Culture is Integral to Justice


Culture is Integral to Justice

Many contemporary conversations about restorative justice emphasize its origins within Indigenous traditions. These traditions demonstrate the benefits to victims and perpetrators alike when they are granted access to culturally appropriate and safe models of justice. But this isn’t only true for Indigenous peoples — the benefit of more relational ways to find a resolution is resounding across cultures. As a white immigrant and settler, rather than speaking outside of proper protocol guidelines about a cultural experience I do not hold, I’d like to emphasize this key role of culture in justice from a different angle.

Considering how culture should and can never be separated from justice is especially important for my fellow progressive white leaders. If we’re honest enough, I would wager that the first impulse for many white minds upon reading “culturally safe” is to file this discussion under a side tab — as an “alternative” post, an attempt that will focus on “diversity” rather than the law.

Already, we have before us an opportunity for unlearning. Savala Nolan, Executive Director for the Center of Social Justice at the UC Berkeley School of Law, explains: “When I ask white students how they know they’re white, the answer is almost always the same: silence… White people often don’t understand that they are as “raced” as any person of colour” (June 2020).

The idea then that our legal system keeps culture out to stay universally accessible is harmfully oblivious. Rather than considering culture as something that is rightfully kept outside of the courtroom, we could instead consider: What is the meaning of this process for the client? Is justice really served when the participants are not directly active agents in the resolution process? And if there haven’t been opportunities for healing?

Restorative justice processes challenge settlers to recognize what we lose when we argue for process efficiency, knowing full-well that our systems are back-logged and inaccessible to most. They challenge us to reconsider the supposed fairness in homogeneous processes when in reality the law’s application varies greatly across various locales in this country. Our fundamental rights are supposed to be substantive after all, based not in treatment but in outcomes.

When we slow down and truly reflect on what is most important in life we recognize that anything that is worth doing is infused with deep connections and shared meaning. This here too echoes a core teaching in many Indigenous cultures which honour right relations.

Alternative dispute resolution processes provide an incredible opportunity to infuse culture into the project of finding justice. All restorative justice and mediation processes begin by asking participants to first set guidelines together which support how they will speak with each other. These are upheld and brought back into the conversation by the facilitator throughout the process. In this way a shared reliance — or, a cultural commitment — to horizontality and full consent are kept at the core. And there is so much more that can be done.

By working to advance access and examine the culture that underscores the way mediation is offered through its Calls to Action and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committees, Mediate BC is humbly learning to center meaningful client experiences in the pursuit of justice. This may just lead to changing the way we’re used to doing things.

Fellow settlers — I ask you to reflect with me on the role of culture in your life, and in the work you contribute to in the name of social progress and justice. How do you welcome and involve those who you collaborate with in finding the justice they are looking for? How would you like to be welcomed if you were in their place?

“Black and Brown People Have Been Protesting for Centuries. It’s White People Who Are Responsible for What Happens Next.” — Time Savala Nolan (June 1, 2020).