Harold Gatensby was sitting in jail in Whitehorse when he looked around at the other inmates and noticed something: “Most of the people that were in the jail were people that were in the residential school with me.”
“When I realized that, I said, ‘There’s something not right about this,'” Gatensby says in the documentary A Once and Future Peace, which examines how a restorative justice program for young offenders — based on Indigenous peacemaking circles — is working to heal families and communities while breaking the cycle of incarceration.
Gatensby, whose Tlingit name is Black Raven, was forced to attend residential school when he was eight years old. Referring to his fellow inmates, Gatensby says, “We’re good people. We’re not bad people. We don’t deserve to fill the jails up.”
‘There’s something wrong with this’
Barry Stuart first arrived in the Yukon in 1978 to serve as a deputy judge.
“Initially, I thought, ‘There’s something wrong with this,'” says Stuart, who went on to become the chief judge of the Territorial Court of Yukon. “I bring a whole army of professionals into a community, basically kick the door open of the community hall and say, ‘We’re here to solve your problems.’
“[But] none of us lived in the community. None of us knew any of the problems. And we certainly didn’t know the culture.… We turned all of their problems into legal problems and tried to solve their problems with legal solutions.”
At the time, the film notes, First Nations youth in Canada were being incarcerated at eight times the rate of non-First Nations people.
“All I had was … three tools,” Stuart says. “I could put them in jail, I could fine them and I could put them on probation.”
Stuart explains how, at first, he felt like he was contributing to a pipeline where youth were pushed from foster care to prison. “There’s many suicides that are happening in the North because these are kids that we’ve just banged on: ‘You’re a bad person. You did a bad thing. You know, we have to do a bad thing to you now.'”
“Once you start peeling it back to look at what you’re doing,” he says, “you begin to see this is a very expensive failure.”
Reforming Yukon justice
After his time in prison, Gatensby was invited to a sweat lodge ceremony with prison inmates. He eventually became a regular helper at the ceremonies.
“I suppose I had the highest of intentions and hopes for some miraculous thing to happen to those people we were working with,” Gatensby says in the documentary.
But he was discouraged to see that often those individuals would return to prison weeks after they were released. “I thought, ‘Jeepers, we have failed,'” he says. “We haven’t been able to do what we came in here to do.'”
In the film, Gatensby recounts how he was approached by Stuart in the town of Carcross. “He said, ‘Harold … it’s not working, this court system in the community … I’m sending the same people to jail all the time.’ He said, ‘Do you think we could try something different?'”
“I looked at how my ancestors used to live. They were matriarchs. The women were the lawmakers. The women were the senators. And they said that when people step out of balance, the community’s got to try and help them get back in balance again.”
That’s how the community would heal, Gatensby explains. “They sat in a circle. They talked with each other, day and night if they had to. They sat down and they took care of each other like that.”
With Gatensby and Stuart working together, they tried a new approach: a group of young offenders would sit down with elders and talk. “Something came alive there,” says Gatensby. “You could feel the respect and the love.”
“For the next two hours, in that circle, it was a conversation about love,” Stuart recalls.
“That’s what needed to be talked about, right? There was a disconnection between the youth and the elders. Total disconnection. And they both needed to have that connection.”
Both sides learned from the experience, and the community became healthier as a result.
Of the four young individuals in that first circle, three never got in trouble with the law again. One even became the grand chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations, says Stuart.
“We started to build a relationship, a community spirit,” says Gatensby. “And so, man, it took off like a snowball rolling down the mountain. People got interested all over the place. You know, we started going outside the Yukon.”
A new approach to breaking the cycle
Stuart later spoke about peacemaking circles at a restorative justice conference. For others looking to break the cycle of incarceration in their communities, it was a lightbulb moment.
“We’re like, ‘Oh my god, we have to learn about these things,'” says Molly Baldwin, the founder and CEO of Roca, a Massachusetts-based organization trying to disrupt incarceration, poverty and racism. Since incorporating peacemaking circles into its programs in 2000, Roca has seen great success.
A Once and Future Peace follows one young offender’s journey through the Roca program, guided by a former gang leader.
By reviving an effective Indigenous practice and focusing on healing an entire community or family, peacemaking circles are now an integral part of restorative justice programs across North America.