OKOTOKS, Alta. — The Alberta government is talking about taking harder line in its fight against rural crime.
Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer is touring the province talking to rural residents who say they are angry and want meaningful action to protect themselves against thefts and violence.
He also took the unusual step of speaking out against a lawsuit launched against Okotoks-area rancher Edouard Maurice, who was accused of shooting at trespassers in February 2018.
Maurice allegedly encountered two people rummaging through his vehicles and fired a shot, which hit one of the men. He was charged with aggravated assault, pointing a firearm and careless use of a firearm but the crown dropped its case against him in June last year.
One of the accused, Ryan Watson, required surgery for an injured arm and is suing Maurice for $100,000. An online fundraiser in support of Maurice has raised more than $52,000 for his legal costs.
Schweitzer said it is unusual for government to be vocal on a civil case.
“We are not going to be quiet. This needs to be dealt with right now and we are going to continue to voice our concerns,” he said at a meeting in Okotoks.
R.J. Sigurdson, MLA for the region, said the lawsuit is absurd.
“Eddie is not a criminal. Eddie and his family are victims of rural crime and it is important we come together to support them,” said Sigurdson, chair of the rural crime committee.
A federal Conservative study released last year reported rural crime rates in Alberta were 30 percent higher than urban centres. Across Western Canada, there have been more intrusions on farms, oil and gas wells and other businesses. Firearms are often involved, said the report.
Schweitzer told the crowd that escalating rural crime is often fueled by the illegal drug trade.
The government opened 1,400 more drug treatment beds and has promised additional money to hire more police and crown prosecutors.
Alberta has about 1,600 RCMP officers and the government wants that increased to about 2,000. No decision has been made yet on how to partner with municipalities on cost sharing for more police.
“We are dedicated to working with municipal leadership to make sure you have the policing that works for your community,” he said.
More crown prosecutors will be hired to handle growing case-loads, said Schweitzer. There are about 300 prosecutors and 25 unfilled positions are to be filled soon. The government wants to hire another 50 people.
The minister said he cannot interfere in cases but wants better training for prosecutors to understand geography and particular issues for rural communities. He also wants more clarity into what constitutes reasonable force in Alberta.
Your input is essential in helping our government create a fairer, faster and more responsive justice system. If you aren’t able to attend a town hall, please take a moment to fill out our #ruralcrime survey: https://t.co/y3RE9DWlSb #abpoli #ableg pic.twitter.com/FXAZSgIBEw
— Doug Schweitzer (@doug_schweitzer) October 4, 2019
People attending the town halls said crimes often go unreported. RCMP must cover hundreds of kilometres so help is often hours away.
It was also suggested local RCMP members need to be more proactive and carry out more patrols in rural areas so they know the community and people.
The province also wants to work with municipalities to extend the duties of sheriffs and peace officers to work with the RCMP.
Better communication between RCMP and city police services is also needed because many thieves and home invaders come from urban centres to rural areas because they see isolated communities as easy pickings.
There is also frustration with the Canadian justice system where offenders are arrested and are released on bail almost immediately.
“Laws of Canada are written for downtown Toronto. They are not written for Okotoks or Fairview or small communities in this province. We have to fix our bail system in Alberta so repeat offenders are dealt with appropriately,” Schweitzer said.
Better strategies are needed so victims of crime are able to show the impact to judges and justices of the peace. The provinces also need to make the federal government understand the realities of life in a rural area where help is far away and the chances of suspects being caught or punished are slim.