________________ CM . . . . Volume V Number 20 . . . . June 4, 1999

cover Circles: It's about Justice. It's about Healing.

Shanti Thakur (Director). Mark Zannis (Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 1997.
57 min., 25 sec., VHS, $39.95.
Order Number: C9197 120.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.

***1/2 /4

Circles examines the use of sentencing circles - an alternative approach to justice - as undertaken in aboriginal communities of the Yukon Territory. In traditional court procedures, the accused is brought before a judge, possibly a jury, and legal counsel seeks to establish guilt or innocence and the appropriate remedy. More recently, the victim or the victim's family has been allowed to offer "victim impact statements", describing the ways in which the crime has affected the individual and his or her relatives. Traditional courts maintain distance and hierarchy. In a sentencing circle, the offender, his or her victims, the victim's family, peers, elders and other community members sit down together in a circle and work together to understand what has led to the crime and to negotiate appropriate redress. Rather than being purely punitive, the circle promotes healing. Instead of removing the offender from the community and isolating him or her, the circle affirms the essential goodness of the offender, attempting to restore and re-build the offender, the victim, and the community to which they all belong.

      The film describes the heritage of the Canadian judicial system within northern aboriginal communities and offers some reasons as to why it has been largely ineffective. Interviews with offenders, members of sentencing circles, and the judiciary provide a variety of perspectives and insights into the circle process. Judge Barry Stuart of the Yukon Territorial Court stresses that sentencing circles are not an "easy out", a sentiment echoed by offenders who have undergone both types of judicial process. And, although redress and healing are the expected outcomes, the process can be painful for both offender and victim (or the victim's family). As well, the offender frequently has to undergo some type of theraupeutic work - counseling, community service, or substance addiction treatment. The goal is restoring the offender to the community, for the "harm of one is the harm of all. The harmony and joy of one is the harmony and joy of all." At times, Circles is difficult to watch for the sense of loss experienced by some members of these communities is profound. However, it makes a powerful statement and has application in secondary classes on Canadian History, Aboriginal Studies, and Canadian Law.


Joanne Peters is the teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.

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