By Nina Badwal
– October 2021 –
Calling a community mediator instead of the police for a neighbourhood noise complaint or an issue with your roommate or landlord is the idea behind a Toronto multi-service agency’s Community Mediation program.
The Neighbourhood Group (TNG) which merged with St. Stephen’s Community House, is a non-profit organization that offers a free and voluntary service that helps people with conflicts involving neighbours, inter-family disputes, by-law issues and more.
“Community mediation is a community-based response to people who have conflicts in their private lives. And it’s in part predicated on the idea that we can empower people to take back control of those kinds of situations rather than abdicating that control to other authorities to make a ruling, with the goal of creating a win-win situation rather than ruling one person is right and one person is wrong,” said Catherine Feldman Axford, Coordinator of Community Mediation/Conflict Resolution & Training at TNG.
The program involves neighbours helping neighbours and recruits volunteers from diverse backgrounds including BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and LGBTQ+ communities to act as mediators. The volunteers attend workshops in conflict resolution at TNG before being assigned any cases.
Axford said mediators don’t make any of the decisions but rather help the parties hear each other in a different way so the parties can repair their relationships and come up with solutions that work for each of them. The program aims to de-escalate conflicts and teach people skills to engage in productive conversations.
“It’s not that we’re trying to stop people from having conflict. It’s that we’re trying to help people have productive conflict as opposed to a conflict that blows up,” she said.
Peter Bruer is the Senior Manager of Conflict Resolution & Training at TNG. He said, “It’s very much connected to that whole tradition of restorative justice. Community mediation is like that. Let’s restore the harm that was done and let’s figure out why it happened in the first place. And how do we make sure it doesn’t happen again — not by punishing.”
The service also provides confidentiality. Bruer said people’s names don’t get put on the record. “It’s not like the courts where the name gets published if it’s a public thing. And the people involved agree. The general practice with mediation, the sort of accepted communal understanding is – it’s private. It’s like you’re talking to your doctor or a priest.”
The Community Mediation program is partly paid for by a grant from the City of Toronto. The Neighbourhood Group has official partnerships with crown offices and courts in Toronto as well as with bylaw enforcement which all refer some of their cases to TNG for its alternative dispute resolution approach.
“There’s a lot of problem solving that the law can’t really do anything about,” Bruer said. “It’s not a rules-based thing. This is an interest-based process. It accepts that the rules-based process exists but says that’s not enough…Then we do an interest-based process and that’s why it’s revolutionary in a way.”
“Community mediation addresses issues that have gone beyond civil but are not yet criminal,” Axford said.
Both Axford and Bruer say that from talking to the police, crown attorneys and lawyers over the years – many cases that make their way to the courts don’t belong there. And some police officers have admitted that they are expected to be social workers in certain situations.
Although The Neighbourhood Group already works with the Toronto Police Service, it would like to formalize the relationship so that police referrals would become part of the organization’s policy and procedure.
Bruer said one of TNG’s goals has always been to resolve conflicts through community mediation before getting the police involved. “Society has invested a lot of resources in policing and rights-based and rules-based stuff like jails and courts and probation, all the way down to bylaw infractions and fines for parking and so on. That’s been done for a lot of good reasons, but…we can’t just do that and maybe we’ve overdone that. We also need to invest in alternative dispute resolution processes like community mediation and restorative justice.”
Axford added, “For [the police] it would leave them more time and energy to be putting into the more serious kinds of crimes that are going on – things like gangs and guns, and drugs and more serious violence because we would free them up from having to keep getting called for some of the more petty kinds of things.”
She pointed to a 2021 report called Rethinking Community Safety – A Step Forward for Toronto, sponsored in partnership by several agencies including The Neighbourhood Group. It states that racialized people, especially Black and Indigenous people, are over-policed and says the role of the police should be redefined. The report also recommends that funds be diverted from the Toronto police and reallocated to “civilian interventions.”
Bruer said, “[The report] doesn’t say, we don’t need the police. It says we need to be thinking again about what we expect of the police and what we need to do that the police really shouldn’t be asked to do. It’s asking too much of them or it’s giving them too much power and yes both of those things happen.”
Along with the Toronto Police Service, Axford and Bruer hope that TNG could also develop a formal contract with Toronto Community Housing which they say would relieve the corporation from answering so many tenant to tenant conflicts; and the police wouldn’t have to be called in for what officers’ regard as nuisance calls.
For access to community mediation services, contact:
The Neighbourhood Group
North York / Rexdale
(416) 925-2103 ext. 1228
The Neighbourhood Group
Downtown / South Etobicoke
(416) 925-2103 ext. 1229
Warden Woods Community Centre
(416) 694-1138 ext. 127