In early April, a mother was walking her toddler to her daycare in Victoria’s Jewish community centre when she spotted fresh graffiti scrawled on the building’s sign. As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who fled a Nazi concentration camp in Poland, the antisemitic messages “kill Jews” and “gas Jews” struck her hard.
On Thursday, the perpetrator delivered a written apology to the families with children at the daycare, formally completing an intensive, months-long restorative justice process.
That process, which was carried out under the Young Offenders Act, gave the victims of this hate crime – one that was felt by the Jewish community across the country – the opportunity to determine what reparations should look like.
It also gave a vulnerable teenager a chance to change, for the better.
The Chabad Centre for Jewish Life and Learning stands next to Topaz Park, a large, urban recreational park where the children from the daycare can explore and play. At night, the park attracts a different crowd.
On the night of April 5, a group of teenagers was hanging around in the park. “We were just joking around, and the jokes escalated,” recalled the youth who admitted to committing the crime. The 15-year-old agreed to speak to The Globe and Mail as part of her commitment to atone for her act. Under the Young Offenders Act, she cannot be identified.
“One of us had the idea to go write on the wall, and I did it,” she said in a recent interview. She pulled out a purple eye shadow from her bag, and used her finger to paint the messages.
Robert Rames, whose wife, Courtney Peck, was the first to see the graffiti the next morning, struggles with the idea that this could be passed off as humour. “When we read something like ‘kill Jews,’ it’s clearly a Nazi reference, and it’s terrifying. We felt like our daughter was in harm’s way.” He called the head of the Chabad Centre, Rabbi Meir Kaplan, to find out if he was okay.
“We were all shocked, upset and some were scared,” Rabbi Kaplan said. He describes it as the worst instance of antisemitism he has experienced in Victoria, and there were discussions in the days that followed about increasing security at the centre, which hosts educational, religious and social services for Vancouver Island’s Jewish community.
Victoria police put their hate crimes investigator on the case, and the incident made international news.
The youth was stunned that her impulsive act had created a firestorm.
“I was freaking out, and for a couple days, I didn’t know what to do.” A friend counselled her to turn herself in, and she agreed: She wanted to explain herself, and try to fix her mistake. “I don’t want people thinking that I’m some neo-Nazi, because I’m not actually a racist person – I’ve always stood up for equality, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ+, all that.”
She had to bring her mother to speak to the police. Her mother was devastated, unable to understand how her daughter could do such a terrible thing.
Rabbi Kaplan, too, was surprised at the profile of the offender. There was relief that it wasn’t a targeted act by people motivated by hate, but the idea that this was just a flippant joke was also disturbing. “How is it possible that a girl growing up in Victoria would have such hateful ideas about Jewish people?”
The case could have ended up in the criminal justice system, but the youth agreed to participate in an alternative justice process, one that would demand a profound degree of accountability from the young teen, but also provided her with counselling and support that would allow her to come out stronger.
Gillian Lindquist, executive director of Restorative Justice Victoria, met with the youth at the request of the police. Not all cases can be resolved through this alternative system, and both the victims and the perpetrators have to be ready to engage in an intensive dialogue. What she saw in this youth was promising.
“She was quiet. She was remorseful. I got the sense she was being truthful with me. And that there was a lot of stuff that’s been mounting in this person’s life – it was really apparent that she needed support, and she knew it as well.”
The restorative justice process is designed to give the victims a voice in how reparations are made, Ms. Lindquist said, and the offender must take responsibility for their actions. But she believes it should put the offender on a better path, especially young people.
“A punitive model can shut down a youth. Our job is to do the opposite. Our job is to is to wake them up.”
The heart of the restorative justice process is a dialogue between victims and offender. It took three months to set the stage for that single, pivotal meeting. The youth needed to figure out what had motivated her action, and she needed to understand the harm, before she could speak to the victims of her crime.
The meeting was held in late July between the young offender and three representatives of Victoria’s Jewish community. Jewish law sets down clear direction for how people should address wrongs they have committed, and those rules provided a framework. “She acknowledged what she did, she realized the damage it caused and she also took responsibility for the action,” Rabbi Kaplan said. “And I think that now, she’s trying to repair the damage. I‘m hopeful that for her, this was a learning experience that eventually will lead to a life of more understanding, and respect, and tolerance.”
He also learned something in the process – about the need to build bridges to Victoria youth, so they recognize the Jewish community as their neighbours. “It was a bit of a wake-up call for us, that this kind of sentiment was in the community. There is work to be done.”
Nico Slobinsky, a director of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs in Vancouver, noted that such hate crimes are far from unusual. “The Jewish community in Canada is the most targeted religious group for police-reported hate crimes,” he said, with an average of five a week. This incident resonated deeply with the Jewish community in Canada: “The fact that racist slurs would be painted on a Jewish community institution is of great concern.”
But he said the youth, by participating in the restorative justice process, deserves recognition for her efforts to make amends.
“We as a community applaud this young woman for coming forward, for recognizing the effect this had on the community,” he said. It was a very difficult situation, but she made a genuine effort to make meaningful amends, Mr. Slobinsky added. “It’s something that we welcome.”
Those who have worked with this youth over the past five months see a transformation – a more articulate, aware and informed young woman who seems ready to take on her commitment to become a genuine advocate for diversity and tolerance.
As for the youth, she said the restorative justice process helped her overcome a lot of her insecurities. She said she is confident she can now recognize and call out hate: “I feel better now. It’s like a big weight lifted off my shoulders.”
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