I’m sure the United Conservative Party will say I’m wrong, so can somebody please explain to me how the UCP’s rural crime “task force” proposal to let rural property owners defend themselves and their property with firearms is not the same as the “stand-your-ground” laws in the United States that encourage gun owners to respond to real and imagined crimes with deadly force?

This particular UCP proposal to “combat rural crime” sure sounds like stand-your-ground to me. If it were adopted in Canada, whatever it’s called, you can count on it that many needless tragedies would result, just as they have in the United States.

Indeed, the idea is bad enough on its face — and so at odds with what we actually know about the reality of rural crime in Alberta — it’s tempting to describe it as depraved. More likely, though, it’s commonplace pandering of the most cynical kind to the fears of the party’s rural base — some of which are justified, many of which are not, and a few of which, like the document’s unsupported claim that most rural crime is committed by mysterious bad guys from the city, are nothing more than dogwhistle fantasies.

In Common Law, self-defence claims require people supposedly defending themselves to show they tried to retreat from danger.

U.S. stand-your-ground laws — which arise out of American attitudes about firearms and race — eliminate the legal necessity to retreat. The horrifying reality of this pernicious legislative trend pushed by the National Rifle Association is that it encourages violent vigilantism and incites firearms users to shoot first and not bother with questions, later or otherwise. In a 2015 report, the American Bar Association termed these laws racially biased and a “license to kill.”

The Journal of the American Medical Association reported in 2016 that Florida’s stand-your-ground law resulted in a 24-per cent increase in homicides and a 32-per cent increase in firearm-related homicides.

Never mind the surging slaughter in Florida, though. One only needs to consider what happened to a young Indigenous man in Saskatchewan in 2016 and what an all-white jury did about it to know we are not immune from the same pressures in Canada if given half a chance.

The recommendations of the so-called UCP task force use imprecise, bureaucratic language to describe the party’s proposed policies. But it is hard to argue the intent is not the same as stand-your-ground.

After accusing the NDP government of Premier Rachel Notley of not doing enough about rural crime, the UCP document calls on the province to “advocate for Criminal Code reform by the federal government to clarify and strengthen the defence of person and property provisions …”

As an aside, this seems pretty rich, seeing as the UCP caucus in the Legislature voted “no” twice, to funding for the Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General that included budget for 59 new rural RCMP officers. But, give them their due, at least they didn’t hide in the hallways of the Legislature and refuse en masse to vote, as they did for the NDP’s abortion clinic safety zone bill.

A few lines later, the document urges the province to ensure “appropriate consideration” is given by Crown Prosecutors “to the following issues in determining whether the use of force in self defence … should preclude prosecution against victims of crime.” (Emphasis added.) The same section encourages the province to lobby for similar considerations in the Criminal Code.

Such extenuating circumstances allowing violent “self defence” by homeowners would include:

  • Remote location
  • Expectation of slow police response
  • Failure of the alleged intruder to leave when instructed
  • Evidence the supposed intruder is intoxicated
  • “Threatening behaviour” by the alleged intruder

And just to be clear, we are talking about firearms here, as the report complains on another page: “Despite inadequate assistance from police, (rural residents) are warned about engaging in self-defence using lawfully-owned firearms, leading to people’s increased frustration and fear for their families’ safety.” (Emphasis added.)

It is said here this is tantamount to declaring law-free open season on anyone — perhaps even a lost MLA on a hunting trip — who wanders onto an isolated property.

If this ever comes to pass, don’t walk onto someone’s farm to ask for help with a flat tire — not without a Kevlar vest and an assault rifle. And if you’re going to visit your cousin Harry north of town, the one who don’t want no stinkin’ gun control, you might want to let him know in advance what time you’re coming over. And just to be on the safe side, make sure you speak passable English and aren’t feeling a little light-headed that day.

The supposed need for such a law is what the UCP document refers to in phrases such as “a disturbing increase in crime across rural Alberta.” This claim is repeated tirelessly by the many UCP cheerleaders in mainstream media.

The problem, of course, is that it’s not really true. Widespread opinions in rural Alberta notwithstanding, actual statistics collected by reputable agencies like Statistics Canada show rural areas have lower property crime rates than urban areas, and rural crime rates per 100,000 people in Canada are roughly constant, although property thefts are up. All Alberta rural crime rates in May fell 10 per cent, though, presumably in response to moves by the NDP.

The task force’s dodge to deal with this reality is to claim frustrated rural residents are no longer reporting crime to the police.

This is improbable, especially where injury, property damage, loss or anything else likely to be covered by insurance is involved. Insurers require reporting, after all. Nevertheless, it’s a conveniently unverifiable claim to back up the Trump-style misleading narrative being spun by the UCP.

Similarly, the report claims many rural criminals “are coming from urban centres to commit crimes in rural areas.” Where is the evidence for this?

There is none. What’s more, the facts we know suggest the opposite. Statistically speaking, you’re less likely to be assaulted by a stranger in rural Canada than in a Canadian city. You’re more likely to be assaulted by a relative in the country than the city. Rural violent crime rates in Canada are higher per capita than in cities.

Real crime statistics show the notion that rural crime is committed by people from cities is nothing more than a sly dog whistle. Most rural crime originates close to home.

It’s certainly possible criminals from the city venture into the countryside from time to time. But if you’ve heard of a case of this happening, it was probably in a Hollywood movie.

Another idea in the report almost as bad as its stand-your-ground proposal is allowing rural residents to create private security forces with official sanction — posses, more like, or armed mobs. We all know where that leads.

The UCP document is not bereft of good ideas. Alberta vehicles should be required to display front plates again, for example, although it would require a reversal of a negligent policy by a previous Conservative government.

Other legitimate but un-costed ideas like hiring more Crown prosecutors, collecting more statistics, developing crime-prevention programs, and creating a victims’ rights bureaucracy would be enormously expensive — and this in a report that cheekily and inaccurately accuses the NDP of both ignoring and “throwing money” at the problem.

The task force’s two members are Calgary-West MLA Mike Ellis, a former police officer who ought to know better, and Airdrie MLA Angela Pitt, who until recently was busy fending off a nomination challenge in her riding. They were assisted, the report says, by former Alberta Crown Prosecutor Scott Newark, associated with the neoliberal Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

A third member of the task force, Innisfail-Sylvan Lake MLA Don MacIntyre, resigned from the UCP Caucus and the Legislature in February after it was revealed he had been charged with a serious criminal offence. The case is scheduled to be “resolved before the court” without trial on Jan. 11, 2019.

Needless to say, this document will be tossed into the recycler, where it belongs, if it ever gets to Ottawa. But it’s all part of the UCP’s cynical two-pronged strategy to shore up its rural base by claiming the Liberals in Ottawa and the NDP in Edmonton are not doing enough about rural crime, so we’re bound to keep hearing about it over and over again.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Kurt Bauschardt/Flickr

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David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...