Two concrete things Mayor Sohi and city council can do to address the encampment catastrophe right now

As the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) were attempting to sweep the encampment at 95 Street and Rowland Road this week, a worker, hired by the city of Edmonton, took down a large sign on the corner of the property. He had to use a sledgehammer to get it down. The text on the sign: “Affordable Housing For Sale.”

If you were looking to be hit over the head with a metaphor this would be it. 

A worker takes down the "Affordable Housing For Sale" while the city attempts to sweep the homeless encampment on Jan. 9, 2023 at 95 Street and Rowland Road. Photo by Duncan Kinney. 

The next day police returned and while a good chunk of Edmonton’s daily news journalists were busy covering the court case to stop the sweeps, the EPS violently dismantled the encampment. Roy Cardinal, an elder and camp resident was taken to the ground and handcuffed in a chaotic and violent scene. Award-winning Indigenous journalist Brandi Morin was also arrested.

EPS struck in a snowstorm in -30C with windchill weather. The fact that the city’s Extreme Weather Response measures had been activated was actually used as a reason by a city communications person for why the sweep went ahead. 

There were all kinds of ways for EPS and the city to not do what they did this week. The interim injunction secured by the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights (CJHR), which the city and EPS had agreed to, said that they must consider weather before closing down any encampments. Tensions had already been high at this camp as dozens of observers had come to support Roy and his campmates when they refused to leave the day before. There was even a peaceful way out offered by Cardinal who told the EPS that if they smudged with him he would leave peacefully. 

But no, the city of Edmonton and the EPS decided that this encampment just had to be cleared out. Roy Cardinal’s face just had to be smashed into the ground and hauled off to jail. Brandi Morin, who by her account was simply filming what was happening, just had to be arrested. The resident’s possessions and makeshift homes just had to be thrown in the trash and carted away to a landfill by city staff.

The ultimate blame for Edmonton’s repeated encampment and homeless crises lies with the province, but that doesn’t mean the city and EPS aren’t responsible for their own actions. The brutal sweeps this week were a conscious choice and now there needs be consequences. 

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi and city council can’t fire the real driving force behind these encampment sweeps, Chief Dale McFee. The police commission holds that power and the EPC is not a body that takes its oversight role seriously. But council and the mayor can fire the number two person behind the encampment catastrophe–city manager Andre Corbould. 

Sohi said that recent encampment sweeps “may not be in line with our commitments to upholding reconciliation, and our obligation of care,” and said “it is clear more changes are needed.”  Thanks to reporting from Global Edmonton we know that half of Edmonton city council have questions over the recent actions done in their name by city staff at encampment sweeps. 

And to that end Sohi has called an emergency meeting for Monday, January 15 to address these issues. While Sohi’s goal is ostensibly bringing all levels of government together to solve the housing crisis, Jason Nixon, the housing minister, has decided to just make fun of Sohi for vacationing in Hawaii and won’t be attending any meetings called by Sohi. 

Another session of finger-wagging at the shameless UCP won’t accomplish anything. They don’t care. The focus of this emergency meeting should be holding the city staff who made the decision to sweep that encampment accountable. And there’s one person ultimately responsible for all city staff–city manager Andre Corbould. 

And it’s not like Corbould has some spotless record of executing council’s will either. He worked hand in glove with Chief McFee to increase the police budget and he’s been unable to find savings demanded by council by cutting management positions.

There’s another lever the city can pull besides dismissing Corbould, too. All week city lawyers have been aggressively trying to get CJHR’s lawsuit thrown out. Council has the power to stop this. They need to order their lawyers to stand down. In council’s name city’s lawyers have been minimizing the weight of sworn affidavits of unhoused people and going after the credibility and work of the coalition in order to try and get the lawsuit thrown out. 

Bow out. Throw in the towel. Pack it in. 

Sohi said in a press conference called on the Friday before the emergency meeting that he wants to “lean into his role as a convener.” A convener is not what this city needs today. Convening with Jason NIxon is not going to help. Jason Nixon does not care. 

Sohi has talked a lot about how he doesn’t want this emergency declaration to just be an empty symbol. I agree. Firing Andre Courbould and standing down on the lawsuit are two concrete things the city can do right now to improve the situation. 

When I asked Sohi directly in a press conference whether anyone would face any consequences or whether the city would stand down on its lawsuit Sohi did not answer. He didn’t directly answer a single question asked by the media in that presser.  

That’s not very encouraging. But there’s still time for Sohi and city council to actually do something. 

And if I was an Edmonton police commissioner I would start looking for a replacement for Chief McFee right now. There’s plenty of time—his contract doesn’t run out until June 30, 2026.

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi giving a press conference in the media room in city hall on December 12 to explain his decision to call an emergency meeting on the encampment crisis.