'Frustrated and helpless': Rural residents say Stanley trial highlights crime, police response time concerns

Feelings of frustration and helplessness are simmering in rural parts of Saskatchewan in the wake of the Gerald Stanley trial, which underlined long-standing concerns over crime and law enforcement's ability to adequately respond to it.

RCMP says too many variables affect response times to be able to give accurate picture

The road to Gerald Stanley's farm in the Biggar, Sask., area in a photo taken in August 2017. Stanley, 56, was found not guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Colten Boushie, a young man from Red Pheasant First Nation who drove onto Stanley's rural property in August 2016 with four friends. (CBC)

Feelings of frustration and helplessness are simmering in rural parts of Saskatchewan in the wake of the Gerald Stanley trial, which reignited long-standing concerns over crime and law enforcement's ability to adequately respond to it. 

"I want the country to know it's a problem we have here," said Lee de Coninck Smith, the founder of a Facebook page called Farmers with Firearms

Smith said the page was created to help people living in rural parts of the province cope with what he says is a growing problem of crime and slow RCMP response times. He says the idea is to have a place where neighbours can look out for each other.

The page has a prominent message warning that posts or comments containing racist remarks or promoting illegal activity will not be tolerated and that any such posts will be deleted, as will ones having to do with the Stanley trial. 

In recent months, the popularity of the page has exploded, and with close to 8,500 followers and more than 8,000 likes as of early Thursday.

Ryan, whose last name CBC agreed to withhold because of concerns he says he has for his safety, farms in southwestern Saskatchewan and is a member of the group. He says he knows neighbours and friends who've experienced theft. 

Stanley, left, follows his defence lawyer, Scott Spencer, as they leave provincial court in April 2017. In his closing statement, Spencer said that unlike people who live in the city, Stanley 'didn't have that luxury' of calling and waiting for police when he found Boushie and his friends on his property. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

"Frustrated and helpless would be the two things I would say [farmers feel]," he said in an interview with CBC News at his family farm Wednesday. "There's all walks of life that are committing these crimes.

"Snowmobiles, ATVs — these are big-ticket items that are easy to grab and easy to get rid of. Anything that's not bolted down, it can be taken."

Stanley trial highlighted rural crime concerns 

Concerns around rural crime and policing have flared in the wake of last week's acquittal of Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley, who was charged with second-degree murder in the August 2016 shooting death of 22-year-old Colten Boushie, a Cree man from Red Pheasant First Nation. 

Much of the online debate before, during and after the trial centred on concerns about rural crime and RCMP response times in rural parts of the province.

During the trial, Stanley's defence lawyer, Scott Spencer, said that Boushie's death was a "freak accident." Spencer told the jury that the handgun Stanley was using to scare off Boushie and four friends who had driven onto his farm uninvited went off accidently and killed Boushie.

The court heard that Stanley intentionally fired twice, shots that he said were meant as warning shots, but that the third shot that killed Boushie was accidental and the result of so-called hang fire. The Crown disputed that account, but the 12-person jury found Stanley not guilty of second-degree murder late last week.

During his closing address to jurors, Spencer said that unlike people who live in the city, he "didn't have that luxury" of calling and waiting for police.

The circumstances of Boushie's death fuelled racial tensions in Saskatchewan and across Canada and ignited a debate about rural crime and adequate policing. (Facebook)

While Spencer did not invoke a defence of protection of property or self-defence, some of the testimony about what happened on the Stanley farm prompted discussions about rural safety. 

In an emailed statement to CBC News, the RCMP said they are unable to speak about response times as there are too many variables —such as volume of calls, level of urgency and distance — to provide an accurate picture.

"Responding to calls in a rural setting is much different than in an urban setting as we are policing vast, sparsely populated areas. Because of this, we recognize the importance of having strong community partnerships," the statement said.

RCMP say crime down in rural Saskatchewan  

RCMP statistics do show that property crime across all RCMP jurisdictions, including rural Saskatchewan, has decreased by five per cent year over year from 2016 to 2017.

We need to work on the solutions together.- Ralph Goodale, minister of public safety

Break and enters have decreased by 13 per cent, and thefts have decreased by two per cent in that same time frame, the RCMP numbers show. 

Ralph Goodale, Canada's minister of public safety, spoke about the issues of rural crime and policing in Ottawa on Tuesday, the same day Boushie's family was meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other Liberal ministers. 

"We need to recognize that we are all in this boat together, and we need to work on the solutions together," Goodale said. 

'It could take neighbours or the RCMP hours to get there'

Ray Orb, the president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, said he wouldn't comment on the specifics of the Stanley trial but did say RCMP response times in rural areas are an ongoing concern for many residents. 

"It's a big difference for people that live in the rural areas that are remote. In some cases, it could take neighbours or the RCMP hours to get there. For people in the city, I mean, obviously, the police are right around the corner," Orb said.

Every year, the RCMP calculates staff vacancy rates at the divisional and national level. As of April 1, 2017, "F" Division in Saskatchewan had an overall vacancy rate of 4.6 per cent. Of the 16 RCMP divisions and regions, this is the sixth-lowest vacancy rate, according to the force. 

"We regularly analyze workloads and crime trends and deploy resources accordingly," the RCMP said in its statement. 

"Last year, as part of an internal resource review, we identified a number of regular member positions in administrative and support units that could be redeployed to detachments."

Stanley's defence team argued that he fired two warning shots to scare off Boushie and his friends but that a third shot went off accidentally as he was reaching for the keys of the SUV in which Boushie was seated. The Crown contested that account and argued that he fired intentionally. (Canadian Press)

The review allowed the force to add five additional positions to its relief unit, doubling its size to 10, the RCMP said. The unit can deploy quickly to locations impacted by temporary staffing shortages.

The reservist program, which is made up of recently retired officers, is also able to deploy as required to ease pressures at detachments. 

Province says it can't comment on response times

Orb did urge calm and co-operation in the wake of the Stanley verdict. In a written statement, SARM said it believes people in the province are better united than divided and that it takes community to build a healthy, strong rural Saskatchewan. 

In 2017, SARM members passed a resolution that called on the government to expand the rights of property owners to defend themselves. It did not get any traction with the Saskatchewan government.

But in the wake of the Boushie shooting and the growing concerns over rural crime, the province did create what is called a rural response team, composed of 258 officers, including 30 new positions. The team would be made up of a mix of RCMP, local police, conservation officers and commercial vehicle enforcement officers.

In a written statement, the provincial Ministry of Justice said it couldn't comment on response times by the RCMP.

Somebody died, and there is no good in that at all.- Ryan, Saskatchewan farmer

But the statement did say, "once the co-ordination with all the agencies has been complete, it is anticipated that there will be quicker response times to crimes in progress in rural Saskatchewan."

The RCMP says it is working with the province on the development of a protection and response team that would see 20 new RCMP positions assigned to traffic services, funded by Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI), the Crown corporation responsible for auto insurance in the province. 

"This means greater police presence, increased visibility and an enhanced ability to respond to emergencies and crimes in progress in an effective and timely manner," the RCMP statement said.

Both Smith and Ryan say they were surprised by the Stanley verdict. But they are dismayed that the problems they say farmers are dealing with, such as break-ins and property thefts from farms and acreages, are being conflated with racial tensions that also flared in the wake of Stanley's not guilty verdict. 

Ryan said the Farmers with Firearms Facebook page has been inundated with threats since the verdict came down. 

"The race getting put on all this is very frustrating," he said. "Even our site, we are getting a lot of death threats. People are calling the site racist ... To call me racist and other farmers racist, it's getting very frustrating," Ryan said.

"Somebody died, and there is no good in that at all."


Charles Hamilton is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.