The trespassing burgundy truck that had been hiding in the driveway suddenly peeled out, nearly colliding with Ty Johre’s grey Dodge. Mr. Johre followed the truck as it shot down the range road toward the highway. The pair were hitting speeds of nearly 170 kilometres an hour. At one point, a gun was thrust out of the window of the burgundy truck.
After about 40 km, Mr. Johre gave up on the dangerous chase.
This early-August incident wasn’t the first encounter Mr. Johre had with criminals on his family’s property near Heinsburg, Alta., about 230 km east of Edmonton. He had been robbed just two nights prior, and later that August he would be robbed again. Altogether, $19,000 worth of stuff, including a boat and multiple power tools, was stolen from his property that month.
RCMP have reported that property crimes have decreased in Alberta, but the overall rural crime rate remains high. The rural rate in the Prairies is about 36- to 42-per-cent higher than in urban centres according to a 2017 Statistics Canada report.
Many rural residents feel increasingly fearful as a result. They worry they are underserved by the RCMP, saying police response times to calls are too long. It’s an issue that is also rife with racial tensions and one that was placed into the national spotlight after Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Indigenous man, was shot and killed while trespassing on a farm in rural Saskatchewan. Some residents want legislation that grants them the ability to protect themselves, but others want more police officers to help cover the small populations spread out over a sprawl of land.
In an attempt to decrease the crime rate in these areas, the Alberta government has announced an initiative that will add 500 RCMP positions over a period of five years to rural communities.
The initiative is a cost-sharing program in which rural municipalities will begin to pay a portion of front-line policing costs. It’s a measure that answers an urgent call from many rural residents, but some remain skeptical about whether it will be enough.
The Johres weren’t the only ones in the area targeted last August. The burgundy truck that Mr. Johre pursued had been stolen from a property a short distance away. (RCMP would not verify Mr. Johre’s story, saying the case is part of an active investigation.)
On Sept. 16, 2019, at 2:19 a.m., Caroline Parke received a phone call from her sister-in-law. Someone had been banging on the sister-in-law’s windows, and she asked if Ms. Parke’s husband could come over.
Ms. Parke stayed behind to keep an eye on the couple’s four sleeping children. She locked the door behind her husband and stood in her kitchen in front of its big windows.
She watched the red embers of her husband’s tail lights move down the road while she chatted with him on the phone. But really, she was on the lookout for something else.
“I’m watching and saying [to him] when I see a vehicle,” she said. “Because what they do is pile into a vehicle and they drop people off on foot. Twenty minutes later they circle back around and pick up people.”
Rural residents such as Ms. Parke and Mr. Johre feel like they are the perfect targets for crimes because it can take a while for the RCMP to respond to emergency calls.
The RCMP won’t give out specific statistics on response times, as they say there are many variables that go into how that information is recorded. In an e-mail, the RCMP said they manage the calls based on whether there is a threat to personal safety, and prioritizing these service calls could affect the response times to other calls that do not pose an immediate physical threat.
Ms. Parke’s call with her husband was dropped, right as she caught something out of the corner of her eye. The family dog, who was lying on the deck near her, turned her head toward something. She could see the lights on in one of her husband’s other vehicles, with someone sitting in the front seat.
The person ran off and Ms. Parke stepped outside with her flashlight. She shone the light over her property. Seeing no one, she called police to let them know that multiple properties in the area were being targeted.
“I should have gone back into the house and locked the door,” she said. But then, she realized a woman was right beside her, holding a knife.
“I was already in shock at this point. It was like she just floated up the stairs and came down with the knife. I just remember that blade. She tried to stab me in the face.”
They fought on the porch until Ms. Parke was able to do what she calls “the jersey-over-the-head move.” She pulled the woman’s shirt over the back of her head and pounded her with the flashlight. The woman eventually surrendered and said, “Take my effing knife. It wasn’t supposed to go down this way.”
Ms. Parke grabbed the blade and threw it off her deck.
The police arrived soon after and took away the woman, who was eventually convicted in the incident. In all, it was about a 20-minute ordeal.
It’s episodes like these that have spurred a concern among so many rural residents that more policing is needed in areas that see few officers covering a vast amount of space. So, on top of the additional RCMP officers, the Alberta government will be training existing peace officers so they can have more power in response to emergency calls. The government also recently passed a law that bans property owners from being sued if trespassers are injured on their property. It also increases fines to individuals found trespassing on a property to a maximum of $10,000 for a first-time offence.
Bill 27, which passed in November, 2019, followed the case of Edouard Maurice. Mr. Maurice fired a warning shot after he found two trespassers on his property. The bullet struck one of the trespassers, Ryan Watson, in the arm. Mr. Watson filed a lawsuit against Mr. Maurice seeking damages for injuries, post-traumatic stress, and loss of income. The lawsuit was dropped after the new legislation passed.
The province is also seeking changes at the federal level to target rural crime. Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer sent a letter to his federal counterpart this week, asking that the Criminal Code be amended to impose harsher sentences for rural crimes “in recognition of the victim’s enhanced vulnerability.” Mr. Schweitzer pressed the issue during a meeting in Victoria on Wednesday with Canada’s justice ministers, who agreed to form a working group to study the issue.
But these new initiatives do little to address the root cause of rural crime issues.
Kelly Sundberg, a professor at Calgary-based Mount Royal University, said there are a few factors that affect the rural crime rate. Large geographic areas combined with communities that have a limited number of officers make things easier for criminal operations. Addiction is also a big factor.
“The resources for treating people who are suffering from cognitive, mental disorders, or addiction within smaller communities – rural areas – are significantly less than what are available in large urban centres.” Dr. Sundberg said.
“Mental health and addiction have to be addressed provincewide. This is the problem. This is the root cause of crime across our province.”
The Alberta government is taking a similar approach to rural crime as the Saskatchewan government did after the death of Mr. Boushie. James Daschuk, a health studies professor at the University of Regina, said the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations came out with a statement about the no-trespassing laws and expressed how these laws bar people from entering or crossing into land and accessing resources – a freedom that was guaranteed in the treaties.
“It’s an amping up of tension.” Dr. Daschuk said, “It’s a reflection of the tension because, ‘Don’t come on my land. You’re not welcome here.’ ”
Things haven’t become better since the trial in which Gerald Stanley was acquitted in the shooting death of Mr. Boushie. “Really those wounds haven’t healed. They’re on the back burner right now, but there could easily be some kind of trouble.” Dr. Daschuk said.
The sense of a lack of community, isolation and racial tensions add to the “powder keg” of rural divide. “An important social determinant of health is social cohesion,” Dr. Daschuk said. “Knowing your neighbour and identifying with your neighbour – that is something that is truly lacking in Saskatchewan.”
No one has been charged in the August trespassing incident on Mr. Johre’s farm. Now, he has a full-blown security system on his property, but he doesn’t think it will actually help. Police wait times are 30 minutes, he said, and that’s only if someone is available and in a good location at the time of the call. He will, essentially, now be able to watch people steal from him as he waits for police.
Mr. Johre is skeptical about the new initiative. “It’s going in the right direction,” he said. “It’s not the answer to the problem but at least it’s been acknowledged.”
The RCMP say they will strategically use the additional funding in the areas of most need, largely rural-based detachments. They could not say if or how many new officers would be deployed in specific locations, but added they will try to fill as many positions as possible.
Ms. Parke also expressed concern about the new initiative.
“Criminals know they have ample time to complete their tasks. If they knew they only had a matter of minutes, many events would not unravel as much as they do,” she says. “I hope the extra officers will ensure more presence in the field, but there is no way to tell at this point.”
Ms. Parke once scoffed at the idea of being told by officials to hide and “wait like a sitting duck” until police arrived, but her attack has changed her perspective and now they have a new plan should another incident like the one from September occur.
“We’re going to go on lock-down mode. That’s all we can do. They can take what they want. I would crack the window and throw my keys out if they would leave,” she said.
Ms. Parke is still experiencing the effects of trauma; the palms of her hands and fingers go numb and she feels confused and disoriented. But, in spite of everything, she said she is compassionate toward her attacker.
“She’s a person. She’s a mother,” she says. “What kind of a broken person is stabbing someone at 2:30 in the morning, do you know what I mean? They’re obviously lost.”
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