Auto theft is on the rise in Alberta, and its disproportionately northern communities seeing the biggest spike in stolen vehicles.
An analysis of key crime indicator statistics from 151 Alberta RCMP detachments by Great West Media compared reported vehicle thefts from January to June 2023 with the same period in 2022. Grande Prairie, Wood Buffalo, St. Albert and Cold Lake topped the list of the communities with the greatest number increase in stolen vehicles in the first six months this year, with Strathcona County, Lac La Biche, and Athabasca following close behind.
There could be many factors behind this surge in vehicle thefts, but why it has been more pronounced in the north isn’t easily explained.
“Each of these communities have different numbers when it comes to types of vehicles targeted,” said RCMP Cpl. Troy Savinkoff.
“We know that it can take a small amount of criminals to have a drastic effect on any given crime rate in a community. Some communities were affected by wildfires which displaced large amounts of people throughout the province. Increases in populations do oftentimes come with proportional increases in crime.”
Overall, there was an 18 per cent increase in vehicle thefts in Alberta between 2021 and 2022, according to a report from Équité Association, a not-for-profit organization that investigates and analyzes fraud and crime for Canadian insurers.
In Grande Prairie, auto thefts shot up 105 per cent in 2022 vs 2021, according to RCMP data. Wood Buffalo experienced a similar jump in the first six months of 2023, with twice as many vehicles reported stolen vs the first half of 2022. During the same time, St. Albert has seen an 86 per cent increase.
As for the types of vehicles targeted by thieves, it's "truck, trucks, trucks," said Sid Kingma, director of Équité Association's investigative services in Western Canada.
"They dominate the top 10 list in Alberta for vehicles being stolen," he said. "When you compare it to other regions in the country, Alberta has the highest theft rate of pickup trucks."
"The Alberta Auto Theft Unit is currently working on a joint educational campaign to educate Albertans on the most typical types of vehicle thefts we are seeing and how we can safeguard our belongings. This campaign also explores how new technology is assisting criminals to steal our vehicles," Savinkoff said.
Alberta also has one of the highest recovery rates in the country, 80 per cent, which says a lot about how and why those vehicles are being stolen in the first place, Kingma said.
"I think what we're seeing is that a lot of the thefts in Alberta are more crimes of opportunity," where vehicles are left running and someone jumps in and drives away, he said. Sometimes the truck is used as a "platform to commit other crimes" like robbery, and in other cases its simply abandoned when the thief gets to their destination.
"I think that recovery rate is high because those vehicles are used for that type of purpose rather than being stolen to be shipped out of the country," Kingma said.
Vehicle recovery rates in Quebec and Ontario are roughly half that of Alberta. Being closer to major ports, it is easier for organized crime to get stolen vehicles out of the country on ships headed for markets in the Middle East and Africa, Kingma said.
Though rarer in the prairies, these types of sophisticated thefts and criminal networks are starting to move west, he said.
"We're in crisis mode," Kingma said. "It's a crisis level right now across the country. And one of the big things that we're really advocating for is that Transport Canada needs to strengthen the outdated Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Regulations, because those regulations haven't been updated since 2007."
The 2007 update mandated new theft deterrent measures be included in new vehicles. When immobilizers like chipped keys were introduced, there was a "huge decline" in the number of new vehicles stolen, he said.
Since then, things like push button starts have become common, which have created vulnerabilities in a vehicle for sophisticated thieves to exploit.
"So now we just need to modernize those existing regulations and make sure that we have the most up to date auto theft securities built into all newly manufactured vehicles. And I think it'll have a really big effect," Kingma said.