Why Edmonton’s public spaces bylaw debacle matters to everyone

The business owners and conservative politicians arguing for Edmonton’s draconian public spaces bylaw last week had two silent partners—the UCP and the Edmonton Police Service. And that’s why what happened with this bylaw matters outside of Edmonton city limits. 

Here’s the backstory. City of Edmonton bureaucrats bypassed the usual practices of bylaw development and dropped a bomb in Edmonton city council’s lap, an omnibus public spaces bylaw that collapsed three separate bylaws into one and added a bunch of new infractions that would punish poor and unhoused people and make protest more difficult

The public hearing part of the meeting took up nearly the entire day, it was a Valentine’s Day massacre. The only ones defending the bill were the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Business Association, the Downtown Recovery Coalition and the ATU 569, the union representing transit operators and transit peace officers; everyone else was opposed.

Councillors ended up voting 9-0 to send the bylaw back to administration with detailed instructions for changes as well as homework for admin to do on issues like anti-racism and criminalization of poverty. And this time, the bylaw will get processed through committee before admin dumps it in council’s lap again.

We likely won’t see the bylaw again until the fourth quarter of 2024.

But while the fierce opposition to the bylaw got top billing in the news, what’s really revealing is what the minority of supporters had to say about their own plans. Business groups, the United Conservative Party and the police are working together to weaponize visible poverty, public drug use and the perception of inner city Edmonton as some kind of lawless dystopia to increase their political power. 

Puneeta McBryan, the executive director of the Downtown Business Association twice brought up discussions she’s had with a government of Alberta official. 

“The province is interested, from what I’ve heard, in exploring avenues where folks could receive a positive intervention, for example meeting with an addictions counselor as a way to resolve a violation,” said McBryan in discussion with city council on Valentine’s Day.  

When pressed on any further details from those discussions McBryan demurred that those conversations were done in confidence and refused to say more. But the UCP have been unapologetic in their desire to force people who use drugs into their abstinence-only “Alberta model” style of treatment with legislation likely coming this spring.  

The EPS are also lurking behind all of this. Police officers have the ability to hand out bylaw tickets as well and while city bureaucrats can talk about the kind and measured approach their peace officers would take, they don’t control the police. No one does. 

The police are already running a drug “treatment” facility out of converted holding cells in their downtown headquarters. Chief Dale McFee and the EPS would drool at the opportunity to frog march even more people through those doors. 

This bylaw, if it had been passed in its original form, would have been a huge gift to the EPS. Remember carding? Police wouldn’t even have to card if they can issue a ticket for spitting in any public place, riding a bike on the grass or sidewalk, being in your car overnight, starting a fire to keep warm, riding the train too long, staying on a tran station platform too long or obstructing pedestrians from using public space for its intended purpose (whatever that means). 

The Bay/Enterprise Square LRT station. Some of Edmonton's public space in all its glory. Photo via Mack Male

It’s called pretence or pretext policing. The Safer For All report developed by the Community Safety and Well-Being Task Force that was released in March 2021 wanted the city to keep track of identified pretence policing bylaw issues and address or eliminate them. Administration ignored all that and just tried to pile on even more of them. 

The UCP and the EPS have worked in lockstep on the issue of “public safety” for nearly two years now. How do you think the UCP managed to hold onto the Edmonton suburbs in the last election? It was by scaring the hell out of suburban families with lurid tales of crime and disorder. 

And given how much the UCP wants to continue using “public safety” to scare citizens, look out for similar pushes to increase pretence policing and criminalising homelessness and being poor in Calgary and Lethbridge, where the UCP have plenty of allies on city council and not just with the police and administration. 


Red Deer city council has made history as the first in Canada voting to close an overdose prevention site. Read Euan Thompson’s excellent analysis of this monstrous decision.

City of Edmonton inside workers and library workers are in a legal strike position and could go on strike with 72 hours notice. The city has also threatened to lock out workers as well. The Progress Report broadly supports worker power and the right to strike and will be supporting and covering this picket if it does go up. In the meantime you can show your support for a fair agreement for CSU 52 members by using the letter tool at  https://www.edmontonforeveryone.ca/ to contact Edmonton’s mayor and council. 

Alberta is giving the tourism industry its own immigration steam. Mikal Skuterud, a University of Waterloo economist quoted in the CBC piece on this news, notes that the program means employers will no longer need to raise wages and make their jobs more appealing to attract workers and that it’s just a way to keep wages down. “If a tourism job offers a glimmer of hope at achieving permanent residency, people will work in these jobs no matter how bad they are," said Skuterud.

Charges against the individual charged in the single largest cocaine seizure in Edmonton history have been stayed. The EPS guns and gangs section, the unit responsible for the bust, made a big stink out of it when they made the bust, lining up the 40.5 kilograms of cocaine on a table and circulating the pictures to the media. No explanation has been offered either by the police, the prosecutor or the man who was charged in why the charges were stayed. 

Fire season is here early. It’s going to be a bad year. 

About 200,000 public sector workers are starting the process of negotiating collective agreements with the government of Alberta - these include nurses, social workers, paramedics, respiratory therapists and all and various members of the public service. The Parkland Institute has a new report that details just how much the government interfered with this process last time. 

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Editor's note: We've clarified that Puneeta McBryan's remarks were with a government of Alberta official and not the United Conservative Party. She did still refuse to disclose who she was speaking with.