Chris Davis, Pincher Creek Voice
|Minister of Justice Jonathan Denis addresses|
Pincher Creek's Rotary Club
C. Davis photo
"We've come down from Calgary today," Denis told me before his Rotary presentation. Prior to the Rotary stop he visited the Brocket and Pincher Creek RCMP detachments, and had several other stops scheduled for afterward, including speaking with area Fish and Wildlife officers.
"Every summer, I like to get out to a few RCMP detachments and see first hand what some of the issues are in the local communities. It gives a person a more macroscopic perspective," Denis explained. "Alberta is just as much urban as it is rural."
His first impressions of Pincher Creek were somewhat predictable. "The first thing I saw were all the windmills, and when I opened the door, I was almost blown over," he said.
Denis was born and raised in Saskatchewan, where he achieved a Commerce degree and a Law degree. He worked as a staffer for Saskatchewan Liberal Party leader Lynda Haverstock until Haverstock resigned as Liberal leader to sit as an independent in the Saskatchewan Legislature. Denis completed law school, moved to Calgary, and became active provincial and federal conservative parties. He was elected in the 2008 provincial election in the constituency of Calgary-Egmont, and was re-elected in the 2012 election in Calgary-Acadia, a district that was created by the 2010 Alberta boundary redistribution.
"There are many challenges," Denis said of the Justice portfolio. "The biggest one is keeping our budget in check. We basically balanced the budget, that might surprise many people. But we have commitments to make. People expect quality of health, quality of education, and frankly, safe communities as well. It continues to be a challenge to manage expectations, while keeping the budget in check, so we're not incurring debt for future generations."
Premier Alison Redford served in the cabinet of Ed Stelmach as the Minister of Justice and Attorney General prior to becoming party leader and ultimately Premier.
"In my own ministry, when the Premier was the Justice Minster, she added 300 new police officers," Denis said. "It's my intention to keep funding those throughout the entire province."
First Nations/Safe Communities Program
"Every place is unique," he said of his tour through southwest Alberta. "It's decidedly different from the tours of the cities. I'm told by officers in Brocket and here that the First Nations climate can pose a bit of a challenge but at the same time, the Brocket detachment, some of the First Nations officers told me that this is one of the best places they've been, actually, for law enforcement. Particularly, that there's low instances of native gangs. I'm very happy to hear that."
"Just because you have a higher risk population, it doesn't mean your going to have a high crime rate. It's a case of forging a partnership with the local aboriginal population... and also addressing some of the issues. Specifically there are higher rates of young aboriginal involvement gangs, and that troubles me. We have to continue to tackle that. And that is what we've been doing through our Safe Communities Program."
He expounded the virtues of the Safe Communities Program during his formal speech to the Rotary Club. "Three years ago we began a program called Safe Communities, which was designed to address crime, address criminal justice issues, often before they begin," he said. "Many police officers have said to me, 'You know, we can tell the children in grade one who are going to be problems in grade twelve', and I actually believe that. What we have also found through our own research is that if we wait until high school, even in junior high, often that is even too late. And that’s why our Safe Communities program has had an impact over the last three years."
"So I think that one of the best legacies... we can leave for future generations is a network of safe and strong communities, but again that starts from the children up. So in my role as Minister of Justice I’m proud to take on the task of promoting strong vibrant communities, and reducing crime to Albertans not only feel safe, but are safe, not only in urban Alberta, but also throughout rural Alberta as well."
"As a collaboration of eight different ministries, it is designed to address crime in an integrated and holistic way, effectively the only province that has undertaken this sensitive issue."
"The first three years is up, and I'm in the process of starting what I call Safe Communities 2.0."
"I was a trial Lawyer," Denis said. "I did represent some people with respect to their own property rights. I recognize that it can get very expensive and intimidating for people to deal with the system on their own."
"It can be costly, it can be intimidating, and people too often don't know which way to go," he reiterated during his speech.
"We have a solution to this issue. I'm proud to say that the Premier has placed the Property Rights Advocate Office under my Ministry. This shows she takes this seriously, as do I. This will have an annual budget of about one million dollars, It's office will be located in rural Alberta, it will give landowners resources if they have any questions about land or water, or if they feel their property rights have been violated, a place to go, much like an ombudsman."
Denis said the new office will be "A place they can go without incurring significant legal bills."
While discussing the Advocate Office prior to his speech he told me "It'll be designed to serve all people throughout the province, and not just in rural Alberta. Many people in urban areas might have a question about what's happening with the expropriation of their own urban land. This is a rural and urban issue.
"This is on my radar screen. I think it's a very important initiative in Alberta."
Denis kept his speech to the Rotary Club relatively brief, saying he wanted to save as much time as possible for questions and answers afterward.
"I can confidently say that throughout the entire province there is a sense of optimism, even in economically challenging times, but I also wanted to say that what’s really unique about Alberta I think is that so many different people come from different parts of the country, and also different parts of the world, and everywhere I go I will always ask 'Is there someone from Saskatchewan here', so is there?"
Upon getting an affirmative response he said "See? There’s always somebody from Saskatchewan. My grandparents came to Canada to a homestead in the Maple Creek Saskatchewan area. I can only imagine how difficult it was breaking the land, starting everything from scratch. But that’s really what has built the promise of this country, but particularly of this whole province in and of itself."
"To me that really is exhibited by the Rotary Club as well. I want to say to all of you, for serving the community, thank you very much. You provide many services, not just in this community, but throughout the entire province, and frankly the world."
"I wanted to talk to you a bit about policing in our province. As many of you may know, when the Premier sat in my shoes she started a program for 300 new police officers, which we are going to continue. Its police, its RCMP or peace officers, conservation officers, probation officers, sheriffs or others working in the justice system, I know there’s some here today, every one of you put your lives on the risk potentially every day, for our safety. And I think that all too often we take our safety for granted."
"Relatively speaking for the rest of the world, Canada is a very safe place to live, but at the same time we depend upon our police and peace officers every day. And I want to say thank you to those who are here. And if you do know a police or peace officer in the city, go and thank them, because every day can be a very very tough day, and I think that many times we just tend to take their services for granted."
"It is not an option to not continue this particular program, as it's met with such success for not a lot of money."
"I would ask you to please stay in touch with me over facebook, twitter, or just by contacting my office. I hope I can form a relationship with this community, because it's this type of relationships and partnerships we want to continue to establish, that inspire the government of Alberta, but frankly just provide order and good government in this province."
"This is experimental, the first of it's kind in Canada. What happens with a drug court is an offender comes in and the judge acts as a councillor indicating that you come back a week from now, if you're still clean, you're still out of jail. It encourages people to make positive choices with respect to their treatment, if they do fall into that cycle."
"It gives someone that direct incentive to stay clean."
"My cousin died of a drug overdose when he was 24. It was a waste of a life, and I miss him to this day. But realistically, we have got to prevent things like that before they even happen."
Marijuana and grow-ops
Denis told responded to one individual who questioned the validity of Canadian marijuana laws that he would leave that issue up to the Federal government, as it is under their jurisdiction. He said the impact of grow-ops on communities and law enforcement did fall under his jurisdiction.
"I actually will be beginning a consultation to deal with the amount of grow-ops we have throughout the entire province. That's not so much an issue of whether you believe marijuana should be legal or not. The grow-ops that happen in a person's community have a real impact on the safety and land values. I encourage you to talk to your Federal member of Parliament."
Crime on the decline?
He was asked if crime was on the decline in Alberta.
"Alberta is one of the safest places in Canada," he replied. "We are obviously doing something right, we have to keep doing that. Just as there are many different solutions to crime, there are many different causes for crime. We can't just be punitive. We have to find innovative ways to encourage people to make safe and positive choices for their lives."
"About three years ago we began a program that seizes assets of organized crime and gives from that money to organizations that can actually prevent crime in the future, particularly dealing with youth."
"Two weeks ago, I announced that last year we seized 1.6 million dollars from the assets of crime. We are giving that to two community based organizations that can help prevent crime."
"How do you decide who gets that funding?" he was asked.
"People make an application every year. We, of course, receive way more applications than we can fund, but this year we were able to fund some good applications. As the money increases we will be able to move that forward, as well."
Denis was asked if Alberta should consider instituting a 'three-strike' rule similar to statutes enacted by some state governments in the United States that mandate life sentences for persons convicted of three or more serious criminal offenses. I
"The problem I have with the three strike rule is, for example, someone who commits two serious offences, then steals a candy bar, that could be seen as a third strike and then they go to jail for a long period of time," he replied. "I like to look at criminals on an individual case by case basis. The criminal code power in Canada is federal whereas in the US it's mostly state by state. There are very few Federal offences in the United States."
"What I would like to see from the Federal government is some stiffer sentences for repeat offenders, and particularly for sexually based crimes."
"You would be shocked, no word of a lie, shocked to see the amount of actual predators there are online. I think the Federal government needs to step up and actually act."
"One of the things I propose is that the Federal government do is retain the data about where everybody surfs for a longer period of time, so that police can actually go and get a warrant when someone is actually reasonably suspected of being a child predator."
"This only going to get worse, unless we start taking this seriously."
"When I was growing up I wasn't a bad kid, but I was always scared of the police to be quite frank. We need to teach our kids number one, that the police are our friends, and that police are the people that you go to when your in trouble."
"When I was a kid, we didn't have issues like gangs that we do today."
"We need to continually teach our kids, from a young age, driving home the message that if you get to this kind of lifestyle, it might seem exciting, but it leads nowhere. It can lead to your death, your criminalization, or the death of others."
"One of the consultations that we are going to be doing is finding what has worked best, and maybe what hasn't worked as well. I do want to continue this program. It costs 32 million dollars for three years, and I don't think we can afford not to."
Safe Communities metrics
Denis was asked if the government was tracking the metrics of the Safe Communities program.
"Because the program has just concluded, we don't have a full set of statistics right now. It's important to work with the police, but it's also important to work with people in the education system, social workers, parents, and have a very, very broad based resource of where we want to go next. I'm hoping that other provinces take on this type of approach, because it is working. Anything has room for improvement."
Are parents part of the problem?
A questioner posited that parents are often the root of the problem when kids engage in criminal behaviour. "Do you re-educate the parents?"
"The highest instance of drug use amongst kids correlates to if the parents use themselves," Denis replied. "One of the things that (Calgary) Police Chief Rick Hanson indicated very publicly is that we need to educate the parents as well. Because parents that use drugs have kids that use drugs. It's where a lot of them learn the behaviour from. I think that the education continues not just at the kids, but to the parents to set a good example."
Alberta Justice Safe Communities
Edmonton Drug Treatment and Community Restoration Court