Dozens of people gathered at a meeting about crime in rural communities north of Edmonton – areas that Athabasca RCMP said are increasingly seeing more property crimes and break-and-enters.
Dwayne Rawson, an Athabasca County councillor, said the community town hall meeting was meant for residents from Westlock County, Athabasca County and Thorhild County to talk about rural crime and see what they can do to protect themselves.
The meeting was held Friday and included representatives from Athabasca RCMP, the Crown Prosecutor’s Office and Athabasca County as well as local MLA Aaron Piquette and a Westlock defence lawyer.
“Property crimes, particularly break-and-enters in Athabasca in the past year have doubled,” said Athabasca RCMP Staff Sgt. Paul Gilligan.
“We’re arresting people. We’re sending them to court. We’re finding that they’re getting bail pretty much immediately.”
Gilligan admits that fines for crimes can often appear imbalanced, saying fines for running traffic signals may sometimes be higher than fines for stolen property.
“I find it hard to stand before a community group like you and tell you everything’s just perfect out there. It’s not. It’s a daily challenge,” he said.
“There’s just so many prolific offenders, so much going on every hour at the day. You get one back in cells, something pops up somewhere else.”
A similar meeting took place last year but a Crown prosecutor was unable to attend; this year, Crown prosecutor Sheila Joyce was at the forum.
Rural crime has been raised as an issue in Alberta in recent years. In March 2018, the province announced $10 million to fight rural crime across Alberta. The funding went towards the hiring of 39 RCMP officers, 40 civilian positions as well as Crown prosecutors. Much of the money was also specifically targeted — given to specialized Crime Reduction Units to allow police to work more effectively and closely within rural communities.
In July 2018, Statistics Canada released data showing the rural crime rate continues to increase in the Prairie provinces. Alberta saw a 38 per cent higher rural crime rate when compared to urban crime rates.
Local residents like farmer Ken Stasiuk are frustrated by the rash of incidents in the community.
“We’re on pins and needles all the time,” he said.
The farmer has concerns about response times and said it is little consolation when he is told that rural crime happens everywhere.
“That doesn’t solve anything. That doesn’t change anything. That doesn’t deter anything,” he said.
Stasiuk has had tools stolen from his property and said his son-in-law had a van-load of tools stolen as well; he has installed cameras on his property and taken other cautionary measures.
“The driveway alarms. Keys taken out of everything. We now take inventory of everything, pictures and stuff so that we know,” he said.
Stasiuk said residents are trying to take the situation into their own hands by looking out for one another; he said there is even a group chat among neighbours to report any suspicious activities.
“I wouldn’t say I sit here and shake all the time,” he said when asked if he is nervous about rural crime.
“But it’s constant. It doesn’t matter. It’s ingrained into us now. Our eyes are on the road. They’re on the yard. They’re down in the distance at all times looking for something that isn’t right.”
–with files from Spencer Gallichan-Lowe and Emily Mertz