On the Manitoba Crime Stoppers site, there’s a long list of items stolen from rural properties, some involving unsolved crimes dating back more than three years.
The situation is similar in Saskatchewan and in Alberta, where the province and the federal government have set up a rural crime committee.
In Manitoba, snowmobiles, ATVs, dirt bikes and tools are common items on the Crime Stopper lists. But in June, someone stole a yellow Caterpillar skidsteer and trailer parked on Highway 8 in the rural municipality (RM) of St. Andrews. In March of last year, in another unsolved theft, criminals broke into a rural property in the RM of Fisher and stole a John Deer 2130 tractor and a Honda generator.
Many farmers and landowners believe crime and vandalism are worse than ever in the province.
“There may be other areas where it is the same as it used to be, but in our area, it has increased,” said Bill Campbell, Keystone Agricultural Producers president, who farms near Minto, Manitoba.
“The rural areas around some of the larger centres are really noticing an increase [in crime].”
The province is considering changes to the Petty Trespass Act and the Occupiers Liability Act to discourage crime and clarify what a landowner can do when someone is on their property.
Before any changes are made, the province wants feedback from rural landowners about theft, vandalism and potential solutions. The government has set up an online questionnaire, which can be found at engagemb.ca.
“We want to hear from people in rural, northern and remote areas, as well as other Manitobans, about their experiences with crime, so we can ensure the justice system responds to their needs,” said Justice Minister Cliff Cullen in late August.
The survey is a positive step because something needs to be done, Campbell said.
In his part of Manitoba, south of Brandon, he’s seeing more suspicious vehicles on the road and criminals are stealing metal from farmyards and municipal property.
To combat metal theft, the province is considering ways to crack down on the sale of stolen metal.
Larger fines and more severe penalties will deter a portion of criminals. But there’s a determined group who will continue to steal, regardless of the legal consequences.
Farmers and rural residents also need to take proactive steps to protect their property and belongings.
“When we discover a vandalism or theft and, when we call the police, they’re not always going be able to respond,” Campbell said.
“So, what do you do? How do you itemize things? And (maybe) we need to have pictures of what we have and keep that as an inventory…. Then the police are better able to manage recovery, if it ends up in pawn shops or in the street.”
Alberta fights rural crime
The efforts of an Okotoks, Alberta, area man in defending his farm property has helped lead to the establishment of a national rural crime committee in Alberta.
Edouard Maurice was charged with gun offences after firing a warning shot that ricocheted and hit Ryan Randy Watson, who was prowling the Maurices’ vehicles in February 2018. All those charges were later dropped. Maurice was later sued by Watson and that was dismissed in December of 2019.
The issues Eddie Maurice faced was a main topic when Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer held his rural crime round tables in late 2019, and, he said, action is now being taken.
“One of the things that we noticed was that some of the problems that we had were beyond the jurisdiction of the province and were beyond federal issues,” Schweitzer said. “Earlier this year  there was a meeting of justice ministers from across the country and our federal counterparts.
“Alberta fought to have rural crime on the national agenda.”
As a result, Schweitzer and Bill Blair, the federal public safety minister, are chairing a national rural crime committee.
“It is now meeting at the department level and it is meeting to help establish the framework,” Schweitzer said. “The justice ministers are coming together in the fall  and we will have a proposal there.”
Issues at the federal level include criminal code changes so that those in rural communities will not be targeted.
Schweitzer stressed earlier announced programs, such as the Rapid Force Initiative – meant to speed police reaction to rural crimes – and bringing more RCMP to rural communities, are still in the books despite the economic downturn due to the drop in oil prices and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Rapid Force Initiative has sheriffs and peace officers being trained to help RCMP. Schweitzer said 20 police officers have already been hired across the province for rural communities.
“The goal is to have 300 police officers with an additional 200 support staff over the next four years. We are already seeing more boots on the ground in the province of Alberta,” he said.