
Christina Ma is majoring in Economics and is currently the Executive Director of the RJ Club at Simon Fraser University. She wishes to extend a special thanks to Sukhvinder Vinning, Precious Ile, Kristen Tung and Brenda Morrison, the director of the Restorative Justice Centre at SFU, for their support.
You can watch the video documenting the transformative effect of the Through Our Eyes workshop;
Watch this excellent video from Reconciliation Canada, showing a circle of elders discussing the need for reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians