Fifty years after Elmira Case, restorative justice still going strong

Case involving Fergus resident changed legal precedent in Canada

FERGUS – Russ Kelly is not the hero of this story, although he is the impetus behind it.

Fifty years ago, Kelly and his buddy Paul Liebold went on a vandalism spree through Elmira, slashing tires, breaking windows and defacing property.

Their arrest and how the court dealt with them changed legal precedent in Canada, spawned organizations like Community Justice Initiatives in Kitchener, and gave a break to two messed-up kids.

It came to be known as the Elmira Case, where a judge and a parole officer decided to try a new approach to crime and punishment: restorative justice.

That’s when those convicted of crimes who are truly remorseful can face their victims, apologize for their actions, hear from the victims about the harms done to them, and pay damages rather than go to jail. 

While not a new idea – restorative justice has been used by Indigenous communities to draw together all parties who had been impacted by harm, with a view to restoring community harmony – it had never been used by the courts in Canada.

“The judge went out on a limb,” Kelly said. “He thought about it and saw it could be beneficial. So, they gave it a try.”

Kelly was 17 when he and his friend decided to “go raise some hell,” as he termed it in an interview.

He’s now 68 and lives in Fergus with his wife Irene.

He wears an oxygen mask and moves slowly to his favourite chair, a copy of his book, From Scoundrel to Scholar: The Russ Kelly Story, nearby and ready to give to a reporter.

He is not the scoundrel he once was, he said, and his story begins long before May of 1974.

Kelly was six when his father died, leaving his mother with eight children to raise on her own.

They lived on a farm in Mount Forest, where “we were poor. But we were happy and loved,” he recalled.

When he was nine his mother became ill and was hospitalized. Children’s Aid took the children, separated them and temporarily sent them to different foster homes.

When Kelly was 14, his mother had a stroke. And when he was 15, she died.

“I was a grieving kid,” he said. “It was hard, especially for boys. We had to bury our emotions. There was no dealing with it. I had so much anger and emotional pain, I was like a bomb.”

His siblings were not faring much better, with some in and out of jail and a few teenage pregnancies.

“My oldest brother was out of prison and just married and he took me in,” Kelly said. “But prison had hardened his heart and put a chip on his shoulder. And he ruled with an iron fist.”

It was a difficult house to live in and he had no one to turn to. So he turned to alcohol and drugs.

And it was alcohol and drug-fueled anger that led to his rampage, he said.

“I was venting all that negative anger and energy in a destructive way,” he said. 

He was lucky that Mark Yantzi was his probation officer. When Yantzi looked at Kelly’s file and the trajectory of his life, he thought this case might be a good candidate for restorative justice.

And Judge Gordon McConnell agreed.

“Judge McConnell was tired of the revolving door of justice and was looking for a new approach,” Kelly writes in his book.

And so it was agreed. The two young offenders would go to every victim, admit what they did, listen to what the victim had to say, and pay their compensation.

“We had to admit what we did and apologize. And we said we’d pay whatever wasn’t covered by insurance. That was the deal,” Kelly explained.

Some were angry, some didn’t believe they’d be compensated. Some gave some strong lectures.

“I felt like a bag of crap,” Kelly recalled. “My legs were shaking, my stomach turned. It took all my courage.”

Each youth had to pay a total $550 to the victims, a $200 fine and got 18 months probation.

Kelly worked hard to earn the money and three months later he delivered certified cheques to every door.

That was a much better day.


“A lot of the victims said they were happy we admitted our guilt and made it right,” said Kelly.

“One lady said, ‘we’re good now.’ One lady gave me $100 and said she didn’t expect to get the money back. Then she gave the rest to a single mom.”

With restorative justice, both the victim and offender have to agree to meet. It’s about building human relationships, Kelly said.

“Crime and conflict are like a tear in the fabric. You can mend the tear but it’s never the same.

“To receive an apology creates healing. Victims often forgive the offender,” Kelly went on.

“When I was forgiven, I could forgive myself for hating myself.”

Kelly had no idea he was making history when he paid reparations.

He went on with his life. He still had a problem with drugs and alcohol and had a few more scrapes with the law.

In 1983 he made the conscious decision to quit alcohol and things started to improve – especially when he met Irene, the love of his life.

He worked in factories and as a welder in and around Fergus over the years – jobs that took their toll on his body.

Because of that he participated in a retraining program and took a law and security course at college, thinking he might want to be a security guard.


His jaw dropped when the guest speaker one day was from Community Justice Initiatives (CJI) and she told his story and how the Elmira Case changed the system.

He had no idea his was such a groundbreaking case.

“I was floored. I had no idea this was now a program, how it was applied or that it is used in countries around the world. I was happy to know some good had come out of it,” he said.

Officials at CJI were delighted when he introduced himself after that lecture and for many years he embraced public speaking on behalf of CJI about restorative justice and the power of positive choices.

“It really was the beginning of CJI,” said executive director Chris Cowie, “although it took several years to become an organization.”

Community Justice Initiatives started in 1982 and continues to be impactful.

As well as coordinating meetings between victims and perpetrators of crimes, the agency can help resolve conflicts before things get out of hand – like disputes between neighbours, youth crimes and hate crimes.

Cowie worked with young offenders in custody for several years before coming to CJI.

He came to realize that locking young offenders in jail “was teaching nobody anything,” he said. “And it didn’t help the victims deal with their trauma either.”

When youth are put in detention centres, “they have no understanding of the impact of what they’ve done on their victims,” he said.

“To hear directly from their victims often is the only way to get that understanding. And for victims, they might think they’ll feel better when criminals are put in jail, but their trauma is not addressed. The restoration response looks at all those things.

“Prisons do damage to people,” he continued. 

“They push people further away from making things right.”

Restorative justice works when victims are willing to get over their anger and focus on what they need and when offenders accept responsibility for what they’ve done.

“Once you have those, you can bring people together with a high probability of success. They come to a place of understanding. It’s personalized. It’s human,” Cowie said.

It was a chance Kelly is grateful he got.

“I learned a lot about humanity and it stayed with me,” he said. 

“With restorative justice you have to admit your guilt, learn from your mistake, repair the harm and make things right. It has to be done with true remorse. Those are hard things to do.”

He learned the lesson about not damaging property right away. The other lessons have taken longer to sink in. 

Restorative justice is not a magic or instant cure.

Those lessons include things like self-respect, self-control, and faith that you can do the right thing.

“I do think if I had gone to jail, I would have come out angrier than ever,” he continued after a pause. 

“I think I would have become a repeat offender.”