Mark Yantzi was a young probation officer in Elmira, Ontario in 1974 when he took on a case that would put restorative justice on the map in Canada. He found himself responsible for two young offenders who had gone on a vandalism spree in town, causing grief and financial repercussions for the affected property owners. When it came time for Mark to put forth a plan for the two individuals, he came up with the idea of having them speak with their victims to apologize and take responsibility for their actions. A simple, but novel idea.
“I thought, wouldn’t it be neat if these two guys could meet their victims? I figured it could be therapeutic for the offenders to see what their actions had caused and for the victims to see that the offenders were sorry for it. The judge gave me the go-ahead, so that’s what we did.”
Mark and his colleague Dave Worth, a prison support worker, accompanied the two offenders up and down the streets of Elmira as they apologized to their victims and listened to them explain the financial damage they had caused. In one case a man told them that he got a dog so that he could feel safe in his home again; and another detailed the lengthy and frustrating insurance battle he was experiencing as a result of the vandalism. Most of the people were grateful for the gesture, says Mark.
“They were very appreciative and responsive to the offenders. I think they were taken aback that the offenders were there to apologize and listen to them. So, that’s really how it started. We just continued from there.”
The Elmira Case was the first recognized case of restorative justice in Canada. Though the concept was centuries old at this point and a key pillar of many cultures who focus on community healing after crime, this was the first time it was used in the correctional system. Though it’s clear that Mark’s plan for those offenders was an important event in the history of restorative justice in the criminal justice system, to him it wasn’t that big of a deal. He was just doing his job.
“In hindsight, we were just trying things and into experimenting,” he explains. “The outcome has been significant, but it certainly didn’t feel like a big deal at the time. My idea was to have every probation officer do this with their clients, but my boss said ‘No, you do it.' So I started getting volunteers and it grew from there. It became a regular practice for us with offenders in the community.”
Over the last 13 years, Mark has worked as a CSC Restorative Opportunities Mediator. He has helped hundreds of victims and offenders through their own processes, acting as the go-between and making sure both parties get what they need and want out of the experience. How does he do that? Well, to him it’s simple: listen and don’t judge.
“If you want to work in this field, you need to be able to see both sides of an issue,” he explains. “You need to listen to what the person is saying and understand, from their perspective, why they feel the way they do or why they may have done what they did. I’m not there to judge or interrogate, I’m there to hear them out.”
There are pre-conceived notions about restorative justice, all of which Mark has encountered during his time in the field. Whether it be that it’s just a way to let offenders off the hook or that it’s only about forgiveness, Mark says they simply aren’t true. Restorative justice processes are deeply personal, he explains, and are different for each person who participates.
“It’s not about forgiveness. That sometimes happens, but I will never raise it. The goal is to have the victim express what they need to say, and for the offender to take responsibility. This is huge because victims often blame themselves for what has happened to them or their loved ones. Once they hear that it wasn’t their fault, a major shift happens and they are changed. It’s like a weight is lifted off of them.”
Over the years Mark has worked countless cases, but there are those who stand out to him. There was the father of three who murdered his wife yet desperately wanted to remain in his children’s lives, sending them countless unreturned letters. There was Susan McDonald, whose grandmother was sexually assaulted and left for dead. There was the woman who had been sexually abused by her sister’s boyfriend. He remembers all of them, each one having taught him something along the way. Though, as he reflects back, they all tend to have one thing in common.
“In most cases, the offenders have been victims themselves and usually as children. Significant harm was done to them during their formative years that led them to being offenders themselves. In all my years doing this work, there have been very few offenders that I’ve met who have scared me. Most of them are damaged people who are stuck in a cycle of violence.
“I think that in many cases, restorative justice can be a way to break that cycle by allowing them to talk about what happened to them and why it caused them to harm someone else. It’s not about making excuses, it’s about an offender and a victim communicating and building an understanding of what the other has experienced.”
Mark is a highly respected and world renowned expert in this field, but the time has come for him to take a step back. He is gradually heading into retirement, seeking a slower pace with fewer road trips from institution to institution. This is difficult for many to accept, including Stacey Alderwick who mentored under him, but it’s something he is ready for. Still, he says, don’t count him out completely just yet.
“I’m still healthy and want to be involved,” he says. “I’m still open to working with CSC in some way. We will see from here I guess.”
We here at Let’s Talk Express would like to thank Mark for speaking with us about his career. We wish him all the very best in his “retirement”!