Frustration and fear as St. Paul area residents share experiences with rural crime

At a town hall meeting Tuesday in St. Paul, Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer heard from rural residents about the crime they've experienced.

'We won’t stop doing everything we possibly can to make sure you feel safe again,' justice minister says

About 300 people attended a meeting with Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer in St. Paul Tuesday evening. (Andrea Huncar/CBC)

Four years ago, thieves loaded up the contents of Candace Achtymichuk's garage onto her snowmobile trailer and took off.

The trailer was recovered but the man charged with 35 offences got off on a technicality. Nine months later Achtymichuk's trailer was stolen again by the same person.

"It left us feeling truly violated," Achtymichuk told a crowd of 300 residents, police and elected officials who met with Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer in St. Paul Tuesday to discuss the crime plaguing rural communities.

"The many months of stress that followed it were unbearable."

Candace Achtymichuk (holding microphone) described how her family was robbed twice by the same thief in the space of nine months. (Andrea Huncar/CBC)

In the summer, St. Paul town council extended a contract for private security to help manage crime in the small community about 200 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.

Stolen property, trespassers

As the microphone was passed around, speaker after speaker shared personal stories of stolen property, trespassers and break-ins. Two people said they had been victimized five times each.

Residents expressed frustration with the lengthy court process and escalating insurance rates. They said the criminal justice system allows repeat offenders to walk free and keep committing crimes.

Dana Swigart, a councillor for the municipal district of Bonnyville, described a home where thieves melt down stolen copper wire for sale and can be seen driving in their truck, wearing balaclavas.

"Everybody knows it, but nobody can do anything about it," Swigart said.

Some residents described sleepless nights and fear they felt for their children's safety, while others expressed sympathy and praise for RCMP officers struggling to keep up.

Speakers were divided on whether more boots on the ground would help. One man advocated for a provincial police force made up of officers who know and want to be in the community.

Jacob Bouchard, whose home has been broken into twice, said the less community members feel protected, the more they feel the need to defend themselves.

"That's how vigilantism starts," Bouchard warned, prompting applause. 

"We won't stop doing everything we possibly can to make sure you feel safe again," Doug Schweitzer told the crowd. (Andrea Huncar/CBC)

Schweitzer told the crowd he's heard similar stories across the province since beginning his tour early last month. He said he's also heard many good ideas that will help shape new provincial policy, and pledged some announcements within weeks.

"We're going to innovate on our criminal justice side," the minister said. 

His department is hiring dozens of new prosecutors and lobbying the federal government for changes to the Criminal Code, Schweitzer said. Last week's budget boosts funding for the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT) which combats organized crime. The budget also proposes expansion of drug treatment courts.

Schweitzer said his department is looking at ways to free up police officers tied up in traffic court while consulting with municipalities on possible funding partnerships that would put more officers in the field.

Four thousand new treatment beds for addicts will help get people out of the justice system into treatment, said Schweitzer, noting a lot of the crime is fuelled by addiction.

"Governments have failed our rural communities," he said. The justice system is designed for the needs of residents in downtown Toronto, not rural Alberta, he added.

"We won't stop doing everything we possibly can to make sure you feel safe again."

Schweitzer was commended for his public praise of last week's guilty verdicts for Abdulahi Sharif, which had sparked some criticism. Sharif was found guilty of trying to kill an Edmonton police officer and four pedestrians in a series of attacks on Sept. 30, 2017.

"Please keep doing what you're doing because you speak for us," said Donna Golledge, as people clapped in support. "It's nice to see we have someone with balls."