February 24, 2020

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Winnipeg Free Press

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Manitoba eyes beefing up rural crime punishments

OTTAWA — After a rise in violent crime and property theft across the Prairies, the Manitoba government is kicking the tires on boosting punishments for rural crime.

"Some provinces have brought forward legislation relative to rural crime and property rights," Manitoba Justice Minister Cliff Cullen told the Free Press. "We're going to have a look at what their legislation says, and see if there's something that might be applicable for the Manitoba context."

The Pallister government says it’s also moving to address access-to-justice issues in the North, following months of investigative reports by this newspaper.

‘Early’ days for justice system to address MMIW report

OTTAWA — The Pallister government says it’s too early to tell how the province’s justice system will respond to the last June’s report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

The inquiry's recommendations include reforming rape laws, giving more autonomy over Indigenous policing, and beefing up police oversight.

OTTAWA — The Pallister government says it’s too early to tell how the province’s justice system will respond to the last June’s report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

The inquiry's recommendations include reforming rape laws, giving more autonomy over Indigenous policing, and beefing up police oversight.

Manitoba Justice Minister Cliff Cullen said the report garnered “general discussion” among his colleagues across the country Wednesday.

“I think it's pretty early on that file to provide examples,” he said. “They are very extensive, in terms of the recommendations, and some of them are quire far-reaching.”

Cullen’s federal counterpart, David Lametti, told reporters Wednesday they’d “explored concrete solutions,” but didn’t specify any.

Cullen said Ottawa and the provinces are still reviewing the recommendations.

He added a committee of PC ministers are looking into gender-based violence with a heavy focus on what Indigenous women and communities have asked for.

Lametti noted part of the response will stem from a November 2018 pledge by all provinces, to increase the use of restorative justice processes by at least five per cent in three years.

More than a year later, it’s unclear how much progress Manitoba is making.

Manitoba Justice posts online the number of referrals to restorative justice programs, which has fluctuated, but did not provide a number of overall cases, making it impossible to tabulate what percentage of criminal cases enter that program.

Cullen said his colleagues did not discuss Gladue rights Wednesday, which are meant to influence how judges sentence Indigenous offenders.

— Dylan Robertson

Cullen was speaking after Wednesday’s meeting of federal and provincial justice ministers in Victoria, where the Alberta government floated the idea of putting aggravating factors into sentencing law for crimes committed in remote locations.

"That certainly would send a message to criminals, that that sort of activity in rural areas is not going to be tolerated," Cullen said.

In a letter last month, the Alberta government suggested Ottawa could allow judges to beef up jail time for offenders found to have deliberately committed a crime in a remote area, "in recognition of the victim's enhanced vulnerability," or when a criminal refuses to leave a property after a burglary or theft.

Aggravating factors currently apply for crimes against children or police, and those motivated by hate.

In Manitoba, the crime rate outside of the Winnipeg area was 42 per cent higher than in the capital city itself in 2017, the last year Statistics Canada compared those jurisdictions.

In Alberta and Saskatchewan, crime appears to be more common and violent outside the four major cities.

Parliament held hearings on the issue of rural crime in 2018, where Prairie residents spoke about inept emergency-number operators, hours-long response times, and city-based drug dealers preying on small communities.

In Manitoba, the crime rate outside of the Winnipeg area was 42 per cent higher than in the capital city itself in 2017, the last year Statistics Canada compared those jurisdictions. Justice Minister Cliff Cullen and the Manitoba government are considering boosting punishments for rural crime. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Free Press files)

In Manitoba, the crime rate outside of the Winnipeg area was 42 per cent higher than in the capital city itself in 2017, the last year Statistics Canada compared those jurisdictions. Justice Minister Cliff Cullen and the Manitoba government are considering boosting punishments for rural crime. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Free Press files)

The issue has percolated through racially charged cases such as the 2016 shooting death of Colten Boushie, a First Nations man, on the farm of a white Saskatchewan family.

Cullen’s provincial counterparts had "a pretty comprehensive discussion about rural crime… It’s certainly impacting not just those in the Prairie provinces," he said.

"There was a consensus to potentially look at Criminal Code changes; we didn't get into specifics on what that might look like," Cullen said, adding the ministers will report back at their next meeting together this fall.

Much of the issue seems to stem from RCMP under-resourcing. The national police force serves rural detachments based on the funding provided by their province. Increased demand has led the force to consolidate detachments, making it take even longer for police to reach citizens reporting robberies and assaults.

On Wednesday, Cullen said he asked Ottawa for more funding for police in Winnipeg and rural RCMP detachments. Last November, the province earmarked $1.9 million to add 16 Mounties to the roughly 1,000 officers that patrol Manitoba.

He also revealed Manitoba has been pushing to tap into its federal guns-and-gangs allocation to hire more RCMP officers, which isn’t allowed under Ottawa’s current terms. This could explain why the province had only tapped $2.3 million of its $13 million allocation, far less than other provinces.

"There's a signal of some flexibility, so I would say we're cautiously optimistic," Cullen said.

He also reiterated calls by Winnipeg Mayor Brain Bowman and Premier Brian Pallister to have Ottawa crack down on drug smuggling, since officials believe meth from Mexico is contributing to Winnipeg’s crime surge.

Meanwhile, Cullen has resisted calls by a Manitoba judge for an independent review of backlogged courts in the province’s north, where suspects have waited as long as 51 days for a bail hearing.

"Our government takes the issue of northern justice seriously," he said, in response to an ongoing Free Press investigation on the issue.

Unlike Manitoba, Saskatchewan uses video links in 102 remote locations, mostly police detachments, so suspects can appear in front of a judge for bail hearings, without traveling long distances.

The Pallister government indicated no plan to implement similar technology a month ago, but Cullen now says it is in the works.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

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