Why are rural crime rates so high? - The Orca

Why are rural crime rates so high?

Dene Moore

Dene Moore: Consistently high rural crime rates illustrate two (other) main challenges: distance, and a lack of information.

Any day now, Statistics Canada will likely release its annual list of the most dangerous communities in Canada, a hall of shame featuring mostly small and rural cities.

Last year Quesnel, Williams Lake, and Terrace made the top 10, along with other well-known pastoral hellscapes such as Portage la Prairie, Manitoba; and Wetaskiwin, Alberta.

The problem for these communities is not so much a higher instance of crime per capita, but the poor record-keeping of the federal government.

Here’s the problem: rural RCMP detachments in B.C. are based in municipalities like Williams Lake and Quesnel and Terrace, but they SERVE much larger populations and geographic areas.

Where I live in the South Cariboo, the 100 Mile RCMP detachment covers an area of 8,800 square kilometres. To respond to a call, officers regularly drive more than 100 kilometres – one way. If the next call is on the opposite end of the service area, they’ll probably have to stop for gas.

The community of 100 Mile House has a population of 1,800 but the South Cariboo has a population more in the range of 20,000-24,000 in winter, and as many as 40,000 in summer.

You see, like many areas of B.C. beyond the 604, we are cottage country. Thousands of people own summer homes, many of them snowbirds who head south for the winter.

Based on a formula that relies heavily on those incorrect population figures, 100 Mile House RCMP has 18 officers policing up to 40,000 people in an area larger than Prince Edward Island.

Statistics Canada’s Crime Severity Index doesn’t take into account the seasonal population because, quite simply, there is no official record of seasonal residents.

The fix is simple, says Margo Wagner, chairperson of the Cariboo Regional District and a year-round resident of Canim Lake, where the summer population explodes.

“All that needs to be added on the Canadian census is the question: ‘Do you have another property or a summer residence and, if so, where is it located?’ That’s all it needs to say,” says Wagner.

“They pay property taxes on it already. It’s not like all of a sudden you’re going to get slammed with extra taxes.”

Summer homes also attract crime, sometimes drawing teams of thieves from Metro Vancouver for a B&E spree over the winter.

“These properties aren’t like they used to be 30 years ago; they’re not small little cabins with used furniture.  A lot of them are 3,000-4,000 square foot houses. They’re homes. So people leave stuff in them that you would leave in a house,” says Wagner.

“Thieves know this.”

Many residents don’t call police for suspicious activity or minor crimes because they know police are understaffed and won’t be able to make it to the area for some time. That skews call rates – another key factor in staffing levels, she says.

Canim Lake, about 50 kilometres northeast of 100 Mile House, has a citizens on patrol group. Ms. Wagner is a member, but says they are limited in what they can do.

One local resident caught prowlers on a game camera he’d installed.

“He’s got them on camera and these guys had a loaded assault rifle, walking outside his house,” she says.

Cottage country RCMP need more staff, not fewer.

In the meantime, the 100 Mile RCMP detachment launched an innovative Rural Crime Reduction program a couple of months ago. With a grant from the Civil Forfeiture Crime Prevention program, the detachment has deployed game cameras in some of the remote areas of their jurisdiction.

They are “virtual members to be our eyes and ears out there,” says Staff Sgt. Svend Nielsen, head of the 100 Mile detachment.

They are also asking homeowners to register with RCMP to grant permission for home checks and provide information that may help prevent thefts or recover stolen goods.

But virtual tools can’t help with one of the main concerns in understaffed detachments: officer burnout. With 14 general duty officers and four traffic services officers, 100 Mile RCMP members put in a lot of overtime.

“’Burn out’ is a real thing and we pay close attention to this every day,” says Staff Sgt. Nielsen.

“We have a philosophy of ‘family first’ at this detachment. Members need to be in the right head space to continue to work and we support that their wellness is a main topic of conversation.”

One recent major incident saw members working 17-23 hours straight.

“But those situations are unusual,” he says.

Ms. Wagner brought a resolution to the Union of B.C. Municipalities this fall seeking to have seasonal homes counted in the census. It’s in the hands of the UBCM policy committee. If they decide to endorse the resolution, it won’t be the first time.

Similar resolutions have passed before – and nothing has changed.

Dene Moore is an award-winning journalist and writer. A news editor and reporter for The Canadian Press news agency for 16 years, Moore is now a freelance journalist living in the South Cariboo. Moore’s two decades in daily journalism took her as far afield as Kandahar as a war correspondent and the Innu communities of Labrador. She has worked in newsrooms in Vancouver, Montreal, Regina, Saskatoon, St. John’s and Edmonton. She has been published in the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s magazine, the New York Times and the Toronto Star, among others. She is a Habs fan and believes this is the year.