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50 years later: Reckless rampage in Elmira, Ont., leads to restorative justice movement

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of a drunken vandalism spree in Elmira, Ont. that changed the Canadian justice system forever.

Russell Kelly, who is now 67-years-old, sat down with CTV News Kitchener at his home on Tuesday to reflect on the transformative night in 1974.

He read a passage from his book titled “Scoundrel to Scholar,” recalling a visit with a friend.

“Of course, the real reason for the visit was to drink ourselves into a stupor,” Kelly said, reading a line from the novel.

At the time, he was 18 years old and turned to drugs and alcohol after losing both of his parents.

“If you don’t deal with that grief, it’s like burying a bomb,” he said.

That bomb eventually went off.

The two teenagers went on a reckless rampage though Elmira.

“Slashed 22 car tires, smashed front windows of homes, damaged a gazebo, smashed windows of cars,” said Kelly.

The teens were arrested, but instead of going to jail, a forward-thinking parole officer suggested a different punishment. He thought it would be beneficial to have the offenders meet their victims, apologize, and compensate them for any losses. The judge accepted that recommendation, so that’s exactly what the pair did.

“We accepted responsibility for what we had done. And now we’re holding ourselves accountable and we want to repair the harm,” said Kelly.

Now known as The Elmira Case, it became the first example of restorative justice used in the Canadian legal system. It focuses on repairing the harm done by the crime, rather than punishing the offender, which is now used in various forms around the world.

“In the event that it’s a first-time offense, which often it is, then it saves a person from having a criminal record going forward,” said Chris Cowie, executive director of Community Justice Initiatives (CJI).

That’s if all sides are satisfied with the process and outcome. There is a chance a judge may not be pleased with the response from the parties involved, and an offender could still face more serious consequences.

While Indigenous cultures have long used similar conflict resolution practices, The Elmira Case broke ground.

“What was unique about this was that it was actually court sanctioned,” Cowie said.

Although there have been positive outcomes from restorative justice, which Community Justice Initiatives has seen first-hand with their community involvement, the organization says there is more work to be done.

“There’s an inordinate number of people who are of colour and Indigenous who end up in our justice system,” said Cowie. “And over the first many years of CJI doing this kind of work, realized that most referrals that come our way look very much like what Russ and his friend did, namely two young white guys.”

They have been focused on adapting their program to be better at bringing offenders and victims together from all communities.

"CJI believes that the work of grassroots, BIPOC-led organizations need to be encouraged and empowered to meet the needs of their respective communities," Cowie said.

Kelly is advocating for the same thing. He wants to see people given the same chance he was.

“There can be healing on both sides.” 

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