Edmonton city council’s homeless emergency declaration slammed by Alberta government

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Edmonton council’s homeless emergency declaration slammed by Alberta government
A motion was passed 9-4 by Edmonton city council Tuesday for an emergency to be declared, intending to signal the seriousness and scale of homelessness. Morgan Black reports – Jan 16, 2024

New shots were fired in the war of words between Edmonton’s city council and Alberta cabinet ministers over the response to homelessness and encampments in the provincial capital.

A motion was passed 9-4 by council Tuesday for an emergency to be declared, signalling to citizens council understands the seriousness and scale of the issue of homelessness in the city.

The motion tabled by Mayor Amarjeet Sohi triggered contentious and passionate debate. Sohi pitched a new task force and a plan to raise money to help support social service efforts.

“We cannot continue to respond to the symptoms of the problem,” Sohi said on Tuesday.

Council agreed unanimously on those efforts.

Four councillors voted against the declaration of an emergency: Sarah Hamilton, Tim Cartmell, Karen Principe and Aaron Paquette. The latter said it sends the wrong message.

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“An emergency declaration — that’s a promise, and frankly I don’t think that’s a promise we can keep,” Paquette said, pointing to housing being a provincial matter.

How the city will act on the newly declared emergency is not clear.

“The declaration without action means very little,” Paquette said.

Late Tuesday, a scathing statement was released by the province in response to council’s vote.

“It is disappointing that the City of Edmonton would choose to issue a performative declaration suggesting an emergency and implying a lack of response from our government,” Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver’s statement said. “It is important to clarify to Albertans that this motion does not have any legal implications, authority or binding force.

“The fact that Edmonton’s city council made a non-binding motion is especially troubling because it devalues the word ‘emergency.’

“When the word ‘emergency’ is used, Albertans are used to stepping up and taking action directly, while that is not the intention of this motion.”

Edmonton city councillors were briefed in private by the province on its housing and homelessness plans on the same day the vote was passed. Coun. Erin Rutherford described it as collaborative.

“It’s very heartening that we are able to have a candid conversation with the province on issues that are affecting Edmontonians,” she said.

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Click to play video: 'Edmonton mayor, council debate declaring homelessness emergency'
Edmonton mayor, council debate declaring homelessness emergency


The province said the Edmonton public safety cabinet committee met with City of Edmonton council members to share a joint action plan developed in collaboration with the province, city, EPS, Edmonton Fire Rescue Services, Alberta Health Services and Cody Thomas, grand chief of Treaty 6 First Nations.

“We were pleased to brief councillors earlier today on the action our government is taking in collaboration with Indigenous leaders to address the dangerous situation in encampments. We had hoped that the city would put aside performative measures and put Albertans first, but unfortunately that was not the case,” McIver said.

In a statement issued Tuesday afternoon, the Confederacy of Treaty No. 6 First Nations said the “meeting was a good start, and a move in the right direction.”

“We expect many more conversations and encourage the Government of Canada to join us at the table and in the work that will follow,” the statement said in part.

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“Housing is a right for all humans. An endless cycle of eviction defeats the purpose of healing and drives people into precarious, unsafe conditions. We have arrived at a critical juncture in our united commitment to address the challenges of housing, mental health and addiction in the streets of Edmonton.”

Last week, Sohi announced he intended to bring forward a motion to council to call for an emergency to be declared to signal to citizens that council understands the seriousness and scale of the issue of homelessness in the city.

Upon approval, Sohi said he would invite Seniors, Community and Social Services Minister Jason Nixon, federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser and Thomas to discuss possible solutions at an emergency meeting.

Click to play video: 'Removing encampments critical for safety of all: Edmonton city councillor'
Removing encampments critical for safety of all: Edmonton city councillor

Sohi’s announcement that he intended to bring forward the motion came after eight homeless encampments deemed to be “high-risk” by police and the city were dismantled amid freezing cold temperatures, a move criticized by some homeless advocates who argued many encampment residents do not feel comfortable going to homeless shelters.

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The camps were deemed high-risk over concerns about gang activity, drug use, fire risk or other factors. A court hearing on the matter late last month saw a judge rule that a number of conditions need to be met before high-risk camps can be dismantled, including that police and the city are able to ensure there is enough space at shelters to house those being displaced.

At a special council meeting on Monday, Sohi said 300 people have died as a result of homelessness over the past year. A vote on Sohi’s motion never happened Monday and the meeting was adjourned until Tuesday, when the motion did pass.

On Friday, Nixon said his provincial government has been working for weeks behind the scenes to do more to address Edmonton’s homelessness crisis and suggested Sohi’s desire to declare a citywide homelessness emergency will have “no force and no effect.”

Judge throws out lawsuit filed over encampment removal policy

A lawsuit that had been filed against the City of Edmonton over its encampment removal policy was thrown out by a judge on Tuesday.

The lawsuit had been filed by the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights. Avnish Nanda, one of the lawyers representing the advocacy organization, confirmed to Global News that the lawsuit and a related injunction had been tossed.

The CJHR had sought the injunction last month after police identified the eight “high-risk” encampments. On Dec. 18, an emergency injunction was granted by a judge but it allowed the encampment removals to go ahead if police and the city met certain conditions before clearing them, including that there is sufficient space in shelters for those being displaced.

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The CJHR lawsuit had sought a declaration from the court that the city’s encampment eviction policy breaches Charter rights. It had filed its statement of claim in August but the matter was brought before a court earlier this month.

Sam Mason, the president of the CJHR, was in the courtroom when the decision was made and spoke to Global News after.

“It’s pretty disappointing,” she said, adding that with the decision still being so “fresh,” her organization is strategizing on what to do next and whether to appeal.

She said the judge essentially ruled the CJHR did not have the standing to be able to bring the case forward.

Click to play video: 'After standoff, Edmonton police move in to clear out final ‘high risk’ homeless encampment'
After standoff, Edmonton police move in to clear out final ‘high risk’ homeless encampment

However, Mason noted that the legal process has resulted in some tangible results for people living in encampments.

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“So we’re grateful for that,” she said. “(And) we have created a very strong network of people who care about this issue and will continue to work with them in whatever that capacity that looks like.”

In a statement issued to Global News, the City of Edmonton said housing and homelessness are “a critical priority” but the city does “not believe that protracted litigation will contribute to meaningful solutions on these issues.”

“As we presented to the court, our lawyers felt the coalition did not meet the legal test for standing on this matter,” the city said. “While we are pleased that the court agreed with this position, our response to this legal action is in no way intended to diminish the City of Edmonton’s concern and dedication to ensuring the safety of our unhoused residents and the well-being of our communities.

“We will continue to support community agencies in their outreach work, assess and respond to encampment sites according to an established procedure, and continue our efforts to balance public safety and protect Edmonton’s most vulnerable residents.”

–With files from The Canadian Press

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