Mike Ellis is one of the last people to tell someone to take matters into their own hands.
A former sergeant with the Calgary Police Service, his first advice to anyone in danger is to call the police. He knows the ways that someone using force to defend themselves or their property can end badly.
But when he started attending town hall meetings on crime in rural Alberta as an MLA, he started to see the issue another way.
“The stories that we were hearing at our town halls (weren’t) just that the police were far away, or they were late to calls,” said Ellis, a United Conservative Party MLA for Calgary-West and the party’s solicitor general critic. “We were hearing the police weren’t responding at all
People wanted specifics. When could they use force to stop, say, a burglar? What weapons could they use in a given situation?
That breakdown is behind a controversial provision in the UCP’s rural crime plan — one that reveals very different schools of thought on when using force to protect one’s property is justified.
Released last month, the 21-page plan looks at ways of improving police response times and reducing crime in rural communities. Some rural areas have seen double-digit or triple-digit spikes in thefts and burglaries in the past several years.
It also says a UCP government would lobby the federal government to strengthen defence of person and defence of property provisions in Canada’s Criminal Code.
“Property owners who are victims of repeated break-ins and thefts, without suitable police response, are warned by police, or even charged, when they use their lawfully owned firearms to defend themselves, their families, and their property from brazen criminals,” the report says. Residents want clear answers on when they can use force to defend themselves, it says.
A simmering debate boils over
The trial of Gerald Stanley, acquitted earlier this year in the shooting death of 22-year-old Cree man Colten Boushie on his farm in Saskatchewan forced Canadians to confront race, reconciliation and inequities in the legal system.
It also launched a debate on self-defence. During the trial, the magazine Maclean’s ran the provocative headline: “No, rural Prairie dwellers, you can’t shoot to protect your property.”
But self-defence was notably absent from the defence’s legal arguments. His legal team argued the pistol Stanley was carrying went off unexpectedly after he fired a warning shot — an extremely rare phenomenon known as a hang fire.
Shortly after the February verdict, self-defence was again in the headlines when police charged Okotoks rancher Edouard Maurice with wounding a suspected trespasser on his property. The case prompted outcry from rural residents, many of whom attended Maurice’s court dates with signs decrying his treatment at the hands of the legal system. He was cleared of the charges in June, after the court found evidence the warning shot he fired ricocheted.
The UCP plan says rural residents want “greater clarity” on the measures they can take to defend themselves when they find an intruder on their property. As it stands, “the answers provided are necessarily cloaked in imprecise terms like ‘reasonable force,’” the plan says.
Ellis said the UCP would push the federal government to make changes to sections 34 and 35 of the Criminal Code of Canada, which governs defence of person and defence of property.
“Police will always tell you in an emergency situation to call the police,” Ellis said. “However, what has developed not just in Alberta but throughout other jurisdictions in Canada is you’re seeing people defend themselves, sometimes with firearms … you have to ask yourself why?”