'Landowners are free prey': Rural residents express concern about crime, property rights
Published Monday, March 12, 2018 4:28AM EDT
RCMP cruisers block a gravel road in the rural municipality of Glenside, Sask., on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. (Taylor Rattray/CTV Saskatoon)
David Reid says he's become more diligent about locking up on the land his family has farmed in Alberta for more than a century and is more watchful of strange vehicles along rural side roads.
"Neighbours have been broken into in the middle of the day and early in the morning when they're still in their houses asleep and had items stolen right from the middle of their farmyards," Reid said from Cremona, Alta., northwest of Calgary.
"Certainly you hear more about these criminals being armed. And if they're not armed, then on drugs and certainly unpredictable."
In Okotoks, about an 80-minute drive to the southeast, RCMP last month arrested a man on aggravated assault and firearms charges after he caught two people rummaging through his vehicles. One of the suspects, who was later found with a wounded arm, faces numerous charges that include trespassing, mischief and theft.
That case - along with the acquittal of Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley in the shooting death of an Indigenous man - has renewed a simmering debate about what rights rural residents have to use force against a perceived intruder.
Reid doesn't believe farmers defending their property should face tougher repercussions than those attempting to steal from them. But he said he's not inclined to use firearms himself.
"I guess I'm not the vigilante type."
Kevin Avram with the Grassroots Alberta Landowners Association said property owners shouldn't be penalized for taking matters into their own hands.
"If the guy doesn't want to get shot in the arm, just stay away from breaking into people's property," Avram said.
"Many landowners are getting the very distinct impression that the criminal element of the province is being sent a signal - and the signal is that landowners are free prey."
Alberta RCMP Supt. John Bennett said property crime in rural areas has increased 23 per cent over the last five years. Offences include break and enters, vehicle theft, theft under $5,000 and possession of stolen goods.
Violent crimes, however, are down, he said.
"We understand completely that people feel vulnerable and frustrated," said Bennett, who is in charge of a squad that focuses on criminals who appear to be behind a disproportionate number of calls.
He's encouraging people not to take on intruders themselves, but to leave it to police.
"You never know how someone may react when confronted. We don't want to see anyone getting hurt."
Bev Salomons with the Alberta Citizens on Patrol Association said rural residents are clamouring to take action against crime in their communities - but that shouldn't involve resorting to force.
"It's not worth going to jail over," she said in an interview from her home in Sherwood Park, Alta., where she has installed a security system and gate.
Citizens on Patrol volunteers work in pairs to look out for anything suspicious.
"Eyes and ears only. We do not confront anyone. We do not get out of our vehicles," said Salomons.
Three years ago, there were 50 to 55 Alberta communities with patrol groups, she said. That grew to 70 in 2017 and another 16 are being added.
At a recent town-hall meeting in Biggar, Sask., residents of the rural community west of Saskatoon complained of repeated thefts and break-ins, lenient punishments for culprits and long police response times. Many wanted to know what right they have to use force against an intruder.
Biggar is near Stanley's farm where Colten Boushie, 22, was shot and killed. Boushie was in an SUV that had driven onto the property. Stanley testified he thought he was being robbed and the fatal shot went off accidentally.
RCMP Sgt. Colin Sawrenko referred residents to the Criminal Code section on defence of person and property. He urged people to trust officers trained to handle volatile situations.
"There's a million and one what-if scenarios. The key word is reasonableness - that's what you have to remember," he told residents. "If it's somebody stealing gas, what is reasonable? I don't have that answer for you."
Rob Danychuk, a farmer and local councillor, said he wasn't surprised so many property rights questions came up after the Stanley case.
"Colten Boushie's death was terrible and it's not something that should have ever happened, but it's a result that was going to happen," he said.
"You can't have people coming into somebody's yard every day and there not eventually being an accident."
The acquittal of a Saskatchewan farmer in the shooting death of a young Indigenous man has renewed a simmering debate about what rights rural residents have to use force against a perceived intruder. Here is what some rural residents in Alberta and Saskatchewan have to say:
"Nobody wants to have to go to court and spend a lot of time and a lot of money defending themselves. I've got more important things to do. I've got grandchildren." -- retired farmer Bob Nielsen, Marwayne, Alta.
"As rural crime watch groups, we don't encourage (property owners taking matters into their own hands). We're telling our members please don't do stuff like that. Bad stuff can come out of that. Take down as much information from who it is, but do not confront these people. Nothing that we own is worth a life." -- Trevor Tychkowsky, Smoky Lake, Alta., president of the Alberta Provincial Rural Crime Watch Association
"We're certainly hearing from residents that are very vocal and they're very upset. Really what's happening is people are descending on them and it doesn't appear that laws are in favour of protecting people who are being violated. It seems more like they're in favour of protecting the perpetrator, so that's the sense of outrage that's out there right now. When you step back from it after the thing has happened, I think there would be nothing but regret if you did unfortunately choose to harm another person to that point. Certainly to stop them or deter them, call the RCMP right away. And if they're not available, get yourself out of trouble." -- M.D. of Foothills councillor Suzanne Oel, Priddis, Alta.
"I should be able to defend myself and defend my family, especially if it involves my family. I don't know what's appropriate and not appropriate, but I am going to take measures in my own hands if it involves my family. I'm going to use something that's appropriate even if I go to jail." -- rancher Mike Walkers, Biggar, Sask.