Rural crime near troubled reserves on the Prairies must be acknowledged if there’s any hope of remedying the situation.
Doug Cuthand, an Indigenous Saskatchewan columnist, believes the phrase ‘rural crime‘ is code for crimes committed by Indigenous thugs.
But in Saskatchewan, for example, an Indigenous man is 33 times as likely to be convicted of a criminal offence as a non-Indigenous man.
The death of Colten Boushie and subsequent court case revealed the startling fact that farmers in the vicinity of certain reserves – like Red Pheasant Reserve where Boushie resided – live in constant fear of vandalism, theft and general mayhem. Statistically, the culprits are young reserve residents.
In parts of Alberta close to particularly troubled reserves, rural crime statistics have gone up by 250 per cent in the last few years.
Manitoba’s Sandy Bay reserve, the home of the alleged shooter of an RCMP officer at Onanole, is such a reserve. Rural residents within 150 kilometres of Sandy Bay are terrified that their farms will be vandalized and property stolen. Some farmers openly admit they don’t even bother reporting break-ins to the police since reporting them is futile. Farmers talk of thugs shooting at the windows of farm houses as a warning that homeowners better stay inside while the thieves do their work.
The situation of Sandy Bay hasn’t changed for generations. As a sitting judge, I had occasion to deal with the rural crime situation for decades. Then as now, a lawless element on that reserve terrorized rural residents.
And changing circumstances have aggravated the problem. Farms are bigger and neighbours are much further away. And RCMP cutbacks mean that it takes even longer for police to respond.
RCMP instructions to property owners have changed as well. At one time, some would-be thieves were deterred because they knew they risked harm if they entered a farmer’s property to steal. Now, RCMP warn property owners not to defend themselves. Instead, they’re told to retreat into their houses and phone police (who are almost guaranteed to arrive long after the thieves have done their misdeeds).
Farmers know that if a farm invasion results in violence, they’re just as likely to be charged as the invaders.
In the Boushie case, there were no warning shots at the Stanley family’s farmhouse as the crime ensued. The five thieves entered the farm in broad daylight, with the Stanleys in plain view, and began stealing. By their brazen action, they demonstrated that they didn’t fear the property owners or the police.
Rural property owners are powerless to defend their families and their property – the farmers are sitting ducks.
Why is this problem not openly discussed?
When crime and other negatives in relation to reserves are reported on by the CBC and other media, it’s usually accompanied by ready-made excuses.
Should colonialism, bad government policy and residential schools justify such criminal behaviour?
Trotting out historical excuses for criminal actions will only leave rural residents to continue to be terrorized by gangsters who are bizarrely being granted a type of quasi-legal immunity by the media.
Candid discussion of the problem of lawbreakers on certain reserves is warranted. And it’s not racist.
Lawless thugs are not only making life difficult for farmers, they’re also hurting their fellow reserve residents, the great majority of whom are law-abiding people who are being held hostage by criminals in their midst. They’re the ones whose children are being brutalized and they’re the ones, besides the innocent farmers, who are being forced to live in fear. Neither group can safely tell their stories for fear of reprisal.
Honesty and candour are needed if this alarming situation is to change.
Indigenous tough guys aren’t the only ones committing rural crime. The meth epidemic, rootless criminals and other factors contribute.
But rural crime in the vicinity of troubled reserves is a fact that must be acknowledged if there is to be any hope.
Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.