Statistics from across the country have shown jumps in the problem, specifically in the Prairies, where rural crime rates are much higher than in urban areas
EDMONTON — Alberta’s justice minister is roping together rural crime and western alienation in a push to get the federal government to do more to combat the phenomenon, and has successfully lobbied for the creation of a national working group.
On Wednesday in Victoria, provincial and territorial justice ministers agreed to form a working group to tackle the subject. Among the questions they will be looking into is whether there should be stiffer penalties for those who commit crimes in rural areas, said Doug Schweitzer, Alberta’s justice minister.
“We’ve got people sleeping with axes under their beds, and loaded firearms beside their beds, cause they don’t feel safe,” said Schweitzer. “There really is a need for a national strategy to combat rural crime.”
The ministers agreed there should be co-operation on the issue, similar to the way governments think about gang violence, and Schweitzer hopes the federal government will come forward with funding. The Alberta government is asking the working group to consider a handful of proposals when it comes to aggravating factors in sentencing: selection of a remote area to commit a crime, refusing to leave when confronted and having a weapon or being threatening.
Statistics from across the country have shown jumps in the problem, specifically in the Prairies, where rural crime rates are between 36 per cent and 42 per cent higher than in urban areas, says Statistics Canada. Its 2017 crime report said that year was the most violent in rural Canada since 2009, with 148 homicides.
Last year, the House of Commons public safety committee released a three-page report on rural crime that made no recommendations. It was panned by the federal Conservative party, with Alberta MP Shannon Stubbs saying it was an “affront” to rural Canadians.
Both crime and western alienation have been major issues in Alberta — and on the Prairies more generally — in the last couple of years, and both have been compounded by a flagging economy and spikes in drug use that, in turn, may be fuelling increases in property crime.
“When you put those factors together, it is overall frustration with government as a whole,” said Schweitzer. “Making people feel safe is kind of the basic premise of our democracy.”
Rural crime also galvanized the previous Alberta government, which implemented a $10-million strategy in 2018 that, according to the RCMP, led to an improvement province-wide compared to the year before. There were hundreds fewer homes broken into and vehicles stolen and thousands fewer thefts, although the government said at the time the improvements were uneven across the province.
The United Conservative government also has a strategy in place, having announced the hiring of new police officers, strengthening property rights and having community impact statements in court.
“They’ve been asking for their governments to step up to the plate … and now we’re asking the federal government to put this issue at the top of their agenda as well,” said Schweitzer.