Prairie justice: Rifle-toting homeowner puts new self-defence laws to the test

When I read that Saskatoon resident Hugh Lindholm had fired his rifle in the air to warn off a late-night intruder, my first reaction was not "good on ya!"

I have no objection to a 72-year-old man, who lives with his wife on an acreage in my favourite Saskatchewan city, showing a potential home invader what he's in for if he goes any further.

No, I expected the cops would be showing up to put old Mr. Lindholm in cuffs, followed by charges of unlawfully discharging a firearm.

But I needn't have worried. I'd forgotten the landscape has changed when it comes the right to armed self-defence in Canada.

We're not quite in U.S.-style "stand your ground" territory, or even the so-called "castle doctrine," which asserts a person's home is their castle and they're entitled to defend it. But under Criminal Code changes passed by the Conservative government that took effect this year, it's now clearer when you can use a gun in some circumstances to protect life and property.

[ Related: U.S. 'stand your ground' laws unlikely to budge ]

Here's what happened, according to the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Lindholm and his wife, Beverly, were asleep last April 9 when they were awakened by the sound of breaking glass. Lindholm retrieved his rifle from the bedroom closet, loaded it and went to the door while his wife called 911.

A stranger stood on the couple's deck. He'd just thrown a 40-pound patio brick through a window. Now he was demanding Lindholm's car keys.

He ignored Lindholm's orders to get off the property, so the homeowner fired a shot over his head. That apparently didn't register, so Lindholm fired a second, after which the guy took the hint.

Police arrived minutes later, the StarPhoenix said, and arrested the intruder, 34-year-0ld Jason Barlow. He was drunk and had run his car into the ditch near Lindholm's acreage.

He apologized after sobering up the next day and this week pleaded guilty to attempted break and enter and obstructing a peace officer. He received two years probation, 200 hours of community service and was ordered to pay $8,500 restitution for damage to Lindholm's house.

It's not clear from the news report if the Crown looked into the actions of the rifle-toting homeowner but it's unlikely.

The Conservatives' Criminal Code amendments appear to give Canadians clearer guidance in defending people or property.

Section 34 of the code, which covers the use of force in the defence of a person, and Section 35 does the same for defence of property. The operative word in both instances is reasonableness.

The government made the changes after Toronto grocer David Chen was prosecuted for apprehending and tying up a chronic shoplifter. But a few other high-profile cases that saw homeowners prosecuted after fending off attacks with guns also fuelled the debate over when force could be used.

David Chen, centre, shows his relief after being found not guilty on charges of assault and forcible confineme …

Farmer Brian Russell Knight of Lacombe, in southern Alberta, pleaded guilty to criminal negligence causing bodily harm after wounding a man who tried to steal an ATV from his property in 2009.

He was charged because thief Harold Groening, who had two accomplices, was fleeing on the ATV and Knight gave chase in his truck. After the two collided, Knight fired in the air but some shotgun pellets struck Groening. The thief fell, and when he got up Knight shot him again, the pellets hitting his back and rear end.

Knight was initially sentenced to 90 days in jail, to be served on weekends, but last year the Alberta Court of Appeal overturned the sentence.

“The defence argues that the sentencing judge wrongly characterized Knight’s actions as those of a vigilante," the court said in its written decision, the Edmonton Sun reported at the time. "We agree."

The Appeal Court replaced the lower-court decision with a conditional discharge, one year's probation and 100 hours of community service, the Sun said.

[ Related: Self-defence: What's acceptable under Canadian law? ]

Then there was the case of Ian Thomson, who lives on a rural property near Port Colborne, Ont. A feud with one of his neighbours over stray chickens culminated in a late-night firebomb attack in 2010, according to the National Post.

Thomson, a former firearms instructor, took a handgun from his safe and, running outside in his underwear, fired some shots in the air and scared off the attackers.

He turned over surveillance video of the attack to the local police but found himself charged with several firearms counts instead.

After more than three years going through the justice system, Thomson was acquitted last January, the Toronto Sun reported in September.

Meawhile, the ringleader in the Molotov cocktail attack on his home has been released from prison and Thomson says he's still being threatened. He's applied for a special permit to carry a handgun, the Sun said.

In an editorial last spring, the Vancouver Province noted the Criminal Code's self-defence sections were amended because the existing ones lacked clarity and "were so confusing that judges had trouble explaining them to juries, leading to appeals."

"It will still be up to the Crown, in whether to lay charges, and the courts, in whether to convict, to determine reasonable force, but the intent of the law is now more clear, which is a good thing," the Province said.