Alberta government pledges to tackle addiction, crime in Edmonton with new task force

A new provincial government task force is charged with bringing solutions to life in Edmonton that address addiction, crime and social issues.

Edmonton mayor was unaware of task force before Tuesday's announcement

On Nov. 3 a man was found dead after an Edmonton tent fire but no official numbers exist indicating how many recent deaths have occurred in the homeless community. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

A new provincial government task force is charged with bringing solutions to life in Edmonton that address addiction, crime and social issues.

Public Safety and Emergency Services Minister Mike Ellis, who is one of four ministers on the task force and a former Calgary police officer, said arresting people with addictions is an ineffective way to tackle a complex problem.

"What's the alternative?" Ellis said during a news conference Tuesday. "Just to leave people doing open use – drug use on the streets? I don't believe that's an option."

Homelessness has also driven people to increasingly seek shelter from the cold weather in transit stations.

The provincial government has already announced its intention to try new or expanded approaches to disentangling addiction and crime, including introducing addiction treatment programs into provincial jails, arranging outreach street teams, and creating an emergency hub where people can access both police and health services.

The Edmonton Public Safety and Community Response Task Force consists of four cabinet ministers, Edmonton's police chief, two city councillors, two First Nations leaders, the CEO of Homeward Trust and two Alberta Health Services representatives.

Ministers and Police Chief Dale McFee were adamant the collaboration is focused on making decisions and acting upon them, rather than producing reports or making recommendations.

Ellis said it's the same cohort of people who need help from addiction treatment and mental health services, seek social services, have trouble finding shelter, and sometimes wind up in police custody or in jail.

Civic leaders have pleaded for more help from the provincial government, saying the province isn't adequately responding to crises in shelter, affordable housing and addictions.

The provincial government says it has committed to $63 million more for mental health and addiction services and $19 million more for combating homelessness over two years, just in Edmonton.

The government has also funded 300 more emergency shelter spaces so far this year, with another 150 to open in south Edmonton within a few weeks, and a promise of 150 more coming after that.

The task force will decide, for example, how and where to expand on Edmonton's 77 operating detoxification beds, and how to bring a joint police-health hub to life.

Task force appointments a surprise to mayor

Edmonton city councillors Tim Cartmell and Sarah Hamilton were both named to the task force Tuesday. 

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi told reporters Tuesday that the creation of the task force was a surprise to him, and that because council did not deliberate who would represent them on any task force, Cartmell and Hamilton cannot speak for Edmonton's council.

Sohi said there are solutions, such as increased harm reduction services, a safe supply of opioids, and more treatment and recovery programs the province can adopt immediately to help loosen addiction's grip on Edmonton.

"I'm glad that they're finally stepping up to recognize that the problems that the [provincial] under-investments have created are having severe consequences not only for people, but for businesses," Sohi said. "We are losing people every day. People are dying because of lack of investment from the provincial government."

At least four unhoused people died in fires in the city in 2021. Last month, a man died when his encampment caught fire. Opioid poisoning deaths have also hit record highs in the province during the last two years.

Cartmell, who represents the southwest Edmonton ward of pihêsiwin, said issues like homelessness and addictions aren't unique to the city's core.

"I'm going to take every opportunity I can to advocate for my city," he told reporters Tuesday afternoon.

In a statement, Municipal Affairs Minister Rebecca Schulz said the province chose Cartmell for his experience working in housing, and Hamilton for her experience serving on Edmonton's police commission. The mayor is welcome to give presentations to the task force, and attend any announcements, she said.

Alexandra Hryciw, chair of the Downtown Recovery Coalition, says business owners and organizations will welcome the task force. When winter weather arrived, they found themselves spending more time trying to find support for people who are in distress, she said.

That's extra stress for owners who are having trouble recruiting workers, she said. She'll be advocating for more daytime drop-in centres for people who may have nowhere safe to go when shelters close their doors in the morning.


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.

With files from Travis McEwan, Francois Joly and Natasha Riebe