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Sandra McLeod with her horses at feeding time on her ranch near Sylvan Lake, Alta., where a spike in break-ins and vehicle thefts have residents on edge.

'Everyone is on guard'

Recent increases in property crime in rural Alberta, which some attribute to the province's economic downturn, have police and politicians promising action, reports Kelly Cryderman

The moment the strange woman walked into the ranch building where Sandra McLeod and her daughter were working this month, Ms. McLeod's hair stood on end.

Many of the neighbours around her Sylvan Lake, Alta.-area guest ranch have suffered break-ins and truck thefts in recent months – sometimes multiple times. They have installed new metal gates, loaded up on bear spray and have bought "really mean dogs," Ms. McLeod said. Her family's Rainy Creek Ranch sports a sign with a picture of a revolver and the words, "We don't call 911."

Minutes before the woman arrived, Ms. McLeod's husband had driven away. The stranger looked surprised to see anyone home, then asked to use the washroom. Ms. McLeod said the woman's male companion sized up the ranch's Bobcat machine before the couple left in their car. Ms. McLeod found the visit so unnerving that she posted photos she was able to snap of the pair surreptitiously to a local crime-watch Facebook group. Days later, she learned they had been arrested nearby and that the man was charged with mischief.

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"We've pulled together as a community here now. We're watching and listening and reporting anything weird," said Ms. McLeod, whose guest ranch specializes in horse-skills programs, including children's rodeo, Métis youth mountain guiding and therapeutic riding for those with special needs.

"We're getting ready with our binoculars – and our shotguns."

In some pockets of rural Alberta, the days of unlocked front doors and keys left in trucks are over – as is the once-guileless greeting of strangers. Farmers and business owners who've been hit multiple times say they are surprised by the brazenness of recent property crimes – thieves come looking for electronics, farm equipment or guns, even when someone is home. Some of the incursions appear well-organized, some haphazard, with the criminals sometimes using bear spray as a weapon.

A sign on Sandra McLeod’s ranch near Sylvan Lake, Alta.

With police agencies sometimes too far away to respond quickly, landowners have set up patrols or joined crime-watch groups, often posting sightings of strange vehicles and visitors on social media. Farmers are at times jumping into their trucks to chase down suspects. Deputy Commissioner Todd Shean, the commanding officer of the RCMP in Alberta, said while the force is ready to take any reports of crime, he's concerned about people taking the law into their own hands.

Three years after an oil-price drop sent the province's economy into a tailspin, reports of increasing property crime continue, but some of the geography has changed.

Police agencies across the province reported a 35-per-cent spike in break-and-enters between 2014 and 2015, according to Statistics Canada, with cities such as Grande Prairie and Calgary seeing significant increases in some property crimes. Police say they have made significant progress, however, and Alberta's crime rate as a whole ticked up only slightly between 2015 and 2016.

In certain areas, though, residents say criminal activity continues to grow. For instance, in the Blackfalds RCMP detachment that polices the rural areas around Red Deer, the number of criminal incidents went up about 30 per cent between 2015 and 2016.

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The provincial government calls the issue of rural crime a significant concern. But it has been taken up with gusto by the opposition United Conservative Party (UCP), which calls it an "epidemic" and has established a travelling rural-crime task force.

The RCMP said it's working on a more cohesive approach to crime reduction and bolstering its intelligence resources.

"We have an obligation as the federal police force here in the province to look at that more sophisticated, higher-level organized crime that occurs in the province as well," Deputy Commissioner Shean said in an interview. "I'm looking to come at it from all directions."

Citizens on Patrol, a volunteer group that reports suspicious activity to police, said it is hearing from people who want to start chapters in the small farming communities surrounding Red Deer, along with some areas just north of Edmonton.

The reasons for the apparent increase in crime in some areas are not clear. Some landowners blame the often transient nature of work in Alberta – dependent on the ups and downs of the price of oil – and the thousands of jobs that were lost in 2014-15. Some say it is related to opioid use or methamphetamine addiction, or criminals moving into areas considered softer targets. Red Deer County Councillor Jean Bota said she believes rural crime is an ongoing issue – with criminal elements now travelling further afield from Alberta's main north-south highway, the Queen Elizabeth II – but it has only recently received more media attention.

"The mood around the county is people are really, really angry," said Don MacIntyre, the UCP MLA for Innisfail-Sylvan Lake.

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"Everyone is on guard," said Brad Dallas, a long-time Bowden-area farmer whose property was broken into three times in 2017, the thieves making off with an all-terrain vehicle, a semi-trailer, tools and electronics.

He and his neighbours, who have faced similar break-and-enters, decided they would pursue the criminals when they could. They have installed metal gates and security systems – a dramatic shift from the open farmyards of just 12 months ago.

President of OC Archery Range Dane Bruce, who has been robbed three times at his range in Airdrie, Alta.

"The vigilante acts are going to happen because there are not enough police out there to investigate every single incident of theft," Mr. Dallas said. "We're worried that somebody is going to get shot because people are so scared of someone breaking into their house."

Business owners in some areas say they have noticed a new climate as well.

Dane Bruce said his OC Archery Range – located where the Calgary bedroom community of Airdrie meets the countryside – has been broken into three times in the past two years. The robberies have left him with smashed windows and stolen cash registers.

Mr. Bruce said he considered sleeping in the building, but instead has set up an overnight system that sends him a text message whenever a vehicle drives past on the lonely road near the archery range. He said the RCMP are also doing more regular patrols in the area.

"When is it coming next?" he said. "It's tricky. What does a guy do?"


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