Slowly, but surely, the topic of rural crime is capturing media’s attention — not because our media is necessarily interested in the crimes themselves, but more because rural people are known to be willing to shoot back, quite literally.
Earlier this year, the story of a family that lives 40 minutes outside of Spirit River, Alberta, and how they fought back made the news. This story was revived as Alberta announced more police services for rural areas, but also more costs to be borne by those same rural people.
This incident happened in October 2018 when the family returned home only to be confronted by an armed man who wanted to steal their car — while their young daughter was still inside. That family fought back, and returned gun fire until the perpetrator ran out of bullets. The police eventually arrived, and caught and arrested that person. Fortunately, no one was hit by a bullet in that exchange.
If we go back a few decades, rural crime and the response to it was much simpler. Get caught stealing private property, expect a few bullets to come your way; if you weren’t hit, be thankful that the landowner felt a warning was enough. Today is different, and everyone knows it, including those who like to steal. Laws say one cannot legally shoot thieves caught in the act.
This brings me, and many others, to the central question: What should rural residents do when faced with unknown persons entering on to their private property, who are trying to steal their personal property, and/or cause them personal harm?
If one were to publicly ask police or other government officials, their predictable answer is to call the police and don’t put yourself in harm’s way, along with a reminder that one cannot shoot another person for trespass or stealing or anything else, unless one is in imminent danger and the shooting is in self defence.
Self defence is usually defined when the other person(s) acts first and you react and respond. They shoot at you and you return fire, or the other person is about to stick a knife in you, and you whack them harder to save yourself from injury.
Most people understand this, and crimes of this nature, although quite rare, make headlines as they are sensational. They are also not the normal crimes rural people face.
Most rural crimes involve persons unrelated or unknown to the resident and involve the theft of property, burglary, or trespass on private lands. Alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, and youth-related problems more commonly occur where both the victim(s) and perpetrator(s) know each other.
Although I'm not privy to any statistics that state whether rural crimes in northeast B.C. are on the rise, I do hear the many stories of rural thefts and burglaries, trespass causing damage to property, and the poaching of big game animals. I also hear regular complaints about the time it takes for the RCMP to respond.
For the rural resident who catches a thief or burglar in action, the decision of what to do next can be daunting. Yes, call the police, but unless they just happen to be in the area, the thief will be gone by the time they get there. Confront the thief and you are put into the decision-making process of either inflicting bodily harm or receiving it.
You also know that doing nothing and letting the thief take your property leaves you poorer. Yes, insurance can pay for what you lost, but next year, your insurance rates go up to pay back what they gave you. You also know that if this happens a couple of times, there will be no insurance available. You also know that once your property goes out the gate, the chances of ever getting it back are slim.
Today’s thieves know that many rural residents, and especially farmers, have tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in property that can be quickly loaded onto trucks and trailers, and readily sold elsewhere. For anyone to return home to find their shop, garage, or home empty, is devastating.
In response to the concerns of rural residents, the Alberta government has announced that they will hire more police to help reduce response times in rural areas, but with that, rural counties will have to pay for part of those costs. They have also announced a two-year study to help find ways to reduce crime, find their causes, and build more social supports.
So, what is B.C. doing?
I haven’t heard of any increases for rural police. I haven’t heard of any study into what can be done, or what rural residents can do themselves, but maybe there is hope.
We should all encourage the City of Surrey to quickly get on with forming its own police force so the province can then redeploy all those out of work RCMP officers to rural areas and small towns.
As that resident from Spirit River so aptly summed up his experience: "It's been pretty cool around our area now because I guess word got out that I had a shootout."
Guess we all understand what works.
Evan Saugstad is a former mayor of Chetwynd, and lives in Fort St. John.