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Judge scraps lawsuit against Edmonton’s practice of dismantling homeless camps

A lawsuit against the City of Edmonton’s practice of dismantling homeless encampments cannot proceed after a judge ruled the human rights group that launched the challenge does not have legal standing to fight the case. 

In a decision Tuesday, Court of King’s Bench Justice Jonathan Martin determined that the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights does not have legal standing to represent the interests of people in the city experiencing homelessness.

The Edmonton-based coalition had filed a lawsuit in August over the city’s encampment eviction policy, describing the approach as a violation of the human rights of people who live in the camps.

The coalition had been seeking an injunction to put restrictions on the city and police response to camps in certain situations, such as when temperatures get too low.

The City of Edmonton had asked the court to strike the action, arguing that the coalition lacks either private or public interest standing.

In Tuesday’s decision, Martin said the coalition lacked expertise and experience in advocating for and working with unhoused persons, and that allowing the case to proceed with the group at the helm could set a concerning precedent. 

The coalition has indicated that it intends to appeal the decision.

The lawsuit — and several inner-city camp evictions that followed during the winter season — have put the city’s approach to encampments under intense scrutiny.

Months after the lawsuit was filed, the city made plans to tear down eight inner-city encampments it had deemed a danger to public safety.

The planned sweeps by Edmonton police prompted a series of interim injunctions, which set conditions for the removals. Last week, after weeks of public outcry, tents at the eighth and final encampment were torn down as extreme cold blanketed the city. 

The coalition had argued that it should be granted public interest standing in the case. 

The group took the position that all other possible litigants face barriers to bringing legal action, and if they were prevented from challenging the removals, the city’s bylaws and practices would become become immune from court oversight.

The city argued that the coalition has no direct involvement with the issue, does not work with unhoused Edmontonians, does not conduct public outreach, and has no expertise in the matter at stake.

Martin disagreed with the city’s assertion that only a person directly experiencing homelessness could bring the case but said the coalition fell short of proving that it was the only party capable of bringing the lawsuit.

“This court recognizes the difficulties faced by unhoused persons, the need to ensure that their voices are heard and amplified,” Martin wrote. 

“But the circumstances of this matter and the evidence before this court are insufficient to find that the coalition ought to be granted public interest standing.” 

A police officer stands in the snow. There is a cluster of tents and tarps in the background
An officer stands at the centre of a central Edmonton encampment, the last of eight sites the city had classified as high risk and marked for removal. (Marc-Antoine Leblanc/Radio-Canada)

The decision Tuesday comes as Edmonton’s city council debates whether to declare a formal housing and homelessness emergency.

A vote on Mayor Amarjeet Sohi’s motion to declare the emergency was put on hold Monday after a fractious meeting, which at times erupted in shouting and angry laughter from the packed gallery.

After hours of chaotic debate, council deferred its vote on the declaration and agreed to resume the meeting Tuesday at 1:30 p.m.

Sohi called the emergency meeting last week after the eight encampment was cleared. 

He told the meeting that action has to be taken now, adding that 300 people have died as a result of homelessness over the past year.

“This is a call to action,” Sohi said. “I’m here to talk about the system as a whole and how to best address the root causes.”

Sohi said  his first action if council votes to declare an emergency would be to invite Alberta’s social services minister, the federal housing minister and the grand chief of the Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations to discuss possible solutions at an emergency meeting.

Sohi’s motion also directs administration to form a task force led by the mayor and city manager in collaboration with community and business leaders. 

“If we don’t take this as an emergency, we will continue to deal with symptoms and those symptoms will continue to grow,” he said.

The mayor and council were expected to meet with provincial government officials before the debate resumed.  In a post to social media, Sohi said that council members would meet privately with members of cabinet Tuesday morning.

In an interview Tuesday, Coun. Aaron Paquette said the provincial government has a critical role to play in addressing the chronic issues surrounding poverty and housing in Edmonton. 

“Housing, shelters, mental health, addictions — these are all provincial responsibilities but because the city tries to address the gaps, by no fault of the public, they start to think that it’s the city that’s responsible for this, which is frankly not the case, but we do what we can.” 

Paquette said the provincial and federal governments need to make stronger investments in addressing the root causes of Edmonton’s housing and homelessness crisis. 

“Substantial investments that actually solve the issues, rather than window dressing,” he said. 

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