In Memory of Liz Elliott, 1957-2011

One of my first enduring visual memories of Liz Elliott is from a day in the late 1980s. Liz had just moved from Ontario to study in our Ph.D. program, and she was interested in murder – or more specifically, state responses to murder and murderers. The School of Criminology was in its first of three locations, on the 7th floor of the SFU Library; Liz was almost nine months pregnant and Milt had arrived in the School to pick her up. “Come on, rotunda”, he said to her affectionately, as they walked out of the department that day.

I did not know then how much I would learn from Liz Elliott and how much she would influence my view of murder and murderers, of prisons and prisoners, and of the importance of understanding and supporting those human beings who are typically the most vilified within our culture. In a recent email Liz thanked me for being a mentor to her (along with expressing frustration and outrage at yet another particularly lame initiative from the Harper Conservatives).

I think I provided little mentorship to Liz, in contrast to what I learned from her. Because of Liz, faculty and graduate students became engaged in Canada’s penitentiaries, bringing students in for seminars – to talk to murderers about the how and why of their crimes, about imprisonment, and about their hopes for the future. For years many faculty and students met with Lifers Groups and Drug Awareness groups in Mission Institution and in other federal penitentiaries. Liz was almost always the catalyst, ultimately giving thousands of students a glimpse into the lives of those behind the prison walls.

She was honest and compassionate, and both tough and gentle in her interactions with prisoners — and prison guards. I recall vividly the stark honesty of many of the interviews that she conducted with men and women serving time for murder; she was able to capture the often horrifying realities of what they had done, but she also captured the humanity in these tragedies.

Her growth into a leading figure in Canada’s restorative justice movement was not a surprise, and it is a tragedy that she will not be able to continue that work. As Rob Gordon said in an email to faculty and graduate students on the day of her death, a warrior has fallen. For those of us who share her commitment to social justice and correctional change, he added, we must now continue this struggle with greater resolve.

Indeed. Liz demonstrated grace, dignity and courage in fighting the cancer that ultimately took her life. I can think of few better tributes to her than to continue fighting for the causes that she cared about. Rest in peace, my friend.

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