Oilpatch problems could find their way east, expert says

Rod Knecht renews call to impound vehicles for excessive speeding

Edmonton’s police chief is blaming the city’s increase in property and violent crime on the economic downtown in Alberta’s northern oilpatch — problems that could eventually find their way east.

People coming back to Edmonton after losing jobs in Cold Lake and Fort McMurray are behind an increase in crime in the province’s capital city, Chief Rod Knecht told press last week. Alberta’s capital has seen an 18 per cent increase in property crimes and a 12 per cent increase in violent crimes this year, according to the police force.

But on Monday, acting police Chief Brian Simpson clarified that a variety of factors were at play.

“It’s not about the oilfield workers; it’s about the oil economy,” Simpson said at a news conference.

If the chief’s statements are accurate, it wouldn’t be the first time that an economic slowdown leads to increases in crime elsewhere, Albert Jones, a law professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, tells Yahoo Canada News.

And if Newfoundlanders and Labradorians working in Alberta and on oil rigs begin to return home because of layoffs, St. John’s could see an increase as well, he says.

The total number of violent crimes in St. John’s dropped in 2013 compared to 2012. But the city’s Violent Crime Severity Index went up, largely because the city had three murders that year compared to none in 2012.

According to Statistics Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Crime Severity Index dropped by nine per cent in 2014, and the crime rate in St. John’s was down 10 per cent the same year. The drops came after significant increases in violent crime in the province from 2000 to 2010.

It’s hard to predict both the scale of the problem in St. John’s right now and where it could go if Alberta’s tough times continue, Jones says. That’s both because many of these issues are relatively recent ones for the small province, and because crimes like drug trafficking are by their nature underground and difficult to track.

“These are cash transactions,” he says. “Nobody gives you a receipt and Air Miles.”

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary in St. John’s wasn’t immediately available for comment.

The oilpatch near Fort McMurray, in northern Alberta, has been hit hard by the drop in the price of oil. And thousands of workers in the province are from Newfoundland and Labrador, some of them working and living in Alberta permanently and others travelling back and forth between the oilpatch and homes on the east coast.

Information released by StatsCan in 2013 showed that the number of Atlantic Canadians working in Alberta had tripled over the past decade, with 20,000 of those workers being from Newfoundland and Labrador.

Now some of those workers have been laid off and could return to the province — and bring criminal problems with them, Jones says.

“People often come back from Alberta with two things: a habit and a stash,” Jones says. “It’s fuelled a lot of cocaine here.”

St. John’s has already seen the consequences of the influx of money coming from new jobs in Alberta and on oil rigs, says Jones, who specializes in organized crime. He pointed to two recent large drug busts around the city, including the seizure of 20 kilograms of hash, nine kilograms of marijuana and more than $100,000 cash last week.

“You can see. It just starts to escalate,” Jones says. “By how much, we don’t know.”

None of it is unique to Edmonton, St. John’s, or any other city, Jones says. Problems with drugs, organized crime and prostitution are often seen in bust economies, and incidences of crimes like domestic assault become more common in rougher financial times.

But Edmonton police pointed to the fact that crime has been rising since November 2014, as the price of oil has been dropping, and that they’re seeing it in their city and not ones farther from the oilpatch like Calgary.

Melissa Blake, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, requested that the Edmonton force provide evidence of its claims that unemployed workers from the oilpatch who have come to Edmonton are leading to increases in crime and calls to police.

The data put out by Edmonton police in a release showed that crime tends to increase in the summer months and decrease in the winter, but that in 2015 crime dropped by less in the winter and spiked more than normal in the summer.

Knecht said last week that his force would request funds from city council to hire an additional 80 officers, in order to deal with the increase in police calls.