Rural crime has received a lot of attention lately. For Douglas Cuthand, an Indigenous Saskatchewan columnist, the phrase ‘rural crime‘ is code for crimes committed by Indigenous thugs. In Saskatchewan, and likely for Alberta and Manitoba as well, an Indigenous man is 33 times as likely to be convicted of a criminal offence than a non-Indigenous man.
The Colten Boushie case revealed the startling fact that farmers in the vicinity of certain reserves – like Red Pheasant Reserve where Colten 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% 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 a hundred miles of Sandy Bay are terrified that their farms will be vandalized and property stolen. Some farmers openly admit they do not even bother reporting break-ins to the police as 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 has not 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 terrorize rural residents. And, changing circumstances have aggravated the problem.
Farms are bigger now 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 by awareness that they risked harm if they entered on a farmer’s property to steal. Now, RCMP warn property owners not to defend themselves. Instead, they are to retreat into their houses and telephone police (who are almost guaranteed to arrive long after the thieves have done their misdeeds.)
Now, farmers know that if a farm invasion results in violence, they are just as likely to be charged as are the invaders. In the Boushie case, there were no warning shots at the Stanley’s farmhouse as the crime ensued. The five thieves entered the farm in broad daylight with the Stanley family in plain view, and began stealing. By their brazen action, they let it be known that they had felt nothing to fear from either the property owners or the police. Rural property owners are now 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 is usually accompanied by readymade excuses. Should colonialism, bad government policy, and residential schools justify such criminal behaviour? Such apologist reportage is very wrong, 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 is not racist. Lawless thugs are not only making life difficult for farmers, they are also hurting their fellow reserve residents, the great majority of whom are law-abiding people, now being held hostage by criminals in their midst. They are the ones whose children are being brutalized, and they are 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.
When the CBC and other media fail to report honestly on the very real problem of lawless groups on some reserves who casually commit crimes, it may be law-abiding reserve residents who pay the highest price. Honesty and candour are needed if this alarming situation is to change.
Indigenous tough guys are not the only ones committing rural crime. The meth epidemic, rootless non-Indigenous bad guys, and other factors contribute. But rural crime in the vicinity of troubled reserves is a fact, which must be acknowledged if there is to be any hope.