Sharp Edges

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at rewrite@shaw.ca

This is a tale of two men — one of them attempting to be an axe murderer, the other attempting not to be his victim.

I can give the name of the intended victim; Doug Martindale, a United Church minister who spent 21 years as a member of the Manitoba Legislature. I can’t name the perpetrator, because I don’t have his permission. Besides, he’s dead.

I should also acknowledge that Doug Martindale is a friend of mine.

The way the story goes, Doug agreed to paint the cottage of an elderly acquaintance, who owned a 10-acre woodlot. Doug would get some wood; the older man would get his cottage painted.

But, when Doug went up for a weekend’s work, no one told him that another man would also be there — a second-generation nephew. For simplicity, I’ll just call him “the nephew.”

The nephew was drunk. He’d been in constant trouble since he was 14, between alcohol and cocaine. He got drunker as the day went on.

Still, the two worked reasonably well together, painting the eaves. Until they got to a bird’s nest with eggs in it. The cottage’s owner would want to preserve the wildlife, Doug thought. He suggested they move on to another section of the eaves.

The nephew objected. He didn’t like being told what to do. He’d been pushed around enough in his life already.

Doug tried to calm him, but the hostility escalated. Anger turned into threats. The nephew picked up a double-bitted axe and raised it over his head to strike Doug.

Doug admits he was more scared than he had ever been in his life.

The axe swung down. Fortunately, the nephew was too drunk to coordinate his muscles. The blow missed Doug’s head. It hit his leg, but only with the flat side of the axe.

The nephew blacked out from the exertion and later had no recollection of his actions. After he came ‘round, Doug suggested that they talk. They sat at the kitchen table. Doug tried to reason with him. His mother would not be happy with her son’s behaviour, he suggested.

About 20 minutes later, the nephew’s wife arrived to pick him up. She wasn’t happy with him either. She told the nephew’s mother. Who was even less happy.

Over the following weeks, the nephew directed death threats at Doug. As a member of the legislature, Doug was entitled to, and received, expensive security.

If the case went to trial, the nephew would almost certainly receive up to 14 years in prison for attempted murder and uttering death threats.

Doug didn’t see how that would achieve any benefit. He suggested restorative justice. Both parties have to agree.

The first meeting was a disaster. The nephew blustered. He repeated phrases taught him by his lawyer. Doug was prepared to call the restorative justice proceeding off, and let the nephew go to jail.

Doug demanded three conditions for continuing the process: The nephew must apologize. He must attend Alcoholics Anonymous, and take part in its 12-step program. And he must take anger-management training.

The nephew’s mother got involved. She talked some sense into her son. The whole family participated. Everyone got their turn to speak. The mother said later that it was harder to go through mediation than to go to court, because everyone had to hear each other’s pain.

But — and this time it’s a good “but” — the system worked. The nephew met the conditions. He went back to school and completed Grade 12. He completed a three-year trades training program. He found a partner and had a daughter.

And he kept studying. He earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree at the University of Winnipeg, and enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Manitoba. Doug attended his graduation ceremonies, as a guest.

His further career was cut short when he died. At roughly the same time as he would have come out of jail, had he gone through the conventional punishment system.

It costs over $100,000 a year to keep an inmate in maximum security. Restorative justice saved Canadian taxpayers about $1.5 million. That alone would make restorative justice programs worth trying more widely.

Beyond the purely monetary considerations, restorative justice has a much greater likelihood of turning people who commit criminal acts into responsible members of Canadian society.

The biggest block to greater use of restorative justice, it seems to me, is that many people would still rather seek vengeance than healing. Maybe this story will change a mind or two.