That the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security be instructed to undertake a study on rural crime in Canada and consider factors, including but not limited to: (i) current rural crime rates and trends, (ii) existing RCMP and other policing resources and policies in rural, remote, and Indigenous communities, particularly in relation to population density, policing geographic area, and staff shortages, (iii) current partnerships with provincial, municipal, and Indigenous police forces, (iv) possible recommendations to improve rural crime prevention and to curb emerging crime rates, and that the Committee report its findings to the House within six months of the adoption of this motion.
Mr. Speaker, today, I am honoured to speak to Motion No. 167, which urges the public safety and national security committee to convene a comprehensive and current assessment on rural crimes in communities across Canada.
I want to acknowledge the work of the Alberta rural crime task force for all of its advocacy.
Rural crime affects constituents from across our ridings. Rural Alberta MPs have been working with provincial and municipal representatives and citizen groups to hear from victims of crime, law enforcement, and sometimes even offenders, to identify concrete actions to reduce rural crime and to protect the rights of victims. I know rural MPs across all of Canada, and of all parties, hear the same concerns from their constituents.
Lakeland constituents feel unsafe in their homes and at work because of escalating robberies, thefts, and break-ins in small towns, family farms, and businesses. The motion is a first step to making concrete recommendations to improve rural crime prevention and to reduce escalating crime rates.
Motion No. 167 calls for an assessment of those trends of crime rates in rural Canada, because 2015 was the first time police reported crime in Canada went up in over a decade, the first time in more than 12 years. It increased again in 2016. Therefore, the experiences of our constituents in rural Alberta, and of people across Canada, are clearly reflected in the official statistics. Many are frustrated and rightfully angry. Many have been victims repeatedly and with increasing violence.
My constituent Barbara said, “Once you tell your personal story of a break-in almost everyone you meet can offer up their own, so you're right when you say there has been a substantial increase in these incidences, and we're all scared and frustrated.”
Canada is clearly in need of a formalized, in-depth assessment on rural crime in order to get the statistics to make tangible recommendations for concrete action to combat this crisis. Both the analysis and the action must be swift because it is urgent.
My constituents do not want studies or reports forever; they want action. However, because the notable escalation of crime is relatively recent, it is a fact that a comprehensive investigation of all factors has not actually yet been undertaken federally. Motion No. 167 is at least a measure I can suggest as a private member to get rural crime on the federal agenda.
One of my constituents, Colleen, says, “Everyone in our area is very, very concerned about rural crime and personal safety.... Neighbours all around us have had vehicles stolen or their houses broken into...it is an epidemic.”
From central Alberta, Rose says, “If we do not feel safe in our own homes, then there needs to be an establishment of why we do not feel safe.”
Ben told me, “As a rural property owner, we are completely frustrated. To date we have lost three vehicles, huge amounts of diesel fuel, several batteries, tools, money, credit cards and precious family heirlooms”.
Feedback from some RCMP members in Lakeland reported increases of 80% in property crime, 58% in vehicle theft, and 105% in property theft under $5,000. In fact, property crime in rural Alberta alone increased by 41% in the last five years, while the population only went up 8%.
Kevin in Lakeland says, “Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in our area who have personally been impacted by thefts, break and enter, and damage caused by those who would seek to take things that do not belong to them”.
Jennifer says, “I know more people who have been robbed than who haven't. It is beyond disheartening and unbelievably unfair. We are sitting ducks due to our location and an understaffed detachment.”
Brad, describing an incident near his farm, says, “The police came up the next day to take a report...moral of the story is that I came to the conclusion that the only one who can protect my family where we live is me, and after my neighbours are phoned I might call the police. And unfortunately I will be the 'bad guy' when they finally arrive here.”
This is happening all too often. Rural crime across Canada was led by a 10% spike in Alberta, but it increased all across western Canada, in New Brunswick, and the Northwest Territories. A recent RCMP report said that property crime in rural Alberta had reached levels never before seen in recent history.
Policing in rural areas is vastly different than urban centres. The St. Paul region in my riding has been hit hard with crime, and it has the highest number of cases of any crown prosecutor office in Alberta, with 2,000 cases back-logged, compared to an Edmonton office with 800.
Just as there are unique challenges with the court system in rural Canada, so too are there challenges with policing rural crime. The committee would examine RCMP staff resources and policies in rural, remote, and indigenous communities in relation to population density, geographic area, and staff shortages.
That is why Motion No. 167 also calls for an examination of current partnerships with provincial and municipal police.
Currently, most rural areas across Canada are policed by the RCMP, except in Quebec and Ontario, which have provincial police forces. The RCMP provides specific federal policing services there as in the rest of the country. Many larger cities and districts have their own municipal police forces. However, more than 150 municipalities, three international airports, and 600 indigenous communities have contracts with the RCMP for local services.
The RCMP has thousands of kilometres to cover and very limited resources. Even a lack of cellphone coverage and road conditions with no street lights over great distances impact response times. As a result, constituents are left vulnerable.
Candace says, “We operate a substantial farm which is our livelihood. Our shop was broken into. The tractor trailer cab interiors messed. Registrations, glasses, CDs, paper files etc. There were excellent footprints and the RCMP showed up a week later.”
A member of that same family down the road just this weekend had his truck stolen by three criminals while his kids were in the yard. It is scary, because if anything had happened, the RCMP to be dispatched are 60 kilometres away.
Across Canada, RCMP members themselves say they are concerned about their own safety and about the safety of the communities in which they work across Canada.
For example, in Lakeland, one detachment has only four RCMP members to cover 2,200 square kilometres and 8,300 Albertans. The reality is that two of them are rarely on duty at the same time and one often is in the office doing administrative duties.
Nationally, more than one in 10 RCMP positions are vacant. As of April 2017, 230 positions are unfilled in Alberta.
Caroline says, “I had a neighbour who called the RCMP after they had a break-in. RCMP never came that day. Never came the next day. Never came at all.”
Currently in Saskatchewan, the RCMP has approximately 925 members working out of 87 rural detachments under community policing agreements. Another 250 officers are based at larger municipal RCMP detachments and 33 are involved in community policing arrangements with Saskatchewan first nations.
In Manitoba, RCMP detachments have been struggling for years with vacancies that have constrained policing services to rural and indigenous communities.
The problem of employment fatigue in the RCMP is a national concern and it is particularly acute in Manitoba. The result is reduced safety and protection to rural and indigenous people, eroded morale, and increased stress for RCMP members.
RCMP members express significant concern for the mental and physical well-being of their colleagues. This highlights a key concern identified by law enforcement stakeholders that a broad public awareness of dwindling policing resources can reasonably generate public unease and embolden criminals.
All of us here today respect the hard work and sacrifice of the RCMP. A thorough and up-to-date assessment will help determine specific resource requirements and actions needed to serve and protect rural communities and about whether recent announcements have made measurable differences.
Residents and businesses in small towns and rural areas across Lakeland say that they expect break-ins and robberies. They are taking action to protect themselves, setting up buddy systems with neighbours, rural crime watches, and citizens on patrol.
One resident said, “We have a security system, but that doesn't help much when it takes the RCMP too long to get there.”
Small business retention is becoming a major challenge in rural communities plagued by rampant crime. Small businesses are vital to Canada's economy, especially in rural areas with limited employment.
For years, small businesses have been broken into and with escalating violence like armed robberies of the Boyne Lake General Store, the Vegreville Hotel, the Bonnyville liquor store, the butcher shop in Eckville, and a sporting goods store in Caroline. Businesses are contacting their counties because they have been broken into so many times that their insurance companies are now refusing them.
On January 28, The Globe and Mail reported on small business retention in rural Canada. It said:
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.
However, the question is clear. What incentive is there for business owners to remain in rural areas? It may now be costing them more to stay open than not. Businesses and employees must be able to thrive in rural Canada, not be driven out by criminals and repeat offenders. The rights of law-abiding business owners and residents everywhere must be prioritized over the rights of criminals.
The analysis mandated by Motion No. 167 can deliver the statistics and context to clearly establish all the factors behind the increase in rural crime.
Many municipal associations and municipalities across Canada want action. The Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities recently called for stiffer penalties for those convicted of rural crimes, restrictions on access to rural properties, increased RCMP resources to deal with agriculture-related thefts in rural areas, and expanded rights and justification for individuals to defend or protect themselves, their family, and their property.
My constituents want stronger penalties to stop the revolving door of repeat offenders. Because they are left without RCMP able to get to them fast enough, they fear they are in a no-win situation if they are forced to defend themselves, their family, their homes, property or businesses.
Silke said, “With every strange noise we look out the window and a false alarm from our shop sensor gives us adrenaline overload. Every slow-driving vehicle makes our hairs stand up and in general everyone in the neighbourhood is on edge.”
Caroline said, “I had a neighbour who was at home with her five children. There were people in the yard and all she could do was let them snoop. They had a vehicle waiting on the other side of the treeline. This sort of thing has been, and in my opinion, will continue to escalate.” She asks what our government's first job is, if not to protect its citizens.
Monique said, “Any time I am returning home, kids are in school, husband is at work, I'm nervous, cautious, and scared. Will I drive up to find we are the next victims, and worse yet, will I catch them in the act? That puts me in between them and their escape route. Then what? It's flight or fight for both of us. Guaranteed I will be unarmed. Never in my life did I think that things would shift from urban being safer than rural. We chose rural to feel safer. Now we are targets, sitting ducks so to speak.”
The rise in rural crime has coincided with the escalating opioid crisis in Canada. In 2016, Alberta, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, and Yukon rated among the highest in the country for apparent opioid-related deaths per 100,000 people, and exceeded the rest of the provinces in terms of fentanyl deaths. That coincides with the increase in rural crime. Multiple first nation communities have declared states of emergency in response to the uptick in opioid overdoses, during which crime rates began to soar.
All members and parties have been strong advocates for action on the opioid epidemic in Canada, and while there are many related factors to ponder, this motion will be an opportunity to enable the appropriate committee to assess this urgent issue in that context: the concurrent increase in opioid use and rural crime.
Some law enforcement officials cite the challenges and resourcing of RCMP in rural areas as a factor in escalating drug-related crimes, and of increasing activities of organized crime in rural areas. Overall, a major problem is that there are so many unanswered questions. This motion is a first step for the federal government to explicitly acknowledge this urgent issue, and to start moving the levers to address it and take action.
Kevin said, “This experience really traumatized me, as well as my wife Lexie, who was at home only a hundred feet from the shop with our four young children when these individuals were here. We don't live close to neighbours, about two kilometres, and for the last two years we have had to change much about how we live out here. It really impacted us and has made us wary about living in an isolated area, even now two years after the incident”, when they were robbed. He continues, “Some of the items stolen were irreplaceable, and the loss of security we feel has certainly been felt by our whole family.”
Sharon said, “I have never been afraid to stay alone on our acreage and hardly ever locked a door. Now all doors on this property are locked, we have yard lights, motion lights...an alarm system. Still, I don't feel safe. The police are so thinned out for this big country that they can't help taking sometimes a couple of hours to respond to a call. I am a 75-year-old woman and it is just wrong that I should have these fears as a free Canadian.”
Judy said, “This is not fair that I have to live in fear with gates locked, phone by the bed, and awakened at every noise! This is not the Alberta I know and love.”
These voices are echoed by thousands in rural communities across Canada. It does not discriminate between regions or party lines and it affects everyone. A core duty of government is public safety and security. Constituents should get the safety they deserve.
The results of this assessment would directly affect all rural communities across Canada and benefit every rural constituency should this motion be adopted. Therefore, I urge all members of the House to pass Motion No. 167. As Darcy from Lakeland said, let us make rural life safe again.