Stories of property theft, strangers entering homes and fear circulated Monday night during a meeting about rural crime in Lac Ste. Anne.
Around 100 people came out to the Calahoo Community Hall to discuss how rural crime has impacted their community during a provincial tour by Doug Schweitzer, Minister of Justice and Solicitor General in Alberta.
During the informal event, Schweitzer heard dozens of stories from residents, while he told them what efforts his government is making to battle rural crime.
J. Laraine Harvey-Bourque said she came out to the event because she was a victim of crime on her farm.
“We've been broken into. We had a number of items stolen from our place, and because of that, we had to install a big iron gate at the top of our driveway and we have a new alarm system now,” Harvey-Bourque said.
Harvey-Bourque said before the incidents, she felt safe at home, but now she feels scared on the farm.
“Every night, I'm drawing the blinds. I never used to before. I used to leave them open. Back of the house first, then front of the house, and I am just conscious of being watched all the time. I don't know (if) somebody (is) out there in the dark or what,” Harvey-Bourque said.
Harvey-Bourque and her husband moved to the area around 14 years ago and have been broken into twice – most recently two months ago, when thieves stole registration, insurance, sunglasses and the rosary they had hanging in their car.
“They stole my rosary in my rear-view mirror and that hurts more than anything,” Harvey-Bourque said.
“You feel as if you’ve been violated, as if you’ve been attacked. I don't feel safe at all. A couple of nights after it and I was running around drawing the blinds. My husband was looking at me like, you know, come on, let's get serious. And he could see after a couple of days that I was quite petrified to be out there, because he's away a lot.”
Harvey-Bourque said most people move to the country to get away from people and get some peace and quiet, but now are increasingly on edge – a sentiment that was echoed throughout the night.
Chris Jepsen, a resident of 50 years, said he came out because he is tired of all the crime in the region.
“Every time I come home (I wonder) if the door is bashed in, for three or four years now,” Jepsen said.
“In the last four or five years, every time I go on holidays, every time I come home or when I leave my house, it’s like, ‘Is all my stuff going to be gone?’”
Kory Perrott, a resident of 48 years, has had property stolen twice and said he is afraid to leave his wife and kids home alone.
“It's always on your mind, where you never used to think about it,” Perrott said.
Jepsen has been a victim six times, with three of the incidents happening recently and involving thieves taking his property. Jepsen said some who don’t live in the area may think it sounds like paranoia, but the crime and fear of crime is a real problem.
“It drives me crazy,” Jepsen said, adding now he is suspicious when he sees a vehicle he doesn’t know turning around in his driveway, instead of rushing out to see if they need help.
What complicates the issue of rural crime, Jepsen and Perrott said, is if they report their items being stolen, their insurance jumps drastically. Jepsen said he has never claimed insurance on any of his stolen items because his rates would skyrocket.
Throughout the night, residents shared their frustrations with the minister, with many wondering what their rights are if someone trespasses on their property.
Schweitzer said the ministry is looking into creating information about rural landowner rights in plain language.
One resident asked the crowd to raise their hands if they had been a victim of crime. More than half of the 100-person crowd raised their hands.
Other residents expressed frustration around the revolving door of crime, with criminals getting picked up for theft and released on bail the next day. Many residents wanted more strict laws for offenders, mandatory minimum sentences, more rights for property owners, more jails, more treatment for people with addictions, to have elected judges and to increase taxes to fund more RCMP officers. Others expressed their frustration that as victims they have no rights.
Some worried it's only a matter of time before something very serious occurs, while one man said to a round of applause the situation is getting to the point where vigilante justice will become more common.
Schweitzer told the crowd his office is working on hiring 75 more prosecutors to speed up the justice system and will take their recommendations back to his ministry to help craft new legislation to curb the crime. He said his ministry is looking to create enhanced property rights in Alberta, which will be released some time in the next year.