Crime, Published Articles

Mayerthorpe arsonist sentenced

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Lawson Schalm, the volunteer firefighter who pleaded guilty to four counts of arson in March, was sentenced to two years imprisonment at Mayerthorpe Provincial Court on July 6.

“The offences are indeed grave and concerning for the court,” said Judge Charles Gardner in his sentencing ruling, referring to the 18 fires Schalm started.

The major arson committed by Schalm, 20, was burning down the CN trestle bridge in Mayerthrope on April 26, which Gardner said “caused what can only be described as catastrophic destruction.”

Repairing the bridge cost $7.5 million, Gardner added.

Some of the other fires were small, merely burning grass, while others destroyed property, but the “potential for greater loss … was very great,” he said, noting that one fire was started across the street from a gas plant.

Schalm volunteered as a firefighter from the age of 15. His position as a firefighter created a significant breach of trust that “is not a normal one,” Gardner said.

Other aggravating factors include the number of fires, significant damage, foreseeable risk and that the arsons continued after the trestle fire.

However, Schalm “quickly and forthrightly” confessed to the crimes when he was informed he was a suspect, which Gardner listed as a mitigating factor.

A psychological assessment commissioned by the defence came to the conclusion that Schalm was not a pyromaniac, nor was he bipolar, making the risk of recidivism minimal.

Instead, the psychiatrist said the accused “struggles with self esteem and significant cognitive deficits,” stemming from his upbringing.

Schalm was adopted when he was six years old, coming from a family marked by “neglect and domestic violence,” said Gardner.

He also cited Schalm’s “strong family and community support,” age and lack of a prior criminal record as additional mitigating factors.

“Clearly, a jail sentence is called for,” he said, sentencing Schalm to six months in jail for the first three counts and 18 months for the trestle fire, crediting the accused with three months time served.

Schalm also must pay the Town of Mayerthorpe $8,653.53 in restitution, as well as attend three years probation once his prison sentence is finished.

Gardner also imposed an 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, which he said could be altered or lifted by Schalm’s probation officer.

Father, lawyer speak out

Schalm’s father, Albert, a Northern Gateway Public Schools trustee and former Mayerthorpe mayor, said the past year has been an extremely difficult one for his family but that they’re ready to move on.

“There’s always things that happen, there’s always things that go on that we have to live with, have to go with it and my son’s going to pay a price,” said the elder Schalm.

He said his son “has always been a good kid” and that he’s “always been proud” of Lawson, despite his poor decisions last year.

Lawson has been living with his parents and brother since his arrest and Albert said that his recent high school graduation demonstrates his effort at self improvement.

“Huge credit to the high school for allowing him … to finish. Huge credit for him to want to finish,” he said.

Albert described the sentencing as “fair” and “thorough.”

“We didn’t expect a pardon,” he said. “There’s no way that was going to happen.”

Albert also credited the Town for being “very patient” and forgiving.

“That’s how my son has been able to move on for the most part. It’s because people forgive him,” he said.

Edward O’Neil, Lawson’s defence lawyer, said he was similarly satisfied with Gardner’s ruling.

“It was a very humane sentence passed by a very fair-minded and very respected judge,” said O’Neil.

He added that this case was hard on all parties involved.

“It’s a very difficult case because it’s a very sad case. (Lawson) did something he sincerely regrets and comes from a wonderful family,” O’Neil said. “They’re fundamentally decent people.”

Data, Published Articles

Whitecourt, Woodlands County growing

Originally published in the Whitecourt Star

Whitecourt and Woodlands County are both growing, while Mayerthorpe got a bit smaller, according to the most recent census data released Feb. 8.

Whitecourt’s population increased to 10,204 from 9,605 in 2011, when the last census was released — an increase of 6.2 per cent.

However, this is a slight decrease from the municipal census of 2013, which put the town’s population at 10,574, resulting in 370 more people than the 2016 federal survey.

Mayor Maryann Chichak attributed this discrepancy to differing methodologies in gathering census data.

“More visits are done to households to ensure that they’re counted in the municipal census,” she said.

“We did online. We did door-to-door. We’d go back two, three, four times to ensure we got an answer. Unfortunately, with a federal census, they made two or three attempts and if they don’t have a response back, then the houses aren’t counted,” she said.

Chichak estimated that there’s a five per cent variance between municipal and federal numbers.

“When you compare apples to apples, it was nice to see that continued steady growth from the last federal one,” she said.

Mayor pleased with Woodlands’ “healthy” growth

Woodlands County Mayor Jim Rennie was thrilled that the census showed his municipality’s population increase to 4,574 from 4,306, a growth of 10.4 per cent.

“The Edmonton Journal called themselves the fastest growing city in Canada and their percentage wasn’t a lot higher than ours,” he said.

According to the census, Edmonton grew by 14.8 per cent between 2011 and 2016.

The provincial average for Alberta is 11.6 per cent, making it the fastest growing province. The national average is five per cent.

“We’re a community that’s lucky to be blessed with growth,” said Rennie, calling the population increase “healthy” and “somewhat balanced.”

Mayerthorpe got smaller

But not all towns in Alberta grew from one census to the other.

Mayerthorpe’s population shrank by 5.6 per cent to 1,320, losing 78 people, since the federal census in 2011.

Lac Ste. Anne County, where Mayerthorpe is located, increased its population 6.2 per cent to 10,899 from 10,260 in the same timeframe.

“The population figures are disappointing and they’re not really unexpected,” Mayerthorpe Mayor Kate Patrick said, citing the economic downturn in the oilpatch as a factor in the decrease.

“We have a lot of oil and gas industry workers who lost their jobs in the last year.”

Patrick said that if the census was taken today, she believes the results would be different.

This is why she wants council to take a municipal census, which may not happen until 2018.