The changing face of the law

By Carolyn Girard

Despite his East Coast roots and 20 years of RCMP experience in Canada’s North, Ottawa police chief-designate, Vern White, says the capital feels like home.

The city has its differences from Cape Breton Island, where he was born and raised in New Waterford, a blue-collar coal-mining town. But people in Ottawa are probably just as friendly, he says, and his family developed deep connections in the city since he worked here between 2003 and 2005. The whole family is eager to settle in the Ottawa area as he takes on his new post in May.

“I love the city,” he says. “My wife and I were walking by the canal for Winterlude and that’s where we said you could almost feel the heartbeat of the city.”

White will become a part of that heartbeat as the new chief in May – a title he currently holds with the Durham Regional Police Service just east of Toronto.

For 24 years, White worked as an officer with the RCMP, but retired after his position as the Assistant Commissioner of Information and Identification in Ottawa between 2003 and 2005. White says he had too much energy to sit behind a desk.

“I was bored so I retired to go to Durham,” he says. “I looked around and I was offered a number of jobs. Probably many people were shocked that I would retire at such a young service and such a high rank, but for me it was just about ‘if I don’t love what I’m doing I can’t do it.’”

White developed a passion for helping people since he lived at home and watched his parents act as unofficial social workers for friends and neighbours.

“If there was a neighbour who was having problems or troubles, and it wasn’t uncommon, my folks would be there to help them,” he says. “Not financially, that was impossible, but physically being there for them.”

White’s community was plagued by alcoholism, domestic violence and people going through the criminal court system. His parents never tried to judge the victims and their abusers, but were there to help them through hard times.

“I think I’ve been exposed to a lot of heartache growing up in a coal mining town where there were lots of problems, but at the same time there were strong families.”

White says he has lost three good friends to suicide and saw a number of people over the years spend time in prison.

With the lifetime of exposure to social struggles that result in crime, White says he knows the justice system has its flaws, including an inability to tackle the root causes of crime.

He hopes to introduce a more focused restorative justice program in Ottawa, similar to one he installed in the Regional Municipality of Durham last January.

The program was based on the principle that criminals are less likely to re-offend if they are made accountable for their actions and can accept personal responsibility for their re-integration in society. It’s an approach White says he has seen work in practice.

“The analogy of it is when I was a kid and I got in trouble my dad would punish me I would be mad at him. If my mom sat me down and made me be accountable and talked to me about values and respect and ownership of my actions then I would end up mad at me,” he says. “Restorative justice most often gives the offender an opportunity to be mad at themselves and their behaviour.”

White wrote about restorative justice in his masters thesis at the Royal Roads University in British Columbia. Restorative justice was integrated into the 1985 Young Offenders Act. He later saw the concept applied in many northern First Nations and Inuit communities as part of an aboriginal justice system called circle sentencing.

White says it was while working in the small Inuit community of Nain, Labrador in the 1980s that he realized the challenges facing young re-offenders.

“When you start to get involved in it, you find that there’s so many opportunities to do something other than locking people up, and we’re missing these opportunities.”

The restorative justice program White spearheaded in the Durham region has already managed half a dozen cases.

“I’ve been doing this program for 22 years and I haven’t seen one of these programs fail,” he says, adding that he considers the approach to be a tougher way of tackling crime.

“Client satisfaction among victims and offenders and community is much higher [with restorative justice] and . . . the recidivism rate of young offenders is much lower. So they tend not to re-offend as much as they would in mainstream justice,” White says.

“I also think that’s why we see less re-offending from people involved in restorative justice because maybe for the first time they’ve been held accountable for their actions.”

It’s the communities that need to hold offenders accountable. In a community like Centretown for example, where drug use is high on the list of crimes, White says it isn’t realistic to seek a one-size-fits-all solution from police. He hopes to hold town hall meetings and invite community members.

“We should have so many partners around the table when we do these things that the argument isn’t who owns it but the argument is how many of us own it.”

White says he hopes that discussions with the communities of Ottawa should include education, health, community groups, community action groups, parks and recreation, municipal councilors and municipal, provincial and federal agencies.

“We talk about how it takes a village to raise a child and I’m not sure our villages are ready to raise children anymore,” he says.

White has had his passion for policing ever since he accompanied a Cape Breton police officer on a ride-along as a youth. He says he never imagined himself as a law enforcer before then, but now he loves it so much that if he were rich, he’d do it for free.

It’s this passion and experience that White will offer to Ottawa – a city he says is made up of many small communities, like Little Italy and the Glebe. The residents should take ownership of their communities and help bring solutions to the forefront.

White says the city of Ottawa itself is reason enough for his decision to leave the Durham region despite his short stint there of barely two years.

The move was based first and foremost on serving his family who feel comfortable and at home in Ottawa.

His daughters, who are now 17 and 19 years old, were in their early teens when they first lived in Ottawa. Having spent their “formative teenage years” here probably helped to establish the connection, White says.

“They moved across the Arctic with us, every couple of years, so there’s no place that they can consider their life home but I think both of them would suggest that Ottawa has been as close to a home as they have.”

Both his daughters and his wife made strong connections while in the city, which they kept up even after moving to Durham, he says. This would have been impossible with every other city they lived in, since they are much farther away.

Every few weeks, he would drive his family the four hours from their Whitby home to attend a non-denominational church service at Sequoia Church in Barrhaven.

His wife also worked with an Inuit-based organization in Ottawa, and has since had many northern connections living right in the nation’s capital.

While in Ottawa, White hopes to apply his experience in the classroom by teaching a night course or two at either Carleton University or the University of Ottawa. He currently teaches regularly at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa.

As he was retiring from the RCMP, a university in Australia had offered him a position as a professor. White wouldn’t consider teaching full-time for the time being, however. The move to Ottawa is too exciting.

“I can’t wait to get at it actually.” he says.