EDMONTON—In a dramatic video standing in front of an underground LRT station entrance in Edmonton, Alberta Justice Minister Tyler Shandro announced last week he would be invoking a section of the provincial Police Act to demand that city council develop a public safety plan within two weeks .
“I want to talk about a letter that I feel today to his worship Mayor (Amarjeet) Sohi about my concerns regarding the unacceptable increases in crime, not only in Edmonton’s downtown core but also in Edmonton’s LRT system,” Shandro says.
In the video, Shandro lists several recent violent incidents that occurred in Edmonton’s LRT system, including multiple stabbings and one encounter where a senior broke her leg after she was pushed onto the LRT tracks.
Days later, Shandro would post another video of the same LRT station, but now with the glass entrance having been smashed to pieces.
It was the latest except in what has been a fractious relationship between the province and city. Sohi has previously criticized the government for not investing enough in its areas of responsibility, such as affordable housing. Earlier this month, Shandro accused Edmonton’s council of slashing funding to the Edmonton Police Service, which some councilors disputed.
But on Tuesday, the mayor and justice minister struck a far more conciliatory tone after meeting about challenges with crime, open drug use and social disorder in the city’s downtown core.
Last week, Shandro invoked the Police Act to require council to deliver a public safety plan in response to the spate of violent incidents and reports of rampant drug use in the city’s underground transit stations.
Standing in front of an LRT station near the Alberta legislature in a Twitter post, Shandro said he wrote the letter expressing his concerns about “unacceptable increases in crime” because he wants to see direct action to address the “alarming” situation. In his letter to the mayor, Shandro said “the people of Edmonton deserve better than what this city council is delivering.”
Local media reported that Sohi called invoking the act an “overreach.” In his written response, he says many of the issues Edmonton is seeing downtown, related to homelessness, mental health challenges and drug addiction, are directly linked to the provincial government’s lack of investment in those areas.
“Council is investing in many issues that are the responsibility of the province, and frankly, they’re falling short,” Sohi said.
He added that the number of Edmontonians experiencing homelessness has more than doubled over the last two years, “a devastating statistic for which the lack of action from the provincial government is directly responsible.”
But on Tuesday, after the two met for about 45 minutes, they both seemed ready to turn the page.
“From my point of view the meeting was very productive and very helpful, for us to really know how we can work together,” Sohi said outside of the legislature, where he and Shandro had met for about 45 minutes.
Sohi said they discussed immediate actions the city can take to make Edmontonians feel safer as well as long-term investments in affordable housing, mental health and addictions recovery.
A point of contention when it comes to addiction recovery has been the provincial government’s position on supervised-consumption sites. The government closed one of the sites in Edmonton, introduced requirements for ID to be shown by users and Premier Jason Kenney has previously said he doesn’t see “helping addicts inject poison into their bodies” as a long-term solution to the drug poisoning crisis.
Sohi said Shandro seemed open to alternative solutions to treatment and recovery.
“I didn’t get the sense that the government is against harm reduction,” Sohi said. “The sense I got is that they want to look at all the tools that are available in the tool kit.”
In a separate press conference, Shandro also characterized the meeting as productive. “It was a great opportunity for us to be able to sit down and actually listen… I think we’re on the same page,” she said.
The minister rejected the suggestion that invoking the act was excessive, and said he felt it was necessary in light of recent violent incidents, such as a double murder in Chinatown.
“The situation in Edmonton has deteriorated, particularly in the last couple months. We felt action needed to be taken and needed to be immediate,” Shandro said, adding that invoking the act brought all parties together and provided an opportunity to “bring some discipline to that work.”
Shandro would not get into specifics of what the provincial government asked the city to do, or if council made specific requests of the province.
“If they have suggestions for us, happy to get those submissions from Edmonton city council. But I don’t want to pre-empt what they might be submitting to us,” he said.
Shandro’s letter came as the city was already discussing a transit safety plan. An updated report had come to council for discussion on May 24 — Shandro delivered his letter from him two days later.
Sohi appeared positive on Tuesday. But in his letter from him last week, the provincial capital’s mayor said the issues of homelessness, social disorder and drug addiction have been his top priority since he was elected and that he was glad the minister “finally” was paying attention.
“This is something I’ve been talking about over the last six months,” Sohi said. “We all need to work together to build a stronger Edmonton, a safer Edmonton for all of us. Because there’s a lot of pain out there.”
Some immediate steps the city has taken to improve safety in downtown Edmonton include providing a $300,000 grant to the Chinatown and Area Business Association to help fund private security and implementing a Chinatown needle-cleanup program, as well as a public washroom plan.
One area where the city and the province were not in lockstep was on the decriminalization of small amounts of drugs for simple possession, which the British Columbia government announced on Tuesday.
Mike Ellis, Alberta’s associate minister of mental health and addiction, said he was “extremely disappointed” in the decision. Shandro added that he has concerns as well.
“This is potentially going to increase a buyer’s market … it’s going to be a significant impact on our bordering communities,” Shandro said. Sohi was more open-minded to the idea, noting that the city council has asked administration to look into the possibility of pursuing similar legislation and that it could be “part of the solution.”
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