When my family’s small farmstead in Saskatchewan was robbed, rural crime had become a hot-button topic in Western Canada. No one now lives on the home quarter where my mother grew up and there was little of value to be taken, but the family felt the violation keenly. There was the cost of broken doors and locks that required replacement. A sack dropped by the thieves during the robbery contained tools and junk-drawer odds and ends. What most disturbed my mother was the handful of family photographs the crooks almost made off with.
The incident inspired my story “Crisis control: Rural crime surge brings increased vigilance, deterrence and better policing,” published in the winter 2019 edition of GrainsWest. The quarterly farming magazine, which I edit, is published by the Alberta Wheat Commission and Alberta Barley. Its extended production cycle allowed me the time to take a deep dive on the topic.
Around the time of my family’s farm break-in, and an hour’s drive away, a farmer shot and killed a young Indigenous man on his property. A separate confrontation in neighbouring Alberta left another young man wounded. A survey prior to these incidents had revealed most rural residents of Saskatchewan had not felt particularly threatened by crime. Statistics indicate Canada’s overall crime rate has been on a steady decline for years. Almost overnight, the level of perceived threat felt by farmers in Western Canada skyrocketed. Coverage of these high-profile cases was emotionally and politically charged.
It was a complex issue in need of objective examination. Farmers had seemingly gone from accepting the occasional theft as an inevitable irritant to declaring rural crime a full-blown crisis. But, was it a bona fide crisis? In short, the answer was, it’s complicated. While reconciling statistical data with perception was important for context, the need to curb sometimes wildly brazen farm theft and defuse the fear and vigilante impulses of rural citizens was very real. The story necessarily took on a problem-solving bent. As it turned out, a wide range of government and policing bodies, as well as rural communities were on the case.
Once I had completed a portion of my central interviews and established the main currents of the story, I sketched out its broad framework. As time permitted, I fleshed out the individual facets. While I filled gaps and returned to sources with follow-up questions, the three-month timeline allowed me to massage the narrative and respond to feedback from my workmates.
The positive response the story received was very gratifying and has prompted further GrainsWest deep dives.