Legal battle breaks out in Edmonton over encampment clearings

This morning in Edmonton activists with the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights (CJHR) are battling the police department and the city government to stop a massive sweep of encampments in the city core.

It’s the next step in a legal fight that started suddenly last week.

Last Thursday, city representatives dropped staggering news on the agencies struggling to protect Edmonton’s growing numbers of unhoused people. The Edmonton Police Service (EPS), they said, were about to bust up eight encampment locations in the city core all at once.

EPS estimates they will be taking down approximately 135 structures, which includes tents. CJHR says this will displace about 300 people. If this is the first you’re hearing about it, Lauren Boothby’s write-up for the Journal last Friday has the important details.

Knocking down tents and dispersing encampments doesn’t accomplish much when there isn’t anything else for the residents to do but put up camp again in the next neighborhood. But the process is worse than just useless: research shows that even typical encampment sweeps cause a lot of damage. Some of these consequences are obvious, like people suffering frostbite or worse after their tents and belongings have been trashed. Others are harder to see: a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association earlier this year shows that drug overdoses and drug poisoning rates skyrocket right after the police roust encampments.

But last week’s announcement from EPS wasn’t even typical. While the police and the city frequently dismantle encampments in Edmonton, the huge scale of what was planned for today is something new, and the timing couldn’t be worse.

Rather than staggering the sweeps, or going at a slower pace, EPS was poised to all of a sudden slam Edmonton’s already-beleaguered social agencies with hundreds of displaced clients all at once. Adding to the harm, many of these agencies are already at limited capacity for the holidays.

The Alberta NDP, uselessly, sent an angry letter to Mickey Amery, which I expect has been printed directly into his recycling bin.

They ought to have sent a fundraising letter to their supporters on CJHR’s behalf instead.

CJHR’s rapid response on Friday actually made an impact. CJHR were able to secure a temporary injunction which put the sweeps on pause. The city of Edmonton’s lawyers will be arguing against it this morning.

In a public statement on the 15th, Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said he himself only found out about EPS’ plan on the 14th. The Mayor says that he is concerned for the safety of Edmonton’s vulnerable unhoused people. I would say that if hundreds of people are going to get evicted by EPS in one day, and the Mayor is just finding out about it on social media at the last minute like the rest of us, he’s clearly not concerned enough.

In a series of posts on Twitter on Saturday, CJHR spokesperson and lawyer Avnish Nanda outlined the eviction process: the city is indeed involved all the way through it. Through CJHR’s legal challenge, Nanda even found an affidavit from an EPS representative confirming that the city agreed to the sweeps.

(While it’s neither here nor there, for the sake of disclosure, Mr. Nanda is representing me in an unrelated legal matter.)

Growing rates of homelessness are not a problem unique to Edmonton. Calgary and Alberta’s smaller cities also struggle with it, as do cities across the country. But Edmonton’s approach is uncommonly brutal: as Zacharie Goudreault reported in Le Devoir back in October, Edmonton does more encampment sweeps per capita than any other major Canadian city, nearly as many as Toronto despite our much smaller population.

The frustration of activists and social workers in this space is deep. I’m frustrated just writing about it. Did the Mayor not think there would be issues with encampments this winter, just like there were last year and the year before?

When Sohi and the new council were elected in 2021, we were already at the point where folks were finding dead bodies on their walks in the river valley.

There aren’t enough shelter spaces in this city for all the unhoused people and the spaces that do exist aren’t good enough. Cindy Tran’s report in the Journal from Friday on why people are choosing to camp out shouldn’t be council’s first notice that the shelters we have are inadequate.

The city knows exactly what the problem is: “encampments are a symptom of Edmonton’s shortage of safe, adequate and affordable housing and shelter capacity challenges,” said one city spokesperson over a year ago.

Municipal politicians argue rightly that the province isn’t paying its fair share, but complaining that things aren’t fair doesn’t change them, and anyone with their head screwed on right can see that no letters of complaint, no matter how perfectly crafted, are going to triangulate the UCP into supporting social welfare programs.

I’m fed up with being lied to about the city having things handled. I’m fed up with being lied to every year about there being enough shelter spaces this time around. I’m fed up with the city feigning ‘surprise’ at mass evictions every year. And if you are too I would encourage you to support CJHR in their legal challenge, because unlike the councilors and MLAs, at least they’re getting something done.


This is the online version of the Progress Report email newsletter. Don't depend on some social media or search engine algorithm to find this content in the future. Sign up to get updates on the most important local political issues in your inbox every week. If you like what we do at the Progress Report there is also one big way you can support us and that's by becoming a monthly donor. The regular donations of the 500 or so regular monthly donors keeps this small, independent media shop going.