'We are not the bad guys here': Protection of property debate heats up after rural Albertan charged

Canadians cannot shoot at someone who comes onto their property to commit a crime — and that includes warning shots — unless they feel their life is under imminent threat. But there’s growing anger among some rural folks who say they’re facing more crime and police are showing up long after the suspects are gone.

Innisfail rancher says landowners have reached their limit after incident near Okotoks, Alta.

Rural crime and how far property owners can go in protecting their property is a hot topic in Alberta right now, with one rancher saying landowners have reached their limit. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Canadians cannot shoot at someone who comes onto their property to commit a crime — and that includes warning shots — unless they feel their life is under imminent threat.

That's because Canada doesn't have anything close to "castle law," which permits that action in some American states.

But there's growing anger among some rural folks who say they're facing increasing crime and police showing up long after the suspects are gone, and an incident last weekend south of Calgary is fuelling the fire.

A property owner is facing charges after an alleged thief was shot early Saturday morning near Okotoks, Alta. It drew a lot of outrage online.

Many areas in rural Alberta have seen a crime spike since after the recent economic downturn. (CBC Calgary/Facebook)
What many refer to as "castle law" does not exist in Canada. (CBC Calgary/Facebook)

It comes just weeks after a Saskatchewan farmer was found not guilty in the death of Colten Boushie, raising similar issues of property rights and use of force.

Innisfail rancher Mabel Hamilton can understand some of the outrage.

"People can't judge until they know both sides of the story," Hamilton told the Calgary Eyeopener on Wednesday.

"We are very tired of all the criminal activity that takes place where we live."

Hamilton says crime has gotten worse in the past couple of years.

"We've been vandalized. One of our homes has been broken into twice. We've had vehicles stolen. We've had people trespassing with ill intent several times," she said.

"I think they understand that where we live is relatively isolated from police being able to come quickly. They know that they won't get caught and even if they do, the fines will be minimal. They take whatever they can sell quickly, I believe."

Hamilton says some landowners have reached their limit.

"If you are trying to protect you own property or family, the laws are a little bit grey in that area, what you can and can't do, and that's a frustration for us."

Castle law explained

One possible reason for the uncertainly is confusion over laws in other jurisdictions, a Mount Royal University justice studies professor says.

"What U.S. common law in some states allows is for a person to defend their dwelling home with firearms and take a person's life if they feel that their house is being invaded," Doug King told CBC News.

Mount Royal University justice studies professor Doug King says sometimes people confuse American castle law with the relevant section of the Canadian Criminal Code. (CBC)

"That does not apply in Canada and never has applied in Canada."

Section 25 of the Criminal Code of Canada, which was updated six years ago, is clear about permitted level of force in these cases, he said.

"A person can use as much force as is reasonable in the circumstances to defend themselves and their property," King said.

"Discharging your firearm to give somebody a warning shot when you are not being confronted with a deadly or imminent threat to your life is outside the boundaries of what would be considered to be reasonable in the circumstance."

Reasonable force

King said the force used cannot exceed the threat level.

"You have the right to meet grievous force with grievous force. You haven't got the right to escalate beyond the force you are confronted with."

An Alberta RCMP spokesperson says that despite frustrations with response times, calling police is the recommended option.

Alberta RCMP Cpl. Curtis Peters says calling police is the best option. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

"We always encourage citizens to call 911 and not engage in a confrontation with somebody because you don't know you are going to be getting yourself into," Cpl. Curtis Peters said.

"There are too many unknowns, and at the end of the day, property is not as important as your own personal safety."

Peters said police enforce existing law, that's all.

"We don't write the law, we enforce. The rules are set out from somewhere else, not from us."

'We are not the bad guys here'

Meanwhile, rancher Mabel Hamilton says some rural residents are looking for their own answers out of frustration.

"We all have security systems, gates, alarm systems, and we watch out for each other. If we see a suspicious vehicle or some activity that doesn't look like it's acceptable, we talk to each other constantly."

Hamilton has been working with others, including MPs and MLAs, to get the issue of rural crime on the table.

"Our own county has used some of their funding to hire another police officer who can help co-ordinate rural crime. One more person, one more pair of boots on the ground. Maybe they can start having a plan that works for all of us," she said.

"We are not the bad guys here. We are just trying to protect where we live and protect our family and our belongings."


David Bell

Web Journalist

David Bell has been a professional, platform-agnostic journalist since he was the first graduate of Mount Royal University’s bachelor of communications in journalism program in 2009. His work regularly receives national exposure.