Rural crime is a real concern for Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon.
“Each Sunday night I get in a car and I drive from my remote farm west of Sundre 300 kilometres to Edmonton. … And each night that I go to bed in my condo in Edmonton, I think is tonight the night that my wife and kids back home will experience what so many of my neighbours have experienced? Being robbed or attacked 45 minutes from the local police detachment?”
His fears and those of other rural Albertans are what the United Conservative Party government said it sought to address in announcements last week.
Provincial Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer put forward several measures that the province plans to implement. They include development of a Rural Alberta Provincial Integrated Defence Force (RAPID) to be created by training about 400 Alberta sheriffs, fish and wildlife officers and commercial vehicle enforcement personnel to respond to 911 calls about rural crime.
Planned changes to the Occupiers Liability Act will eliminate owners’ liability if they are protecting their property against trespassers who are breaking the law. Maximum fines for trespassing will be raised to $10,000 for a first violation and $25,000 for subsequent ones, plus possible jail time of up to six months. Corporations that help or direct trespassers would face fines up to $200,000.
Cor DeWit, president of the Alberta Rural Crime Watch group, said the announcements are moves in the right direction and he awaits details on their implementation.
He noted that response to rural 911 calls by sheriffs and other personnel will take them away from their regular duties, which might create other problems.
“I think it’s positive that we’re trying to lower the response time but its always going to be what the details are,” DeWit said.
In his announcement, Schweitzer said training of those personnel will shorten response times and provide support to the RCMP if and when needed. As a Calgary resident, he said a series of town hall meetings on rural crime proved to be truly eye opening, requiring swift action.
“People in the bigger cities do not know the extent of the havoc that rural crime has caused on communities, the impact that it’s had just leading to mental health issues, anxiety and a general feeling of not being safe in their communities,” said Schweitzer.
“This is just the beginning of the steps that we’re going to take to combat rural crime.”
Changes to the liability act are widely seen as a response to the case of Okotoks, Alta., area landowner Eddie Maurice.
In February 2018, Maurice fired two warning shots when he saw two people going through his vehicles parked in his yard. The ricochet from one shot struck Ryan Watson in the arm. Maurice then faced criminal charges of aggravated assault, pointing a firearm and careless use of a firearm. Those charges, which raised considerable rural outcry over defence of property, were later dropped.
Watson subsequently filed a $100,000 civil suit against Maurice for pain, suffering and loss of income. Maurice responded with a counter claim for $150,000 against Watson.
In his announcement, Schweitzer said the Maurice case was mentioned at every town hall meeting, more than 20 in all. He heard from 2,500 people who attended those meetings, which also garnered about 8,000 submissions on rural crime.
NDP justice critic Kathleen Ganley said implementation of the amended provincial law will determine its success.
“It could be implemented in a way that’s perfectly fine, that we might be supportive of, but it’s also possible, depending on the implementation, that we’re looking at sort of more of a ‘shoot first and ask questions later’, and I think that is potentially dangerous in certain ways. It really depends on how they implement it,” said Ganley.
Though statistics show rural crime rates in Alberta have dropped in recent years, Schweitzer said figures are wrong because rural people have simply stopped reporting crime through lack of confidence in an adequate response.
“The feedback from Albertans has been clear. They’ve simply stopped calling the police. The stats are wrong. The stats are flat-out wrong. If you go out and talk to rural Albertans, (rural crime) is worse than ever. They simply have lost faith in the justice system and they have simply stopped calling.”
Ganley and DeWit said they’ve heard the same thing from rural Albertans. In separate interviews, both also said people should be encouraged to report all incidents to RCMP because it helps police see the bigger picture of where and how crimes are committed.
“I would urge people to always call the police because I think that that information will help you and it will help your neighbours,” said Ganley.
The justice minister also announced proclamation of the Scrap Metal Dealers and Recyclers Identification Act in an effort to address the theft of copper wire, telecommunications cable and other materials.
It will require dealers and recyclers to get proof of identification from sellers, report stolen property and share information with law enforcement. The necessary mechanisms for that are expected to be in place in spring 2020.
Another change to current practice is provision for community impact statements to be given in court when convicted offenders are sentenced. Such a statement could be written on behalf of any group affected by a crime. Forms for that will be available in January.
Schweitzer said changes to laws within Alberta’s purview send a signal to the federal criminal justice system.
“One of the things we’ve heard loud and clear is that our laws are written for downtown Toronto,” he said. “They’re not written for rural Alberta. We’re hopeful that by getting communities’ evidence before the courts, we’ll get different decisions and different precedents across Alberta. That’s what our goal is with this.”