Cover

THE RURAL JUNGLE

Grow ops, drug labs and substance abuse have made small-town streets just as mean as urban ones

JONATHON GATEHOUSE March 14 2005
Cover

THE RURAL JUNGLE

Grow ops, drug labs and substance abuse have made small-town streets just as mean as urban ones

JONATHON GATEHOUSE March 14 2005

THE RURAL JUNGLE

Grow ops, drug labs and substance abuse have made small-town streets just as mean as urban ones

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

MAYBE IT’S TIME to update our national myths. The killing of four RCMP officers near Mayerthorpe, Alta, last week, makes painfully obvious what many of us have tried to ignore. Canada’s small towns long ago graduated to big city problems.

Nobody keeps comprehensive statistics on crime in the less populated corners of this country, but the anecdotal evidence fills the pages of local newspapers. A police raid on a farm near Cremona, Alta., last month, that uncovered a lab and 10 kg of crystal methamphetamine. A bust by Steinbach, Man., RCMP that netted 32 kilos of pot and $65,000 in cash. A house fire in St-Rémi-d’Amherst, Que., that led to the discovery of an

indoor grow op with 12,000 plants.

“Drugs permeate every corner of our society,” says Chief Edgar MacLeod of the Cape Breton Regional Police Service. “The simple fact is that the impact of drugs on quality of life, on families, communities and neighbours, is the same regardless of where it happens.” In the wake of the Alberta slayings, the organization he leads, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, is renewing its calls for a comprehensive national antidrug strategy. Police in the country’s smaller centres and rural areas are in desperate need of help, says MacLeod. He cites the example of his own force, which has recently been struggling with an epidemic of prescription drug

abuse, primarily the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin. “People have trouble accepting the fact that it’s happening in their communities,” says MacLeod. “They take a lot of pride in where they live, and there’s a sense of embarrassment. The first challenge is just getting people to talk about it.”

Berry Vrbanovic, chairman of the Lederation of Canadian Municipalities’ public safety and crime prevention committee, says marijuana grow ops and drug labs are becoming more and more prevalent in rural areas as police in large cities crack down. “There’s a perception that the risks are less significant in the country,” says Vrbanovic, a Kitchener, Ont., city councillor. “It’s tougher to detect them. Police don’t have the resources.” Tragedies like Mayerthorpe are bound to be repeated, he says, unless governments and the courts take action. The federation is calling for new minimum sentencing guidelines that would see the owners of grow ops and labs handed hard time rather than fines or probation.

Communities across the country are struggling to catch up to the new realities. In Kenora, in northwest Ontario, police and school officials launched a public education campaign last fall after discovering that crystal meth was starting to show up on their streets. Alan Wray, a school principal, organized public meetings to inform parents and students of the danger. “This stuff is strong enough that on the second use, you’re addicted,” he says. “So we let people know what it looks like, how people behave once they start taking it.” It hasn’t stopped the spread of meth—two students at the high school went into treatment in October—but it has slowed it, Wray believes.

If, last month, you had asked Rob Merrifield, the Conservative MP whose Yellowhead riding includes Mayerthorpe, about the biggest problem facing his constituents, he too would have said crystal meth. “ft just makes an absolute shipwreck of lives,” he says. But the slayings of the four officers prove that the issue is bigger than one drug or one community. “In places like this, it’s out of sight and out of mind,” says Merrifield. “The RCMP are stretched to the max, there’s a lack of resources. I believe it’s more prevalent than many in our communities even understand or know.” Given the events of last week, that might finally change. Ignorance is no longer an option. lifl

jonathon.gatehouse@macleans.rogers.com