Thank you very much, and thank you for the invitation.
As I have indicated—and I have forwarded the report itself to the committee—I was asked to take a look at this issue back in March and April for the United Conservative Party in Alberta, so I went out there.
Essentially, it was their MLAs who had been doing town hall meetings on the subject. What they wanted to do was pull the information together that they already had from their individual MLAs, get some specifics with some interviews from law enforcement people, which I was able to do, and then in effect combine it all in the context of policy and put together a series of recommendations on how to deal with the issue. That was the context in which I got involved.
I should add that I was a prosecutor in Alberta. I was in what would be viewed as a...including rural areas in the traditional district of Wetaskiwin, which actually means “hills with peace” in Cree, which, trust me, it wasn't. It was the largest, richest reserve in the country, and it was proof that money is not the answer, because it was one of the most violent places imaginable.
I will be very quick. What I will do is maybe just touch on a couple of the highlights. There are a lot of details about some of the specifics that may be of interest to you in different areas, and I can leave some of those specifics to the questions that follow.
Essentially, as I say, the interview included the MLAs who had conducted the town hall meetings. They also supplied a lot of the materials they had received. They were really very effective town hall meetings. There were municipal politicians as well, and community groups and police entities. I did the count last night, and there were a total of 22 groups or individuals that I was involved in interviewing.
It was analysis and recommendations. The precondition was that it was going to be based on substantive data, not just supposition. That was the point of gathering all the information together. It was also in recognition.... I'm sure you're all aware as well, especially when you're dealing with a subject as complex as this, that the issues are not all legislative. It also includes operational issues, policy issues, and funding issues.
I know a number of you have a background in the criminal justice system. One of the truths in our system is that the two key principles are based on the idea that the officials have discretion, whether it's police officers, prosecutors, judges, or even post-conviction correctional officials, and our system is based on the notion that they have that discretion and that they exercise that discretion.
It is also a reality in our system that there are multiple players involved in it, and the actions or inactions of one player can have significant impact on the other players throughout the system.
That's something that needs to be kept in mind when you're dealing with any criminal justice-related issue, and it equally applies in this one too.
On some of the key issues that were identified, there is no question from all of the people I spoke with—and as I say, they had held these town hall meetings—that there is a significant increase in rural crime, which by way of definition is....
There are some crimes that are generally the kinds of crimes that are being committed, but the definition of it is essentially crime that is occurring in non-urban or non-suburban areas. Different agencies had definitions based on population and location of detachments and things like that. For those kinds of things, though, if you're looking for a more narrow analysis on it, it certainly can be done by some objective standard. I must admit the people at Juristat are fully capable of doing that
Really you have a situation in which the bad guys are taking advantage of the vulnerable situation. That's really what it comes down to at the core. The individuals involved were identified as frequently being armed and intoxicated. More than one entity I spoke with in the police world about this also raised a very tangent point, I think: Where are the bad guys getting the guns? I know that's an issue that is being analyzed right now. It's a very good thing that it's being analyzed, because that's something that needs to be looked at.
The core of it, of course, is that there's a lack of timely police response due to a shortage of police resources. My understanding is that there have been improvements made, but a literally dysfunctional call system in place. It was simply not working as it was originally intended. That, of course, was causing other problems as well.
Another major issue was that the sites themselves were not as secure as they could've and should've been. There were different views expressed about that, including: “Why should I have to do this? I've never had to do this before.” That may be true, but if you have a reality that you're facing of people coming to take advantage of it, you need to also look at reducing the opportunity for the bad guys to take advantage.
There was definitely a lack of clarity on homeowners' self-protection rights. I know the committee has heard from different witnesses on that aspect. That's one of the areas on which I made recommendations. Specifically, I believe you heard from Solomon Friedman, who gave some very precise information on the same principle that I had been suggesting. He has, frankly, more current expertise than I do, but the idea was that there are things we can do to clarify those issues that would be helpful.
The enormous importance of community groups, whether it's Citizens on Patrol or the Alberta Rural Crime Watch, is a really key part of it. I heard that from the local officials and the police as well. It was also reflected in the town hall meetings.
As I'm sure you've heard, one of the realities of this is that we are—what a surprise—dealing with repeat offenders; the people who commit crimes over and over again. Compounding that is the sense of this being exacerbated by what is described as a catch-and-release reality, where people who are being apprehended are being kicked loose by the system in inappropriate circumstances. That, of course, exacerbates things.
One of the realities from the police groups was the identification that it was not just people who lived in rural areas who were committing these crimes, but people who lived in urban and suburban areas who were leaving those areas to go and commit the crimes by taking advantage of those vulnerable circumstances. It wasn't a haphazard approach. In fact, it was more organized than that. These were groups of people. Chop shops were involved. In essence, it was more organized than what one might expect.
Vehicle theft, of course, was predominant. The police report it. I saw this, and I should've mentioned this at the beginning. Part of what I did when I started this was an extensive review of all of the media reporting. My analysis was exclusive to Alberta, but I looked at the media reporting in different western jurisdictions in particular.
One of the things that the police were quite clear about, and as I've seen in following the issue since then, is that there is a real increase in stolen vehicles and high-speed chases involving the police. After those individuals are actually confronted, there is armed resistance and confrontation by the offenders. That's something that the different police groups that I spoke to specifically identified.
Obviously, in a contract province, the key issue is the shortage of RCMP officers, including the RCMP officers who are assigned to the detachment. The phrase that one person used was, “They're getting their directions from Ottawa, not from Alberta.” It went right to the core of the entire contract policing issue.
There has been some success, and you've heard from some of the RCMP officers, in some areas: integrated crime reduction units, the alert, problems in relation to victims not being informed, and restitution. Also—and I can touch on this later, but I didn't know about this—there are some deficiencies in sexual assault evidence retention and in preserving the integrity of the evidence that need to be corrected.
In conclusion, it was reported that there definitely was an erosion in public confidence in the justice system among people who lived in these rural communities because of all of this, and what they perceived as a lack of response.
The recommendations were varied, and they were not just legislative. You don't always have to change laws to do it. It's not just federal laws, but also policies and operations that we can hopefully get into during the questions.
Good afternoon. My name is Lane, I'm the director of the Citizens on Patrol program in Edam, Saskatchewan. This is a village of 436 people in northwest Saskatchewan, between the cities of Lloydminster and North Battleford. North Battleford has, for the last two years, been classified as the most dangerous city in Canada.
I've been asked here today to explain how our Citizens on Patrol program works and the things that we've seen out in the field.
First, the concerns of citizens in our village and rural area regarding crime prompted a town hall meeting with the RCMP. Our Citizens on Patrol program started in January of 2018, shortly after this meeting. The Citizens on Patrol program works in partnership with the RCMP. We talk to them quite often. We're the eyes and ears for the RCMP in our area. We are about 20 to 25 minutes away from the nearest detachment.
I just put a few little notes in here on what a normal patrol looks like for our volunteers.
The group is strictly volunteers. There's no payment when these guys do this. Our patrol consists of two volunteers, and starts anywhere between 11 p.m. and 12 a.m., and will finish anywhere from 4:30 a.m. until the regular traffic in town starts moving. It just depends on the activities within the town and the activities of the criminals within our town. We contact the RCMP dispatch when we start, and volunteers then drive around the village streets and park in designated areas to monitor the movement in town. Lots of times there is movement. The village has also supplied us with cameras and a phone to monitor the entrance to the village. There isn't one person who comes into town after 11 p.m. who isn't on camera.
When suspicious activity occurs, volunteers contact the RCMP dispatch, and the RCMP officer on duty in our area will then contact the volunteer for more information so they can figure out if they need to come down, what's happening and whatnot. Suspicious activity is anything that is unusual at that time of the morning: unfamiliar vehicles, drug activity, foot traffic, people walking around with hoods up scouting out businesses and stuff like that.
It should be noted that Edam, Saskatchewan, has no hotel, no bar and nothing open past 10 p.m. Other than the odd person coming around, especially during the week, there is not a lot of movement unless it's criminal activity.
The volunteers monitor the suspicious activity at a safe distance until the RCMP arrive. When the RCMP arrive, they make contact with the volunteer in person and decide where they need to be. Usually they then go to check out the situation and see what happens. If the RCMP are busy with a higher-priority call, the volunteers keep monitoring the situation—sometimes up to two or three hours—until they are able to respond.
Our information from each patrol is documented through an app we built called iPatrol, and is then emailed to our Citizens on Patrol executive, which looks at each situation. We go over it with the cops either the next day or weekly.
The success of the program has had a huge impact on reducing crime in our area. When we started this program, the town of 400 people was hit three to four times a night. It was mostly stolen vehicles and some break and enters. We've had many, many different situations. It hasn't been very fun, to be honest, but at the end of the day it's reduced the crime, and that's what we have been doing to reduce the crime. Information given to the RCMP by volunteers has led to numerous arrests of gang affiliates, people with outstanding warrants, and drug traffickers, as well as recovery of stolen property.
We believe the Citizens on Patrol program is not a permanent solution, as it's run solely by volunteers. Volunteers donate their time, fuel and vehicles to be on patrol in our community. Lots of these people work during the day, and they're out until 4:30 or 5:30 in the morning, so their next day at work is pretty tough, but in order to keep our community safe, that's what we've had to resort to.
As the director of Citizens on Patrol, I speak, at a minimum, weekly with the RCMP. We believe this has been very important for the safety of our volunteers and the success of our program. We share information on what's been happening in our area. We go over the information regarding what's been happening in surrounding areas and communities. That's what we do.
These crimes have been committed by people from all walks of life. There isn't any issue with reserves in the area.
We have come to the conclusion that we need the justice system to change a bit and we need more policing. The Young Offenders Act has been an especially big part of our issues here. Having 12- and 13-year-old kids running around with sawed-off .22s and stealing vehicles is not fun.
In a lot of our dealings with criminals, they've been out for their sixth or seventh time and they've had two or three warrants out for their arrest. One in particular that we were dealing with had over 12 warrants for his arrest. That's what we've had to do.
That basically wraps up my introduction.
Good afternoon, members of the committee, members of Parliament, and the other witnesses called upon to speak on rural crime today.
My name is Nick Cornea, and I am the founder and president of Farmers Against Rural Crime, a Facebook page that I started up in February to bring awareness and to push for changes on rural crime in western Canada.
I may find it hard to keep this to a 10-minute introduction, but I am here today as one voice for the 17,500 members who I have on my page from coast to coast.
I am a father of two and a third-generation farmer on a farm near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. We live near two large populated areas, Moose Jaw and Regina. Living near these populated areas, we face the challenges of rural crime on a daily basis.
Over the last eight months since this page was created, I have received hundreds upon hundreds of stories from people all over Canada about crime in their area. Their first-hand experiences with the struggles of handling theft, financially and emotionally, are second to none. Some of the stories that have been told to me would break most people's hearts.
These are stories of families who show their children where to hide in their house so that if thieves do break into their house, their children can be safe. They come home from the school bus and have to run from their lane up into the yard into the house and lock the doors. There are stories of people who put an eight-foot chain-link fence with razor wire around their house. They all have an automatic opener for the gate to get into their house. They drive their vehicle in and they close the gate. They then hit their garage door opener, open the garage door, drive in, close the garage door, and then unlock their house. That's how bad some areas are in northern Saskatchewan.
Victims are losing not only material goods but also livestock, pets, and lately even a large Clydesdale horse to thieves wanting to make a quick buck.
I have also heard the issues with response times of police. In rural western Canada, even though we may only be a 20- to 30-minute drive from the nearest detachment, the response time of an officer may be hours or even days to get out to our locations. This leaves us as sitting ducks for criminals to come out, get what they want, and leave. We are then left frightened, alone and fearing we may have to defend ourselves, which will make us into a criminal and no longer the victim, as we have seen with the Maurice family in Okotoks, Alberta.
In Saskatchewan we have also seen an increase in young offenders doing the crimes. Some young offenders in the last few months as young as 11 years old were involved in breaking and entering and theft of motor vehicles. My group has made an outcry to have the age of the Youth Criminal Justice Act reduced to the age of 14 to 15. These teenagers know what they are doing and how to do it, and they do know the crime on their record will be expunged once they turn 18. The lifetime criminals also know this, and they use this to their advantage.
In conclusion, the vast majority of our group would like to see changes in the Youth Criminal Justice Act, stiffer penalties to the criminals to stop that revolving door from turning, and restitution for loss of goods as well as for insurance premiums, because not only are our possessions stolen, but we then have to pay a deductible to get them back. Then, in turn, the insurance company raises our premiums to get the money back for the money they have given us.
We'd like to see faster response time for police and RCMP. Stationing one or two officers in every small community would probably help the situation. It might not fix it, but it would definitely help it.
We would also like to see funding for mental health of the victims, victims who suffer from anxiety and other issues stemming from the crime on their property.
I have one story in particular of a 26-year-old woman who farms and ranches with a neighbour. Over the years, she has been saving her money from working on the neighbouring ranch. She saves money from every paycheque. She goes to the local livestock auction and buys one or two head of bred heifers, brings them back to her place and tries to grow her herd. Her end goal is that she wants to make a sustainable future for herself and her family.
She's been broken into six times in the last four years—four in the last two years. One time in particular when she came home, all her doors were open, her dogs were outside and her fences were left open. She was scared and didn't go in. She went back to work and called her father and her boss. They went to check out the house. When she arrived after they said the coast was clear, she walked into complete devastation. TVs were ripped off the walls and stolen. They had literally jumped through the drywall, destroying the house from end to end. Not only did they hurt her financially, but they hurt her emotionally by stealing her underwear drawer to take with them as a prized possession or some kind of trophy.
These are the things that our group would like to see change. We don't want to live our lives in fear, and we don't want to fear for our families. I have a 15-year-old-sister and a 13-year-old brother who help on the farm. When I'm in the field combining or when I'm driving a semi, I don't want to get a radio phone call from my sister or my brother telling me that there's someone in our yard and they don't know what to do.
I know that a lot of you are from urban areas and don't realize that a tractor isn't like a truck or a car. We do 20 kilometres to 30 kilometres an hour down the road in road gear. Also, there is no mechanism to lock the door and generally all our doors are made of glass so that we have a full view of our crop as we're driving, spraying, combining, seeding and doing other tillage work on our farm. I never want to hear that phone call that my sister is being murdered, raped or taken advantage of, because these criminals, once you see their faces, all of a sudden it's fight or flight for them.
I know that we're a long distance apart, but when you're making your findings and doing your report, think of my family. Think of my four-year-old-son, my one-year-old daughter, my 13-year-old brother and my 15-year-old sister and the fear that we have in our area with criminals and theft. It's not only the properties that we're worried about losing—it's our family members.
I'd like to thank you guys for inviting me to be part of this inquiry. I hope that together we can bring forth changes to help combat this epidemic in rural Canada. I always finish on my Facebook page with the slogan of our page: “Be Vigilant and Not Vigilantes”.
I must admit that when I heard that specific issue raised, it was not something I had anticipated hearing. I was frankly shocked that in 2018, in Canada, we don't have appropriate medical facilities. It was literally that they couldn't maintain continuity on the samples that were taken, and as a result the Crown was saying, “Well, we don't have continuity on the evidence, so we can't proceed with a sexual assault charge.” We should be capable of doing this. I think that one in particular is something the province can do something about through its own regulatory regimes.
I ran into something else. I was the vice-chair and special counsel of the Ontario Office for Victims of Crime. When we were set up in 1998, one of the things we found was that in a specially created statutory fund, the Victims' Justice Fund, there was a $44-million surplus, money that hadn't been spent, and there were huge gaps in victims services all across Ontario.
I gather that the Auditor General has also identified a surplus of about $50 million not being spent in the equivalent Alberta fund, and yet you hear from the victims services agencies, as you described, that they are struggling to help people.
That's not something the federal government has to do, although you should probably remind the provincial government that that money should actually be spent and not simply kept in a bank account somewhere.
The other thing I would suggest you take a look at is that the federal government has a number of crime prevention, domestic violence, and victim funding strategies that provide funds to provinces or municipal agencies. I would suggest you take a look at those to make sure you're maximizing the benefit being obtained. You can certainly take targeted funding out of those existing funds—not new dollars, but money from the existing funds—and say, “There is a specific need, and these funds should be directed towards it.” You work in co-operation with the province and the victims groups to make sure they get at least some of the money they need to do the job that is so important.
I would like to thank Mr. Newark, Mr. Becotte, and Mr. Cornea for their presentations today. I'd like to thank our two gentlemen from Saskatchewan for their volunteer service in helping their communities.
I would like to read an email that I got from one of my constituents yesterday. It's so appropriate that I had to bring it here today. I'm going to lead my question off right afterward.
I'm not going to give his full name. I've asked him, but he hasn't sent a reply back, so I'll just give his first name: Wayne.
|| Thank you for your quick reply and efforts concerning Rural Crime.
||The need for something immediate in this case is needed. The time required for politics to find a solution may be too little too late. Sometimes it feels like we're in a war zone and politics tell us we'll talk about stopping the bombs from falling in time.
||I believe I'm a concerned citizen that wants tomorrow's news to read about bad people taken down, not neighbours or I victimized again. I hope I am not being told I should just let vigilante justice take hold until politics can find a solution.
|| As someone who lives in a rural area where crime is almost a daily occurrence, I can offer first hand input to any task force that wants it. Right now, I need the assistance of an authority willing to act before things get out of hand.
||There is an urgency in my words and maybe politicians are just another dead end like other paths explored. Desperate people will act for themselves if no one else does. Personally, I am not desperate, but some are. I suppose I'll do my best for those I can [help] until help in some form arrives.
|| Thanks again for your time.
I don't know Wayne from anybody, but I did research, and he lives about 40 miles out of Edmonton in a rural area.
With that lead-up, I would like to put a question to both Lane and Nick.
Are you hearing similar frustrations in your travels throughout your areas? I know most people don't want anything to do with vigilante justice, but they're very frustrated.
Could you both quickly comment, please?
We'll start with Lane.
I made some suggestions in the report that I did for the Alberta Conservative Party about that. This is the way we tend to do things now with the charter and our courts that think they know best.
Where you don't change the discretion but instead Parliament adds on the relevant factors that the court should take into account in, for example, deciding on the provisions of self-defence in defence of property or in defence of person, I'd tweak them specifically to the rural crime situations. You want to make the law such that the court is obliged to consider these specific relevant factors in deciding whether or not the use of force was legitimate.
In a similar sense, I'd change section 718, on the principles of sentencing. We've already done this. You'll see in the legislation that it's already there. It was specifically adding in sections that emphasize deterrence and denunciation when people are deliberately going to rural properties to commit crimes based on the vulnerability of individuals. There are things that I think can be done in relation to that.
Cycling back to the point that was in your email, I can't stress enough—and it's the real reason I wanted to come to the committee and did the work in Alberta—that it is absolutely appropriate and possible for groups such as this committee, and political parties as well, not to simply engage in theoretical discussions or polemics but to get into specifics, to drill down into things that will actually make a difference, whether it's legislation, policies, or funding actions.
With regard to the thing you were talking about in relation to self-defence, let's put that clarification that I'm talking about in the Crown policy manual as well, so the Crown prosecutor sees what they have to consider in deciding whether to lay charges against somebody under that. That kind of stuff actually works.
It's hearing those front-line insights and input from people such as the other witnesses who were here, and law enforcement as well, and the community groups. In my experience, that's how you formulate informed and effective policy.