During the summer of 2017, Cheyenna Sapp, a law school hopeful living in North Battleford, Sask., had a decision to make: continue her education by commuting to Saskatoon every day or move there with her family — including four children.

She weighed one factor heavily: Sapp was worried for her safety in North Battleford.

"The crime in North Battleford became too much, to the point where it was only a matter of time before me and my family became victims of some crime or another," she said at her new apartment in Saskatoon, where she relocated in October.

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Cheyenna Sapp moved her family from North Battleford to Saskatoon, where she has no support system, in part to attend law school, and in part to feel safer in her home. (Bridget Yard/CBC )

North Battleford, a city of 14,400, has the highest overall score in the country in Statistics Canada's 2016 Crime Severity Index. The city previously had the country's worst rate for violent crime, but saw an eight per cent reduction in that type of crime in 2016. The city's violent crime score is now second highest in the country.

With a 15 per cent increase in non-volent crime in 2016, though, North Battleford still leads the country in the rate for those crimes.

Increased policing

Municipal administration staff and elected officials are aware of the problem and have developed an enhanced neighbourhood watch program, with the incentive of motion-activated solar lights given to participants.

Community safety officers have also been introduced to North Battleford in the last year.

"We developed a community safety officer program which is the first two-tiered system in Canada. We've been given the power to deal with traffic offences and just in July of this year, we're getting [power to deal with] Criminal Code offences such as vandalism under $5,000," said Jim Puffalt, North Battleford's city manager.

There were 34 officers policing North Battleford in 2016, according to Statistics Canada. The representation is equal to 236 officers per 100,000 people.

In Saskatoon, that number is 175 officers per 100,000 people, and in Regina, 179.

Cheyenna Sapp said she noticed an increased police presence over the years in her downtown North Battleford neighbourhood, but not a decrease in incidents involving police.

"Maybe not exactly every day, but I would say weekly," she said.

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Cheyenna Sapp lived one street away from the city's main business district, and says she witnessed incidents involving police 'weekly.' (Bridget Yard/CBC)

The ice cream stand behind her apartment building was held up at knife-point, she said, and the suspect was sent to jail.

"That's somebody I knew — a previous acquaintance," said Sapp.

She is acquainted with several perpetrators of similar crimes, and believes much of the petty crime committed in her neighbourhood involved alcohol or other addictions as a factor.

A few months ago, Sapp's dog was taken after she put the chihuahua outside. She said it was held for ransom.

"I put a post on Facebook and got a random phone call from a private number and they had my dog hostage. They said, 'You can meet us at a certain location with the reward money. Don't call the police.'"

Sapp didn't call the police and she never got her dog back.

"I think [city officials] need to focus more on preventative strategies than increasing policing," she said

Call for 'front-end' strategies

North Battleford lawyer Robert Feist agrees with Sapp on that.

"We have an ongoing, cyclical level of poverty in the area. We've seen significant cuts to front-line services, particularly our Lighthouse here in North Battleford," he said.

In 2016, the Lighthouse — a supported-living and homeless shelter with locations in Saskatoon and North Battleford — suffered a cut in provincial funding.

"There's a serious homeless problem, or a problem with under-homed people in the city — significant transiency coming through," said Feist.

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Robert Feist is a lawyer in North Battleford who says the city has to 'get out ahead of crime, prevent crime before it happens.' (submitted)

North Battleford is surrounded by nine First Nation communities, and sees a significant number of people migrating to the city temporarily and permanently, without housing support or the ability to access safe housing.

Frustrated with his city's situation, Feist posted his concerns to Facebook, drawing support from like-minded neighbours and friends.

Earlier this year, the city circulated a news release proclaiming North Battleford's drop in violent crime.

"The City of North Battleford is pleased to report that after many years of hard work by the RCMP, city staff, community safety officers, Citizens on Patrol, Neighbourhood Watch, and the community as a whole that North Battleford has had an eight per cent reduction in the violent crime and is no longer Number 1 in the country in the Violent Crime Severity Index," the press release said.

While Feist appreciates and recognizes the city's attempts to remedy the problem, he believes the focus is misplaced.

"It would be great to see the province step up and support, with core funding, agencies like the Lighthouse, which do so much to keep people off the streets and away from criminal risk, to build from there towards a safe housing strategy."

Steven Cormons recognized the issues described in Feist's Facebook post. The North Battleford man worked in the former young offenders branch of social services, and retired as a unit supervisor in the corrections field.

As the years passed, he saw more and more young people committing crimes and becoming part of the criminal justice system.

"More police isn't going to help at all," said Cormons, who acknowledges the city's efforts and applauds them. 

Cormons believes North Battleford needs an outreach program focused on at-risk teenagers to start.

"The subculture, underground culture that has been created here is a natural attractant. North Battleford is a bit of a hub for the outlying communities," he said.

"It isn't just citizens of our community who need the help."

'I know a lot of these people'

Cheyenna Sapp wants to pursue a career in law in part because of a lack of representation of Indigenous people in the field.

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Cheyenna Sapp's daughters, Jae and Melodie, trick-or-treating in 2017 in Saskatoon, where the family moved in part because of concerns about crime in North Battleford. (Cheyenna Sapp/Facebook)

The only reason she would return to North Battleford, she says, is to work on the over-representation of Indigenous people on the other side of the law.

"Being a Native person myself, I can see it. I know a lot of these people who are committing these crimes. It's my neighbour next door, or a childhood friend, or relative," she said.

"The solution for that is not a simple fix, being that intergenerational trauma and the whole history of Canada.… People are still healing from that."

Sapp hopes the First Nations communities surrounding North Battleford consider constructing healing lodges as an alternative to having community members incarcerated or banished for their crimes.

She worries about the lack of support people receive when they exit the prison system.

"What's there for them? They're outcasts."

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