Early in 2018, in an Ontario courtroom, Marlee Liss faced the man who had raped her. It was the second time she had ever seen him; the first was the night they met, eighteen months earlier. Now, she was at a preliminary hearing, where a judge would decide whether the case had enough evidence to warrant a trial. For five hours, Liss answered questions from the stand: What text messages and voicemails had she exchanged with her friends that night, and why? Why had she entered the man’s apartment? How had he touched her, exactly, and where? The man’s defence lawyer also read one of her Facebook posts out loud, trying to find inconsistencies in her account.

The accused, his brother, one of Liss’s friends, and members of the prosecution and defence teams listened quietly as she answered. Her mother, Barbie Liss, sat on a bench in the hallway outside. Liss had never shared details of the assault with her, and though she would have been comforted by Barbie’s presence in the courtroom, she wanted to protect her from hearing the testimony. Whenever there was a break, Liss walked out to Barbie and squeezed her hand. The rest of the time, she sat facing the small crowd. The man who had raped her stayed seated; he was not required to take the stand. He kept his head down while she spoke. Throughout, she insisted that the act had been nonconsensual.

To stay focused, Liss used a calming technique she had learned in her yoga practice: deep breaths in, long breaths out. She thought of the strange turns her life had taken over the past few years. Liss grew up with her mother, father, sister, and brother in Thornhill, Ontario; her father moved out when she was fifteen. She valued her ability to empathize with others, and her family knew her as someone full of love—not only the kind expressed through hugs and affection, but also the kind that seeks to make the world a better place. Still, Liss sometimes found it difficult to turn that love inward. After she graduated high school, she decided to study social work at Ryerson University, in Toronto, because she wanted to learn how to help vulnerable people. The more she studied and learned about the field, however, the more her own inability to express pain troubled her. “I wasn’t even able to cry for most of my life,” she says. How could she support others working through difficult emotions when she couldn’t do the same herself?

So, at twenty-one years old, Liss had decided to make a change. In the summer of 2016, before her third year at Ryerson, she travelled to British Columbia on a tree-planting expedition—a notoriously difficult job—with the intention of prompting an emotional breakthrough. She wanted to reconnect with herself, to learn how to cry. That gig suddenly fell through, and later, as she passed near Kootenay Lake, she found a yoga ashram that was centred around the “divine feminine.” They were hiring, and on a whim, Liss decided to take the job.

During her three months at Kootenay Lake, Liss practised yoga and meditation, and she slowly learned to speak about her feelings. She also began to develop a more spiritual outlook on life. Most of the people she lived with there were women, many of whom had experienced trauma or abuse. “It made me realize how much I cared about women’s empowerment and healing,” Liss says. On one of her first days back in Toronto, she watched The Hunting Ground, a documentary about the prevalence of sexual assault on university campuses. Liss felt galvanized; she messaged a friend and suggested starting a student workshop to advocate for victims of sexual violence. But, in one night, Liss later told the courtroom, her life had been abruptly thrown off track.

That night in Toronto, Liss had planned to stay over at a friend’s condo because of its convenient location. After drinks at Liss’s apartment, she and some friends left for a downtown bar. A few hours later, Liss was “pretty exhausted and drunk,” she says, and it was near closing time. Liss wanted to leave, but the friend with whom she was staying had disappeared and wasn’t answering her phone. As Liss looked for her in the crowd, she danced with a man, a stranger about her age, for half a song. She found him “too touchy” and left to call a taxi to her friend’s condo—she knew at least one of her friends from that night was already there. But the man followed her outside, and in an ill-fated coincidence, they discovered he lived in the same building as Liss’s friend. He offered to share her cab back to their mutual destination to save money.

By the time Liss and the man arrived in the building’s lobby, Liss’s friend still hadn’t answered her phone. Liss didn’t have keys to her friend’s condo, nor could she remember the unit number. She continued to dial her friend’s phone, but there was no answer. The man invited her inside his own condo, saying she could wait there. Liss accepted. Today, she struggles not to blame herself, though she knows nothing that happened next was her fault. “I just wanted to wind down and go to sleep,” she says. Initially, the man seemed to understand. He gave her a glass of water and sat in the living room while she lay on his bed, clothed and on top of the covers, waiting for her friend to call. Then, as she began to fall asleep, he assaulted her. Again and again, Liss said no and please stop. He apologized and covered her mouth. “This is so fucked up,” he repeated, but he didn’t stop.

The rape lasted several hours. Afterward, the man left the room and Liss lay on the bed, in shock. “There was a clear moment when I felt like I came back into my body,” she says. “I wanted to leave.” Liss stood, only half-dressed, and gathered her things. As she left the bedroom, he returned, and they locked eyes. Then she walked out the door, got dressed in the elevator, and took a taxi to her apartment near Ryerson’s campus.

Liss told one of her roommates about the assault as soon as she got home, and they went to the hospital that same morning. At the emergency room, they were asked to wait. Twenty-four hours later, someone was finally available to take care of Liss. “I couldn’t shower,” she says. “I had semen on my clothes.” Hospital staff collected her belongings, her blood, her urine, and any evidence the man had left on her body. One moment blurred into the next. When a nurse asked if she wanted to contact the police, Liss automatically said yes. She hadn’t had time to process what had happened—let alone decide what to do next. “I wasn’t thinking of punishing him,” she says. She wasn’t thinking of anything. She simply did what she thought was expected of her.

Over the next year, Liss lived in a haze. She became depressed. She left her job at a café and stopped attending classes. She unofficially moved back in with Barbie. There, she would sit on the couch for hours, saying and doing nothing, shaking all over, crying. She felt as though her body and voice had been taken from her. Her guiding philosophy, centred on kindness and understanding, was eclipsed by darkness. Her instinct was to empathize with the man who had assaulted her as she would with anyone else. But he had also hurt her profoundly; she felt like she was meant to see him as a monster. “I remembered him having this internal struggle, saying sorry and pacing back and forth” during the assault, Liss says. “And I was so confused by the fact that he was just a human, just a guy.”

At one point, Liss tried to return to school, but the first lecture she attended was about working with people who had been convicted of murder or rape. She panicked and left. Liss spent most of her days at home, writing poetry. Over time, she began to think of what she had learned at the ashram about community and empowerment, how she had seen others speak about their trauma to regain control of their lives. Liss joined a rape-survivor support group, where she told others about what she was going through. Every other weekend, she also attended courses to become a yoga teacher. She was learning how to feel safe in her body again, to reclaim it as her own.

Now, more than a year after her assault, a defence lawyer she had never met was asking her how many thrusts per minute the man had made and at what angle. Scholars have called this the “secondary victimization” of going to court—first a person is assaulted by their rapist, then they are assaulted by the court system.

When the preliminary hearing ended, “I was just exhausted and so proud of myself,” Liss says. “I wasn’t thinking about the next step at all.” But, a few weeks later, news of the next step came: having reviewed the evidence and Liss’s testimony, the judge decided there was enough for the case to go to trial. Liss wasn’t relieved to hear the decision. Testifying in court a second time would mean facing the same interrogation, this time in front of a larger crowd. Liss wanted to heal, to move on. But how could she, when pursuing her attacker in court continued to trap her in the horrific events of that night? She never wanted to be on the stand like that again.

If she went forward, there were only two possible outcomes. The trial would culminate either with a finding of guilt, in which case the man could be sent to jail and would have a criminal record, or with an acquittal, in which case her testimony and the suffering it caused would have been in vain. But Liss wasn’t interested in either outcome. What she really wanted was for her rapist to feel remorse, for him to admit what he had done and be willing to face the consequences. She wanted him to understand how much he had harmed her and her family. She wanted him to strive to be better—to make the world a safer place—and to never do anything like that again. “I had joked about rapist rehab,” she says, “but I didn’t think it was possible.”

As Liss spoke with Barbie and her friends about her reluctance to return to court, she began to research alternatives. Eventually, she learned about the concept of restorative justice. The practice can involve victims, offenders, their family members, and their communities in a collaborative process that prioritizes healing and understanding the harm caused by the crime. Restorative justice takes place around the world in a variety of forms and contexts, including in conjunction with criminal courts. It often includes therapy and dialogue between parties—and it is known to help some victims recover from trauma and PTSD. Like many Canadians, Liss had never heard of restorative justice. But the more she learned about it, the more she felt it was what she had wanted all along.

A woman leaves a courtroom through the gate, as the judge and suited lawyers watch. Above the woman's head are two large hands with fingers interlaced.

Sexual assault is an exceptional kind of crime. The Criminal Code doesn’t give an explicit definition: it defines assault, then considers sexual assault to be a form of assault. Consent, which is itself defined in detail, is the critical issue. Any activity such as kissing, touching, or sexual intercourse is legal only when all parties involved give their consent. This understanding of sexual assault is the product of decades of evolution in Canadian law. Still, today, it can seem impossible for legal language to appreciate the subjective and emotionally fraught elements of physical intimacy. There remains a divide between our theoretical understanding of sexual assault—based on purposefully ambiguous definitions—and first-hand experiences. Of all crimes, sexual assault causes some of the highest rates of depression and PTSD among its victims. It can take years, even decades, for a survivor to process the extent to which the incident has affected their life and to understand how to move forward.

Yet, despite a growing awareness of the crime’s singular nature, society’s expectations of victims of sexual violence remain largely unchanged: if they’ve been abused, we often tell them, they should provide incontrovertible evidence of the act and push for their assailant’s punishment as loudly, as harshly, and as soon as possible. Any deviation from this behaviour—if a person doesn’t respond with anger toward their assailant or if they don’t report to the police right away—is often taken to undermine the victim’s credibility. Not only is pressing charges something they are supposed to want to do, it is also considered their social responsibility. For any victim of crime, this ideology is embedded in the mechanics of the courtroom, where refusing to testify could send a complainant to jail. But victims of sexual violence must also navigate the wider culture, which allows them little room to express reluctance about pursuing their attacker.

Elaine Craig, a law professor at Dalhousie University, has shown in her research how frequently defence lawyers and other parties weaponize this aspect of popular culture. In one case of a PhD student accused of raping his classmate, for example, the defence suggested that the complainant was not serious about her allegations because she had waited two days to contact the police. In another trial, the complainant was so distraught by the first day of cross-examination that she didn’t return to court the next day, Craig wrote in a 2015 paper. The woman insisted that, for the sake of her mental health, she did not want to testify, but she was arrested, detained, and “compelled back to court” for four more days on the stand. The defence lawyer used her reluctance to testify to suggest that she was lying about the incident.

On the surface, it seems that society has changed substantially over a few short years. A Canada-wide conversation about rape culture began in October 2014, when Jian Ghomeshi, then a popular host of the CBC radio show Q, was dismissed from the broadcaster following accusations of sexual violence. (In March 2016, Ghomeshi was acquitted of four counts of sexual assault because the presiding judge considered the three women who testified to be unreliable. He later signed a peace bond for a fifth charge of sexual assault.) The next year, the Globe and Mail published “Unfounded,” an investigation that examined how police respond to sexual-assault allegations and exposed “deep flaws at every step of the [judicial] process.” And, by November 2017, the #MeToo movement was in full swing on social media, and hundreds of celebrities, CEOs, and politicians were accused of sexual misconduct. Today, it’s no longer so controversial to say that sexual violence is a severe, widespread, and contemporary problem.

Though these developments have raised awareness of the ubiquity of sexual violence, they have not helped bridge the divide between what survivors of sexual violence want and what others think they want. While some complainants benefit from seeing their attackers in jail or excluded from society, where they can cause no further harm, others’ versions of justice might look quite different. In one published study, a researcher at Osgoode Hall Law School found that, over several months in 2014, many people who spoke to news media about their experiences of sexual assault “were not actually interested in seeing their attacker formally punished.” Some instead expressed a desire for the opportunity to tell their story or to receive an apology.

Among those victims who are interested in pursuing criminal justice, few are likely to find it. There are over half-a-million self-reported incidents of sexual violence in Canada every year—an estimate researchers agree is much too low, even when accounting for false accusations, which occur at a rate of 2 to 8 percent. In 2012, an academic study found that only an estimated 15,200 incidents were reported to police in a single year, 15 percent of which were declared “unfounded” and dismissed. Fewer than half (5,544) of the rest led to a suspect being charged. Half of those led to court—compared to three-quarters for physical assaults. And half of those led to a conviction for sexual assault. The result, the author wrote, is that “only 0.3 percent of perpetrators of sexual assault were held accountable.”

For all the conversations about sexual violence that have taken place in the last several years, there is still little understanding of how to improve the situation. Meanwhile, there is a growing consensus among scholars, front line workers, and legal experts that, even if rates of conviction were to vastly increase, the courts are not well equipped to help society transform. That’s because the traditional criminal justice system arguably doesn’t ask offenders what they require in order to change, and it doesn’t ask victims of a crime what they need to heal. It is by definition concerned only with punishment, and it essentially considers justice to be found after two parties, the Crown and the defence, argue—and one of them prevails. Because the Criminal Code defines a crime as an offence against society, victims, when they are involved in the court process at all, are officially only witnesses.

“If you tell a victim of violence that, it can feel surreal,” says Jo-Anne Wemmers, a leading expert in criminology based in Montreal. “Witnessing” sexual violence can dramatically affect the course of one’s life. Yet, once charges are pressed, a victim has little control over what happens next. The legal system is focused on punishing individual offenders. While this might seem like an obviously productive goal, such single-mindedness in the aftermath of a crime can become a failure to acknowledge the cultural problems influencing what crimes are committed—and against whom. Systemic problems such as racism and gender-based violence can be left untreated or even worsened, adds Jennifer Llewellyn, a professor of law at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University.

All of this is why, increasingly, some scholars, advocates for victims of sexual violence, and even legal professionals are turning to restorative justice as a framework for thinking about justice differently. Research suggests that, while it is not appropriate for every situation, restorative justice has the potential to help us navigate the complex realities of sexual assault, beginning with listening to victims first. In 2014, Statistics Canada found that, while only 5 percent of survivors of sexual assault report the crime to police, as many as one-quarter would be interested in restorative justice—and, the more time passes after the offence, the more that percentage may increase.

Restorative justice starts from a baseline understanding that someone did something wrong; the offender needs to admit responsibility for the harm they have caused. From there, it can be implemented in a variety of ways depending on the situation. In victim-offender mediation, for example, parties engage in dialogue, either directly or through writing. If victims are not interested in speaking with the offender—and every party is always given the choice to participate—they can speak with others who have committed the same type of crime. The aim is not necessarily to find forgiveness; the victim is never expected to absolve their abuser. But researchers have found victims usually get satisfaction from being able to ask the offender questions such as, “Why me?”

Because of its flexible structure, restorative justice can allow for conversations about culture and community to take place within the context of a specific crime. Advocates say it has the potential to address the intersecting problems at the root of sexual violence in Canada, where women, Indigenous people, members of the LGBTQ community, and people with mental health problems are at a higher risk of being sexually assaulted than is the general population. What’s more, the vast majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, including intimate partners, casual acquaintances, and family members. Such situations of abuse don’t always translate well to punitive justice.

Restorative processes can shift our attention away from arguing about whether a crime took place, how to prove it, and whom to punish and, instead, toward thinking of justice as a means of recovery and minimizing harm. The practice invites us not to forgive or excuse an offender’s behaviour but to help them learn from their mistakes, if they’re willing, and to find a way to support victims, even if their idea of justice differs from our own.

Late in 2018, Liss connected with Jeff Carolin, a criminal defence lawyer in Toronto who had recently pursued restorative alternatives with some of his clients. When they spoke, Liss explained that she was interested in “doing something different,” and Carolin agreed to help.

Together, Liss and Carolin met with Cara Sweeny, one of the assistant Crown attorneys assigned to her case. It was an unusual situation: most people who choose restorative justice for serious crimes do so either before reporting to the police, in which case the criminal justice system is not involved at all, or after the offender has pleaded guilty, been convicted, or been sentenced. Sweeny wasn’t certain it would be possible to implement restorative justice halfway through the criminal process, particularly for a case of sexual assault. But she was intrigued. Sweeny told Liss that she was willing to try as long as the man and his defence lawyer were also on board. She agreed to reach out to them with the proposal.

Restorative processes within the Canadian criminal justice system have existed for more than forty years. Whatever the form, all approaches share a common philosophy: focus on healing and prevent further harm—to victims, to offenders, and to the communities they live in. This viewpoint has existed among Indigenous peoples for centuries. In the 1980s, Hollow Water, a small First Nations community in Manitoba, created one of the foundational examples of restorative-type programs in Canada. The Community Holistic Circle Healing program (CHCH), which is grounded in regional Anishinaabe values of healing, was created specifically to handle instances of sexual abuse. In Returning to the Teachings, Rupert Ross, a legal expert who documented Hollow Water’s work, tells the story of the program’s founding. Elders and social workers in the community understood sexual violence to be part of a cycle of abuse, a problem concerned with relationships and prevailing culture; combatting it would require the same kinds of considerations.

Under the program, anyone who is accused of sexual violence and acknowledges having committed the offence reports directly to CHCH. Police and prosecution teams usually stay on the sidelines. The offender is encouraged to formally plead guilty as soon as possible, after which CHCH takes over to determine the appropriate parameters for the healing process. If the offender refuses, the case goes to police. (Out of forty-eight cases over the first nine years of the program, five people did refuse and were later imprisoned.) The CHCH process, which involves a series of circles, including some with the victim and victimizer, culminates with a group-sentencing circle where a “Healing Contract,” similar to probation terms, is presented. Ideally, those terms are then relayed to the Crown and presiding judge. Everyone involved is offered counselling and the choice to participate. Over those first nine years, only two out of forty-three participants ever repeated their crimes. (The typical recidivism rate for sexual abuse in Canada is approximately 20 percent over ten years—more than four times higher.) According to Ross, several people have also come to CHCH, unsolicited, to admit to crimes they committed.

Today, in Canada, despite restorative justice’s effectiveness in other countries and its historical roots in addressing sexual violence, many people are skeptical of its appropriateness for sexual crimes. Some have safety concerns about victims of sexual violence facing their abusers without the mechanisms of a trial. Others do not like the idea of offenders continuing to live in society without jail time. But research shows this is largely an outsider’s opinion: in 2013, a review of fifty-eight studies on restorative justice and sexual violence found that a number of victims had an increased sense of empowerment after the process. In Arizona, a pilot program found that participation led to a meaningful decrease in PTSD among victims of sexual violence. Still, in Nova Scotia, which started a restorative justice program in 1999, restorative practices are encouraged for every crime except sexual violence—a moratorium largely forbids it.

That isn’t to say restorative justice is always more empowering than the traditional court system. Before entering into an agreement, victims must understand their own needs, what they can expect from the process, and how they will respond if things don’t go as planned, says Farrah Khan, the manager of Consent Comes First, Ryerson University’s office of sexual-violence support and education.

Khan is an advocate of restorative justice for cases of sexual violence, having gone through a restorative justice process herself. But she warns that poorly implemented restorative processes can be harmful for everyone involved—especially if the onus is put on the survivor to forgive someone. Programs are commonly run by community centres, other nonprofit organizations, and, for people who wish to participate after being convicted, Correctional Services Canada. But other processes happen more informally—particularly within marginalized communities whose members don’t feel comfortable approaching the police, the courts, or other institutions. Khan adds that there is currently no “shared understanding” of the practice across regions and industries. Quality control and lack of training standards can be a concern. In an August 2019 Xtra column, for example, Kai Cheng Thom writes that “a person who claimed that they were a survivor of intimate partner violence asked the community to beat up their abuser as a part of their formal accountability process.” The request was fulfilled, she adds, and the abuser ended up in the hospital.

Instead of viewing restorative justice as an alternative to criminal justice, Khan suggests viewing the two as part of a spectrum in which victims can decide where their case fits. For Wemmers, the first step is to reorient the guiding philosophy of Canadian courts to give victims more priority. The government should allocate more money to victims’ services, she says, some of which are severely underfunded. With the right support, victims are then capable of answering the question: “What does justice look like for you?” The answer might include a criminal trial, restorative processes, neither, or both, and the system should be prepared to see what’s possible. The most important thing, Wemmers says, is to give complainants a choice—the very thing that was taken away from them when they were assaulted.

Sweeny says that it’s up to Crown attorneys’ individual discretion whether they inform a complainant of such options—and few of them do. The Crown is also not obliged to honour a victim’s requests, and Liss, too, met some resistance from legal staff. It took weeks to get everyone on board. To arrange the process for Liss, Carolin reached out to St. Stephen’s Community House (SSCH), a nonprofit agency in Toronto that is known for its work in conflict resolution. Catherine Feldman Axford, a veteran coordinator at SSCH who specializes in community mediation, consulted with Liss and Carolin to develop a vision of what restorative justice might look like in Liss’s case. They decided the process would end in a group-conferencing format. There would be no sentencing agreement—Liss didn’t want to pursue punishment in isolation.

Once the man agreed to participate, he and Liss signed a civil agreement that keeps certain details, including his name, private. They agreed that, if restorative justice didn’t work, or if it felt like the man wasn’t participating in earnest—he was required to at least admit to the rape—they would return to a criminal trial. Nothing said in the circle could be used against him if the trial did go forward. If all went according to plan, the criminal charge against the man would be dropped after the circle concluded. Both Liss and the man met individually with mediators, in early 2019, to discuss their needs and desires throughout the process. The man signed on to take several months of therapy before the group conference took place. Before anything else happened, Feldman Axford says, “I wanted to know that the offender knows what it means to give and receive consent.”

Over the next few months, as the man attended therapy, Liss, having completed her yoga training, continued to teach courses and facilitate workshops about healing and body positivity for women. Without the looming threat of a criminal trial, she felt she could begin to rebuild her life. Sometimes, she would tell workshop participants about her experience, and they would share their own stories in return. She discovered that speaking about her assault wasn’t painful the way it had been on the stand. Liss was taking control of her story.

One day last summer, more than a year after the preliminary hearing, Liss faced, for the third time, the man who had sexually assaulted her. She sat in a circle with six other people: her mother, her younger sister, Cara Sweeny, Jeff Carolin, the man, and a close friend of his. Two mediators presided over the meeting, which began, at 10 a.m., with an opening ceremony acknowledging the Indigenous roots of restorative justice. Participants wrote down the life values they believed in. (Liss remembers that the man wrote “courage, honesty, loyalty.”) The mediators established a speaking order—Liss’s sister, then Liss, Carolin, Barbie, Sweeny, the friend, and the man—and laid out ground rules for the day. Everyone in the circle would start by answering a question in turn: “What brought you here today?” After that, they would go around the circle—no interruptions or speaking out of order. There would be set breaks every forty-five minutes.

All morning, Liss was visibly shaking. She had no idea what the man would say. He had never made a statement to police. Liss was terrified that he would speak only to defend himself—that, despite their agreement otherwise, he would participate without admitting what he had done. That he would cause her more harm. She hoped to see evidence that he had reflected on his actions and understood what led him to assault her. If he shared that knowledge with her, maybe she, too, could understand. When the man finally admitted to what he had done that night—he used the words sexual assault—Liss began to cry uncontrollably.

“I had been waiting years to hear him say it,” she says. “Any ounce of me that had dealt with self-blame or doubt . . . I could finally tell myself, ‘You’re not crazy. It really happened. The person who did it is owning up to it.’” The first time Liss spoke, it was for more than an hour, about the pain of the past three years and what she had come to believe about healing. It felt revolutionary to be in a room of people listening to her story and prioritizing her well-being. Liss looked directly at the man most of the time, and he looked back through tears. She thanked him for making eye contact. “Court sucked for me, and I’m sure it sucked for you,” she told him. “To just sit in a circle and look in each other’s eyes and acknowledge each other as humans is all I’ve ever wanted.”

The circle was supposed to last three hours, but it didn’t end until eight hours later, after everyone had spoken several times. Some moments stand out for Liss and others who participated—moments that Sweeny and Carolin had never seen in their work in criminal courts, where silence and opposition rule. In a particularly emotional part of the afternoon, the man’s friend described the day the man told him about the criminal charges and asked him to participate in the circle. The man had started to cry, and his friend had put his hand on his back, unsure how to react. “Guys don’t know how to do this,” Liss remembers the friend telling the circle. He had never been so emotionally intimate with a friend. Together, they had reevaluated their relationships to those around them. “I’ve learned more today,” he said, “than I have in eight years of my job, five years of school, and twenty-five years of life.”

The man who assaulted Liss spoke about how long it had taken for him to admit to himself what he had done. He had spent the first few months after his arrest despondent and suicidal. But, one day, a friend told him that she had been sexually assaulted. The man found himself providing support, telling her it wasn’t her fault. As he spoke with her, he was forced to confront his own actions; he knew he was guilty. He told the circle that he no longer felt he was entitled to anyone else’s body. He apologized, and he committed to educating others. He thanked Liss for not taking her own life the year after the assault, and later, she thanked him for doing the same. (The man, his lawyer, and his friend refused to speak to media to preserve their anonymity.)

A few weeks after the circle, the Crown officially withdrew all criminal charges against the man. Liss and the man will likely never speak again. She now says she feels a sense of forgiveness and no longer resents herself for seeing him as human. Liss believes she helped him learn to be better while also finding her own way forward. Already, she has an idea of what that might be: last November, she and her mother launched a nonprofit organization called Re-Humanize. Her hope is to show other survivors of sexual assault how restorative justice might help them too. She often thinks back to what she experienced in the circle—how much those eight hours helped her and others heal. At the end of the day, the man had asked, “with permission and respect,” to shake Liss’s hand. She agreed.

Viviane Fairbank
Viviane Fairbank (@vivianefairbank) is a writer based in Montreal and the former head of research at The Walrus.
Holly Stapleton
Holly Stapleton’s illustrations have appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, and Longreads. She is based in Toronto.