With the UCP's help, Edmonton's police chief is out to undermine the mayor

The expected provincial election may be this year’s big show, but adjacent to the spotlight, local power struggles continue apace.

A clear example: the muted but ongoing campaign against Edmonton’s mayor, Amarjeet Sohi.

If you’re an avid municipal-politics-enjoyer you might have caught a hint of it during last year’s budget deliberations. Early in the process, councilor Sarah Hamilton went to the media to blast her colleagues with accusations of “toxic governance” and “fiscal mismanagement,” supposedly in reference to an internal council report about how the city should fund programs for unhoused people.

"This is just profoundly abusive, frankly, of the residents of the City of Edmonton and making this kind of decision without their consent or knowledge is not right," Hamilton told the media that day. But then Hamilton was among the eight councilors who voted to keep the report confidential. With the meeting private, and the report confidential, none of us had any ability to verify Hamilton’s allegations. Neat trick.

Hamilton and her close ally on council Tim Cartmell would go on to run up the city budget by voting for a number of large amendments, then turn around and vote against the budget as a whole for being too expensive.

In their quiet quest to sabotage the mayor and council, these two have had a powerful ally—the most powerful political figure in the city, the chief of police, Dale McFee.

McFee is a true believer in what I’d call “San Fransicko” politics, in reference to the very-popular-among-police-chiefs manifesto San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, whose author argues (against the overwhelming consensus of experts on homelessness) that ‘housing first’ policies aren’t helping reduce homelessness and social disorder, but enabling it—and by implication, that the correct policy approach ought to be more and heavier policing of the poor.

As you can imagine, it’s popular stuff for the back-the-blue crowd, especially the part where they get more funding and shelters don’t.

The chief has been undercutting the mayor and council on this file for quite a while now. The most dramatic display was last year, during the furor surrounding the murders of 64-year-old Hung Trang and 61-year-old Ban Phuc Hoang in Edmonton’s Chinatown. Chief McFee aligned himself with the Chinatown and Area Business Association and meddling UCP politicians to secure $15.2 million in funding for a new police facility in the area. (Never mind that it was later revealed that Bone wasn’t a Chinatown resident, but had been unceremoniously dumped in west Edmonton by the RCMP, in violation of his bail conditions, after his guarantor in Alberta Beach became unable to deal with him.)

Well the holiday break is over and this crew is back at it, now with the full support of Danielle Smith’s UCP government. Just before Christmas the UCP struck another one of their famous panels, this one called the Public Safety and Community Response Task Force, and filled it with exactly who you’d expect.

Instead of asking city council to appoint a representative, the UCP did an end-run around Edmonton’s elected government and hand-picked Hamilton and Cartmell specifically. The rest of council was furious but couldn’t do much about it.

Chief McFee took the podium on Wednesday, flanked by Hamilton, UCP minister Mike Ellis, and representatives of the Chinatown and Area Business Association, to announce the task force’s first move, which is of course more cops. Twelve officers from the provincial sheriffs are being redeployed to Edmonton to increase the visible police presence in Chinatown.

McFee and the panel members were careful not to say outright that this move will actually make anyone safer—probably because it won’t—but they did emphasize repeatedly that the increased policing will make you feel safer. Well, unless you’re an unhoused person getting rousted by the cops, but then of course the press conference wasn’t meant for you.

The chief is of the opinion that housing first isn't the right priority. You can't have housing without safety first, he says (with the implication that more funding for his police department will deliver it.) As one Edmonton councilor Andrew Knack pointed out on Wednesday, that argument is a bit of a canard given that the provincial government hasn't even tried to fund any meaningful amount of supportive housing in a decade.

Over the winter, and just like last winter, more and more people in Alberta’s capital city have been driven to shelter from extreme cold on buses, trains and in transit centres; that’s put more and more folks in contact with a side of the city they had until now blissfully ignored, and social disorder is becoming a contentious political issue here. Expect to see the police chief, Hamilton, Cartmell, and their allies in the UCP and the business community campaign heavily on this “San Fransicko” stuff in the coming months.


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