Canadian scholars
Engaging ideas, transforming minds
Engaging ideas, transforming minds

by Judah Oudshoorn

Trauma-informed juvenile justice is not simply a technique.

I don’t want it to only be another tool in a practitioner’s tool belt. Certainly, trauma-informed means learning to build better relationships with the people we are serving. It helps us all walk alongside people when they are struggling or causing harm. Or helps others walk alongside us when we are struggling or causing harm. Another way of saying this is that . . . Trauma-informed youth justice is not only for “clients”, “offenders”, “victims”, or the people some of us serve.

Trauma-informed juvenile justice is more than cultural competency.

We have to understand and value differences. We have to respect the worth of different worldviews, but we also have to recognize that trauma-informed youth justice is not only about understanding the “other”, but also about how social relationships are structured.

So, when we have an overrepresentation of Indigenous youth in Canadian and American criminal justice systems, it comes from somewhere. Colonial violence is not a thing of the past. We need to appropriately implement trauma-informed approaches so that we end this violence.

What is trauma-informed:

1. Trauma-informed youth justice is about doing no further harm.

Trauma-informed youth justice is for professionals, for criminal justice systems, to examine practices, policies, and laws to make sure they are doing no further harm.

2. Trauma-informed youth justice is about political competency.

I don’t mean partisan politics. I mean that trauma-informed youth justice is about reordering social relationships to create an equitable and just society.

For example, common traumas that young offenders have experienced include sexual violence and family violence. Who is perpetrating these? Mostly men. Male violence is a significant problem.

• How do we not further harm?: We check to make sure our approaches are not reinforcing toxic versions of masculinity. (I worry that prison systems do this). We make sure our approaches model the kindness, respect, and accountability we expect from boys and men.

• How do we become politically competent? We understand that trauma and violence are gendered phenomena. Thus, we engage boys and men to end male violence. Educating our young boys about consent. Teaching our young men about healthy relationships. Instructing and demanding equality from our men. Making sure our social institutions are propagating equality.

Similarly, the most common trauma young offenders have experienced if they are Indigenous is the violence of colonialism that Canada and the United States continue to perpetrate.

• How do we not further harm?:

We honour original treaty commitments with Indigenous peoples. The two row wampum belt and many similar covenants made by the Dutch, the British, and the French, all settlers, with Indigenous peoples. Settler Canadians and Americans have not lived up to their ends of the agreement.

We promised that – like two ships passing side by side, bounded by friendship, good minds, and peace:

  1. We would maintain our own authority and not interfere in each other’s jurisdictions.
  2. We would maintain our own respective beliefs and laws. And that we would do this for as long as the sun makes it bright on earth, as long as the grasses grow, and the water flows.

However, instead we colonized Indigenous peoples, trying to “kill the Indian in the child” through residential schools, through genocide – physical and cultural, – through moving Indigenous peoples forcefully onto reserves and reservations, using laws (i.e., the Indian Act in Canada) to subordinate Indigenous peoples, and now using criminal justice to maintain the current state of unequal relations.

• How do we become politically competent?:

We live up to our promises. We get our criminal justice feet out of the Indigenous peoples’ boats and return justice processes to Indigenous peoples.

Trauma-informed youth justice means we measure our practices and policies against the question: are we allowing for or promoting Indigenous self-determination through our actions? Political competency is supporting the reordering of social relationships.

Sociologist Michelle Brown in her book, The Culture of Punishment: prison, society, and spectacle, says the work of punishment demands critical reflection. She says we must continually interrogate it. Brown challenges her readers to look at the human face of those incarcerated. She says: “. . . the human face, the human gesture, in pain calls out and demands a response from social actors in the midst of life’s most fragile and precarious conditions”. It is her hope that we do this in order to “. . . make our relationship to punishment more explicit, more reflective, and more critically engaged”.

Mohawk legal scholar Patricia Monture writes that “Every oppression that Aboriginal people have survived has been delivered to us through Canadian law, of which prisons and the criminal justice system play a particularly racist and oppressive role”.

When asked what settler peoples can do in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (a commission that investigated the harms of “Indian” Residential Schools in Canada), former Commissioner Murray Sinclair said, “read the Calls to Action, select one and see what you can do to make it work”.

CALL TO ACTION #38 “We call upon the federal, provincial, territorial, and Aboriginal governments to commit to eliminating the overrepresentation of Aboriginal youth in custody over the next decade”.