Regional Ethnocultural Advisory Committees (REACs) are an essential part of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC)’s efforts to help ethnocultural offenders reintegrate successfully into the community.
The volunteer members of REACs across Canada, like the Rev. Daniel Cho of the Ontario REAC, provide advice to CSC about programs, services and interventions designed to meet the needs of ethnocultural offenders and help CSC staff, volunteers and the community learn about their unique needs and cultural interests.
Daniel Cho is Senior Minister at St. Mark's Presbyterian Church in Toronto, Ontario, and currently the Moderator of the 144th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. He has been involved in multiethnic ministries for most of his career. Daniel says he has always been interested in what he calls the “social ministry,” meaning the ways in which the church is connected with wider public concerns and interests.
“As religious people, there’s a degree of responsibility that we have and involvement that we should have for the sake of equity and justice, particularly for those who are at the margins of society,” he says. “I believe it’s the church’s responsibility to provide protection and a voice for those who don’t have a voice.”
Daniel first learned about ethnocultural committees through a newspaper ad for a local committee in Toronto in the early 2000s. The volunteer coordinator there then put him in touch with the Ontario Region Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) and with the Community Assessment Team at Keele Community Correctional Centre in Toronto. It was as a member of these committees that Daniel started to learn more about CSC.
“I made wonderful connections and met a lot of key people in CSC and CACs, people who were involved in the advisory work for years and were well plugged in and very well versed in all of the policies and procedures of the correctional service,” Daniel says.
“Everybody I met, I was just so tremendously impressed by their competence and their professionalism. It inspired a lot of confidence in me in the system that we have,” he adds. “Of course it’s not perfect, but I was very impressed with the kinds of institutional values that CSC tries to abide by. One of those core values is community involvement and I think that’s something that’s rare in the correctional world.”
Daniel says the Ontario REAC works as a team to decide where their focus will lie.
“One of the things we’ve been focusing on this past year is doing some visitations in the institutions and getting at the grassroots level of what the ethnocultural needs are.”
Daniel recently visited Beaver Creek and Fenbrook institutions, where staff had identified inmates to meet with him about ethnocultural concerns. Following the meeting, he said of these inmates: “they knew the issues very, very well. I was quite impressed with their knowledge and how they cared for the overall population. They spoke very well to their needs and they spoke very well to their criticisms.”
Daniel also had a chance to debrief with the staff after the meeting and feels that the visit was a useful one.
“Some of the things the staff were familiar with and others they weren’t. For some of the issues they were able to make changes right away.”
Overall, he says, “I think it was a tremendously helpful experience for me to understand the scope of how things are and for the inmates to really communicate these issues. I would like to say it was beneficial for the staff as well.”
Daniel thinks that it’s important that groups from the community like REAC are able to help ethnocultural offenders.
“It’s so easy for us as a society to just dismiss and deny those who are incarcerated, not really appreciating that the vast majority of them will come out one day,” he says. “It would be in our best interest to have them develop into as healthy individuals and citizens as possible.”
Daniel also thinks about this role in broader terms.
“For me, it has to do with who we want to be as a society and what is the responsible, just and humane thing to do. It’s just about advocating for our common humanity and what our vision of society and for ourselves as a country should be.”
As for REAC?
“This little group, we’re made up of people of different shades, we have several religious backgrounds, and yet we all understand the importance of seeing our humanity – seeing each other as human beings first and foremost,” he explains. “We can respect that in each other, and I think we work very well and in a very healthy way.
“I’d like to think that’s a testament, a microcosm of what society in general can become when we can be respectful of the things that make us distinct and accept one another with the things that join us together.”