Although travel may be off the table right now, you still deserve a holiday this winter. Why not make a new winter tradition? Be a tourist in your own city with these staycation suggestions for the ultimate weekend getaway—all without having to step foot on a plane.
Shopping in a Winter Wonderland
Yes, you might feel a bit silly making a special effort to go shopping in your own city but no staycation is complete with at least one souvenir to remember it by. Whether you go for something locally-made at the indoor Downtown Farmers’ Market (10305 97 Street) or treat yourself to a new outfit or piece of art, whatever you purchase will act as a reminder of the incredibly fun weekend “getaway” you treated yourself to, and you will support local businesses in a time when they need it.
While it’s totally acceptable to staycation from your own home, there’s nothing like the luxury of knowing someone else is responsible for making your bed and cleaning the bathroom. Book into one of these posh downtown hotels for a decadent weekend. These picks range from reasonable to regal (you know you’ve always wanted to stay in a legit castle).
A staycation is your chance to try that restaurant you always wanted to, or to revisit an old favourite now that dining in is allowed again. If you’re not comfortable with eating indoors, make it a to-go picnic with charcuterie and wine from Cavern (10169 104 Street, Suite 2) or order take-out from any of these top-notch restaurants. For a fun staycation twist, consider trying a place with a cuisine you normally don’t eat, whether it be vegan food from Die Pie (10255 97 Street) or French cuisine from The Marc (9940 106 Street). Don’t forget a round of holiday cocktails while you’re at it.
One perk of a staycation is the chance to try new things and explore parts of your neighbourhood that you haven’t had time to visit before. Bundle up for a historical walking or biking tour in Oliver, take advantage of Edmonton’s fantastic museums or visit the brand-new Edmonton Public Library (7 Sir Winston Churchill Square). If relaxing is more your staycation style, there are several downtown spas that offer amazing day packages for premium pampering. Or, check off the cultural aspect of your trip by doing the Art Gallery Walk on 124th Street or blow off some steam in an escape room.
Edmonton may be a Winter City but there’s no getting around the fact that winter can be tough on our mental health. Factor in COVID-19 and all of the safety precautions (including staying inside more, seeing less of family and friends, and working from home) and this winter could see major mental challenges for many Edmontonians. Here are some ways you may boost your mental health, even on the darkest, chilliest days this winter.
Get In Tune with Nature
Is there anything as restorative as getting outside for fresh air, especially when the sun is out? If possible, try to get outside on your lunch break or carve out some time in the afternoon for a quick walk outside.
Take advantage of the gorgeous River Valley trails and walk, cross-country ski, or snowshoe your way into a better mood.
Take your furry friend for frequent walks during the day.
No pet? No problem. Volunteer at the Edmonton Humane Society or any animal rescue—there are always plenty of dogs who need exercise.
Speaking of exercise, it helps boost your mood. Take up a winter sport or adapt your usual routine to include some time outdoors.
Hate the cold? Find a gym with floor-to-ceiling windows and spend your time on the treadmill soaking in all of the sunlight with none of the frozen breath.
Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder
Long winter days with early sunsets and bitter cold can result in a real struggle for many people. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is “a type of depression that’s related to changes in the season,” as per the Mayo Clinic. If you suspect you might have SAD, make an appointment with your physician so they can recommend a treatment plan or put you in touch with someone who can help.
Main Symptoms of SAD:
Light therapy: light therapy lamps can be found at many major retailers and usually cost around $60-$90
Mental Health Assistance on a Budget
Private therapy or counselling can be very expensive. If you find yourself struggling, there are budget-friendly options for counselling.
Contact the Primary Care Network in your area. The Edmonton Oliver Primary Care Network offers virtual mental health courses and workshops for free.
The Boyle-McCauley Health Centre has two registered provisional Psychologists on staff to provide therapeutic support for individuals or families.
Edmonton’s Momentum Walk-In Clinic provides solution-focused counselling on a sliding-fee scale. It’s also ideal if you find yourself in need of immediate assistance. Call their 24-hr distress line at 780-482-HELP (4357).
Some psychologists will offer a reduced rate or a discount for post-secondary students (you may be matched with a Master’s level practicum student supervised by a senior level psychologist). Insight Psychological (www.insightpsychological.ca) offers sessions for a flat rate of $80, as well as a $25 rate for full-time post-secondary students.
Igloo Dining at the Riverside Bistro, Courtyard by Marriott
A Canadian solution to distanced dining—dine outside in a colourfully-lit private igloo overlooking the river valley. It’s $150 for 90 minutes, which includes a $100 food and drink credit. Reservations required.
Eating too much frozen pizza? Get Cooking is hosting classes to bring out your inner Iron Chef! With online and in-person options, and specializations in wine pairings and vegan/vegetarian meals, there’s something for everyone.
Every year, thousands of Edmontonians join the Downtown Business Association (DBA) in Sir Winston Churchill Square to celebrate another holiday season with tree-lighting and carollers. Though things may be different this year due to COVID-19, check online to see how this year’s holiday season will be kicked off in the core.
Dang Show, a band which started as a protest movement in Iran (and remains banned in the country) is coming to the Royal Alberta Museum to share their fusion of jazz and traditional Persian music. Tickets start at $45.57.
Evolution of the Arts in a Digital World (Virtual)
Starting January 6, 2021 | 10 a.m.
This free weekly virtual event is hosted by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (ESO). The ESO will lead discussions about the interaction of technology and arts. The panels will feature global experts.
Calgary drag queen Misty Meadows is coming to Evolution Wonderlounge for a one-night, one-woman performance. This hilarious and heartfelt show won’t be live-streamed. Evolution is selling tickets to parties of four or more. Tickets start at $60 per party.
As the Citadel Theatre reopens with COVID-19 precautions, join them for the original production of Heaven. It’s the story of Black pioneers settling in Alberta after fleeing the southern United States. Written by Cheryl Foggo. Tickets start at $34.65.
This exhibition at the Alberta Art Gallery by Edmonton-born artist Curtis Talwst Santiago focuses on the Trinidadian idea of ‘liming.’ Liming means to meet and socialize. Santiago explores liming in the gatherings in his childhood home through diorama. Admission prices vary.
The temperature may be taking a dip, but that doesn’t mean the downtown economy has to.
For several years, the City of Edmonton has been encouraging businesses and the community to embrace winter with their Winter City Strategy. Those adaptations are even more important this year with COVID-19.
“Businesses are going to embrace a lot of the principles in the winter city strategy,” said Chris Buyze, president of the Downtown Edmonton Community League. “Unfortunately it’s taken COVID to do that. Maybe there’s a silver lining that we may have a bit more vibrancy in the winter months than we have had in the past on the street.”
Businesses have had to adapt to changing regulations and safety precautions to deal with COVID-19. Restaurants and bars looked to patios and outdoor dining during the summer months, which are considered to be safer with a lower likelihood of COVID-19 transmission. Plummeting temperatures would normally push patrons back indoors, but in the middle of a pandemic, businesses may look to keep their patios open and keep patrons coming back.
The temporary patio program with a streamlined approval process has been extended until at least March 31, 2021. The city is evaluating each proposal to ensure it works with snow removal and pedestrian safety.
“The city has been flexible in allowing people to keep their patio through the winter. It’s now up to businesses to embrace it and make it comfortable for patrons to be there, including heaters and blankets,” Buyze said. “There’s a lot of time in January where it can be 0 and -5 where it can be perfectly comfortable.”
Beyond patios, there is other work being done downtown to bring some joy to the winter months. The Downtown Business Association has extended their Downtown Live program, a grant program that helps bring local artists to different venues in the core.
“The intent is to draw energy and excitement to our business areas,” said Nick Lilley, the interim executive director of the Downtown Business Association. “We want to do that in a safe and manageable way.”
Foot traffic downtown has suffered through the pandemic. Businesses have had to find new ways of attracting clients and keep in touch with those who may not be travelling through the core during the pandemic.
“Agility has become a higher competency for so many different businesses. They need to adapt and be innovative. Everything from expanding digital presence to compliment the brick and mortar approach to knocking down the odd wall to create additional space for social distancing on site,” said Lilley. “We have seen so many rise to that challenge.”
A community member’s perspective on the renaming of Oliver
In the Fall 2020 issue of The Yards, Robyn Paches, Oliver Community League President, stated “the Oliver Community League is in opposition to honouring Frank Oliver with our community name.” The Yards spoke with Oliver resident and Indigenous advocate Emily Riddle to discuss the impact of Frank Oliver’s legacy on Indigenous people today. Riddle is nehiyaw from the Alexander First Nation, located in Treaty 6 territory. She is a writer, the Senior Advisor on Indigenous Relations with the Edmonton Public Library, and is a member of the Yellowhead Institute Board of Advisors.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Yards: What does the name Frank Oliver mean to you?
Emily Riddle: I grew up with this narrative around Frank Oliver establishing the first newspaper in Western Canada. As an Indigenous woman from this territory, I’ve learned that he advocated for our removal. Edmonton is home to sacred places that we were removed from for generations because of Oliver. When Oliver was Minister of the Interior, he advocated for policies that led to the removal of a component of our reserve which was only settled in a [Treaty Land Entitlement Claim] in the early 2000s for Alexander First Nation. One thing that always comes up is the argument about erasing history. Why do we always believe white people are brilliant entrepreneurs, when in reality Oliver’s entrepreneurial spirit and writing crushed Indigenous and Black people in Edmonton? Why are we celebrating this man who started a newspaper using what we lost?
The Yards: What’s the significance of changing the name?
ER: For Indigenous people, naming is a different cultural practice. We believe names already exist in the universe, and they are given through ceremony. If you look up our names of locations in Edmonton, we didn’t name them after people, we named them after landmarks or things that happened there. I hear the argument that changing the Oliver name would mean erasing history. It means having a more robust conversation about [the name’s] effect on Indigenous and Black people. I would like the neighbourhood to be given an Indigenous name. There are a fair amount of Indigenous people that live in Oliver, but we were removed from that territory by the man the neighbourhood is named after. It shouldn’t just be residents of the neighbourhood who are deciding whether or not we should rename it.
The Yards: Any thoughts on a new name?
ER: Ideally that would be informed through ceremony and meeting with Indigenous people. The conversation needs to start around what the land was utilized for. The location of the Victoria golf course was a significant camping spot. I’ve been ruminating on it having something to do with that campsite.
Every year, The Yards brings you a list of great things to do, places to eat, and sights to see in the core. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve all been staying home, ordering in, and overall living a lot differently in 2020. So we’ve decided to do the Best in the Core a little differently, too.
This year, we are bringing you the things we loved this year—unique stories of the people, places and activities that inspired us through the pandemic. These are the businesses that give back, the people that create community, and the places that brought us together safely. It’s our physically-distanced high-five to those who made the pandemic days a little brighter in the core.
If we’ve missed anything or you want to share something inspiring with us from your 2020, we’d love to hear from you. Tell us on social media and keep the good vibes going.
CATEGORY: Best Community Helpers
Camp Pekiwewin: Held together by volunteers, elders, organizers and experienced frontline workers, Indigenous-led Camp Pekiwewin is a place of safety, security and visibility for the houseless community in Edmonton. Since July, Camp Pekiwewin, which is nêhiyawêwin for coming home or in-bound, has provided tent homes, food, clothing and other donations to its residents, as well as 24/7 access to life-saving harm reduction supplies. Not only was this much needed in the wake of the pandemic, but the group has had an impact on forwarding the conversation on the need for government funding for supportive housing.
Grass do-gooders: Local condo owners put the community in community garden this spring when the City of Edmonton reduced the areas where it mowed due to the pandemic. The anonymous good samaritans rallied together to mow the grass around Peace Garden Park, which doubles as Oliver’s only community garden and a public park space for neighbours to come together safely.
Linda Hoang: The Edmonton blogger and ambassador for Edmonton and Alberta eats is always the first person to give a shoutout to local businesses. In the spring, she created ‘Spin the Wheel of Local: Edmonton Edition,’ a virtual randomizer that includes more than 100 local businesses to support. Hoang also used her influence on social media to spur food mobbing for struggling businesses and to showcase all our city has to offer and for that she deserves a nod.
LoveGood Food Exchange Box: Beatrice, a food exchange box at Paul Kane Park, has seen more than 10,000 non-perishable food items come and go since May as community members take what they need and leave what they can. The brainchild of Quinn Wade, or Harry Schnitzel of the Lovegood drag family, the box is a response to the community’s growing need for food support throughout these challenging times.
CATEGORY: Best Community Jams
(Christopher Sikkenga / online edition)
Christ Church Garden Grooves: Visitors to Paul Kane Park were serenaded by saxophonist Quinn Wade throughout the days of summer. Footsteps away, musical salvation was heard every Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Christ Church’s beautiful gardens. Reverend Sue Oliver and music director Dr. Joy Berg created the lawn concerts for the local community to congregate at a safe distance. Audiences were treated to folk, opera, and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. “By a small miracle,” Rev. Sue added, “none of the concerts were rained out.”
Downtown Business Association Beats: The summer of COVID-19 was especially hard on local restaurants. One effort to allow safe distancing was the addition of new patios. The Downtown Business Association stepped up and created the Downtown Live series. Offering promotional support and grants up to $750 to businesses hosting performers, the Downtown Live series brought jazz to The Common, DJs to Central Social Hall, and much more. The tunes continued all over town as winter approached with more than 40 events in total.
ESO Outdoor Concerts: A silver lining during the uncertainty of the pandemic was music accessibility for everyone. The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra performed hundreds of shows outdoors throughout the summer. From curling rink parking lots and playgrounds to the Edmonton Ski Club and a cul-de-sac jam session with Martin Kerr, the ESO spread joy throughout the city.
Virtual Dance Parties: The uncertainty in March left many of us disconnected and alone in our bubbles. In order to rekindle connection, Blair McFarlane, aka DJ Junior Brown, organized a livestream of his “House Night.” More than 8,000 fans from around the world and Edmonton united to listen to electronic house music and chat during the first night alone. DJ Junior Brown (also co-owner of Red Star and The Bower) and friends delivered live music online from March to August.
CATEGORY: Best for Bringing Us Together
Al Fresco: When the nice weather hit, we were all feeling a bit stir-crazy. This summer, the 104 Street Action Committee made being outdoors with others safe and fun by introducing Al Fresco on 4th. Extended patios for local restaurants and food trucks, a one-way directional open-air market, and live performances helped us follow public health guidelines while staying connected to our community.
Black Owned Market YEG: This pop-up style market launched this summer with the goal of providing a space for Black-owned businesses to showcase their products to the greater community. Not only have they hosted their own markets at Habesha African Market (10418 107 Ave), but they also hosted a tent at 124 Street Grand Market featuring black-owned vendors and products. Watch for future markets at facebook.com/bomyeg.
Great Downtown Sweep: Hundreds of volunteers came out to show pride in their community as part of the Great Downtown Sweep on October 23. The event was organized by the Downtown Edmonton Community League, Downtown Business Association and partners on the Downtown Recovery Task Force. The first 200 to register received vouchers to try out winter patios at select restaurants. It was a win-win-win: help spruce up the community, visit with some neighbours, and get a voucher to support local businesses.
November Project: November Project Canada started up in Edmonton seven years ago and is all about accountability and inclusion. Although the format has (necessarily) been modified to include online workouts, that means that even more people can access programming. And throughout the summer and beyond, November Project Canada added socially distanced 6 km runs and scavenger hunts on holiday Mondays. It was a great way to keep moving and keep in touch with our fellow runners.
CATEGORY: Best Way to Get Outside
Balcony Bliss: Having your own little slice of the outdoors, away from crowds and COVID-19, became the most coveted apartment trend of the year. No backyard? No problem. Sinking into a lounge chair on your private balcony was a means of escaping, if only for a few minutes. And if your neighbours happened to treat you to an impromptu guitar solo or Italian aria, all the better.
City of Edmonton’s Shared Streets: In April, the City of Edmonton closed lanes to vehicle traffic to allow people to safely get outside while physically distancing, modifying more than 30 stretches of road in high-density areas. A study done in partnership with the University of Alberta found that this initiative reduced physical distance violations by 52.4 per cent on Saskatchewan Drive and 24.5 per cent on the Victoria Promenade. We give this initiative a thumbs-up for great urban design and allowing us to safely stretch our legs during the pandemic.
Into the Wild: Did you know there are eight parks in Oliver and seven in the downtown core? That’s in addition to the 20 major parks in the wild, luscious River Valley. With some of the city’s recreation centres still closed, and indoor play time at a minimum, Edmontonians rediscovered their love for the city’s amazing parks this year, as well as more than 160 kilometres of maintained trails in the gorgeous river valley.
Scootering: Cruising down the Oliverbahn was one of our favourite COVID-friendly activities this year. With two vendors offering shared e-scooters in Edmonton, anyone can take a scenic trip from Oliver to Downtown. Download the app to locate and pay for your scooter time. It doesn’t matter if it’s a one-way trip—leave your scooter where another weary traveller can find it and carry on.
SIDEBAR: How can you make a difference in your community this winter?
Have the long nights started to get to you? The depressing cold seeping into your soul? As Charles Dickens said, “no one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” To warm your heart (but not your hands), here are three ways to make a difference this winter.
Winter makes it harder for some to get around, and the pandemic makes things worse. Consider volunteering to be a driver in the downtown area for Edmonton’s Food Bank. Visit their website for more information or call 780-425-2133.
Edmonton’s winters can be freezing, and to those sleeping outside it’s a lot colder. Contact Boyle Street Community Services at 780-424-4106 to make a monetary donation for winter clothing.
When the white stuff flies, become everyone’s favourite neighbour. Shovel someone else’s sidewalk or driveway!
CATEGORY: Best Innovators in Business
Earls: One of the activities most fraught with anxiety since the pandemic hit has been grocery shopping. Which aisle is up and which is down? What do I do if the apple I pick up to inspect is bruised? Am I supposed to bring my reusable bags or not? Well, Earls took the angst out of shopping by offering grocery and dinner kits. From fresh produce to frozen meat, they’ve got our back. Thanks, everyone’s favourite chain restaurant.
El Beso: If you haven’t experienced the culinary delights of gourmet tacos, you need to try El Beso (10432 Jasper Ave). Not only is El Beso creative in the kitchen, but they also got creative during the pandemic. They started offering take-home taco kits, custom margarita and cocktail kits, and even allowed a peek behind the counter with Instagram Live lessons from their bartends.
Food Bike Tour: Food Bike Tour started in 2016 to support local restaurants and cafes, all while getting some cardio in during Edmonton’s more mild months. During the pandemic, Food Bike Tour came up with a safe alternative to their usual indoor events: Chef’s Kits and Cocktail Kits. Order your meal kit and optional drinks/cocktails, and they will ship all the fresh, prepackaged ingredients to your door along with an instructional video from local rockstar chefs.
Hoot Company: Hoot Company is a restaurant group made up of Japonais Bistro, Dorinku Tokyo, Dorinku Osaka, DOSC Restaurant, and Seoul Fried Chicken. Back in April, the five restaurants made it easy to please everyone by offering “family sets” on Sundays and Wednesdays for delivery or take-out. That meant you could order ramen, fried chicken, sushi, and steak all in one meal. They also eliminated the need to make a trip to the beverage store by adding sake, wine, beer, and various imported Japanese drinks to their delivery services.
Uproot Food Collective: Uproot Food Collective (10552 114 St) makes it easier and more cost-effective to support local. Along with their three anchor brands—Honest Dumplings, South Island Pie Co., and Natural Kitchen Delights—you’ll also find a myriad of other local gems. If you love the idea of a farmer’s market but don’t want to line up social distance style outside in the freezing cold, then you’ve got to check this place out.
CATEGORY: Best Outdoor Eats
(Miranda Herchen / online edition)
Furry friends and kiddos: Patios were the fan favourite this summer, even for your small or four-legged companions. Dog treats made in-house, water bowls and puppy-loving staff—sister companies Cask and Barrel and Rocky Mountain Icehouse welcome you and your furry friends to enjoy a drink and a comfy seat, no matter the season. If you want to take in patio season but have the little ones with you, Craft Beer Market and its rooftop patio welcome kids until 9 p.m. and have a ‘Half Pints’ menu with all the classics.
Patio Parties: These were a highlight of summer, and patios will continue to be a core staple even as the seasons change. Some special shout-outs: Baijiu’s 80-seat outdoor patio is ready for a socially distanced party with heaters, firepits, live music, a DJ, and booze and bao, of course. Glowing string lights, wooden tables and surrounding greenery make Odd Company Brewing’s patio the perfect place to drink a local craft beer. The parking lot turned ‘Beer Arena’ at Campio Brewing Co. was the go-to patio to cheer on the Oilers with your friends while social distancing.
Picnics: One of the best ways to enjoy food during this pandemic has been picnics, and there were some local restaurants that made it even easier to pack up and enjoy an outdoor meal. Brio Bakery offers a lineup of specialty breads and pastries to choose from each day of the week. Culina to Go has individual or family-sized meals, which showcase local ingredients and vendors, and are ready to eat. Every Wednesday, get that home-cooked-meal feeling with a full plate of dinner, complete with dessert, from Kitchen by Brad’s rotating Kitchen to Go menu.
CATEGORY: Best at Giving Back
(Justin Bell / online edition)
Edmonton Tech Companies, for an hour’s wage to Edmonton Food Bank: A penny for your thoughts? Or maybe an hour’s wage for the Food Bank? Edmonton’s tech sector, many of whom are located in the downtown core, banded together earlier this year to ask employees to donate one hour’s wages per month to Edmonton’s Food Bank. Many businesses matched employee contributions, making for some impressive donations. The idea was started by Edmonton-based We Know Training, and expanded to include more than 20 companies.
Hoang Long, for free Thanksgiving meals: Hoang Long Casual Fare (10037 109 Street) donated and dished out 350 pounds of Thanksgiving food on October 10, including chicken, mashed potatoes, vegetables and gravy. Those who needed it could visit their storefront to be served, and the restaurant also delivered food to local agencies for distribution. What a great way to give back during a time when many are struggling.
Love Pizza, for delivering pizza to frontline workers: Working through the late shift or toughing out a busy day is so much easier with a fast and easy snack. Love Pizza, one of the newest pizza parlours in the core, decided front line workers should be rewarded for their hard work during the global pandemic. In March, they started delivering pizzas to front line workers, along with notes of encouragement. When they asked for donations from the public to help their initiative, they raised $1,000 in less than 48 hours.
Oodle Noodle, for donating 10 per cent of takeout and curbside orders: The downtown lunch crowd will be familiar with Oodle Noodle, the noodle flingers with multiple locations. The company has a long history of donations and working with local charities, so it should come as no surprise they would do the same during a global pandemic. In mid-April, they donated 10 per cent of all takeout and curbside pickup orders to local charities in the city, an initiative that lasted through the summer.
Edmonton Police Service gets a big slice of the municipal funding pie, but could funds be better used elsewhere?
This summer, thousands gathered in downtown Edmonton—even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—to protest the treatment of black people in Canada and the US. People at the rally held signs that said “defund the police” and “racism is a pandemic too—Black Lives Matter.”
Amidst the global conversation around race, a discussion was sparked about the amount of resources being devoted to traditional policing here in Edmonton, and whether funds could better be spent on things like affordable housing.
Activists took this message to city hall, where, during a multi-day public hearing this summer, 150 citizens gave their opinion on the role of police, with many speaking in favour of diverting part of the police budget into social services. The result was an $11 million reduction of the planned funding increase for Edmonton Police service, which was originally slated for a $75 million increase from 2019-2022. The projected total annual budget for EPS in 2020 is $471.60 million.
For some, there is a disconnect in the help that is requested by Edmontonians in crisis and the help that is on offer. 211, a helpline of Alberta’s community and social services, reported that the number one unmet need in Edmonton in September was residential housing options; an unmet need being when 211 is unable to provide a referral for the need identified. The top issue identified in 211 calls in September overall was mental health concerns.
In frustration, many citizens and activists have turned to the police budget—$471.60 million in 2020—asking why some of that money can’t be allocated to housing and mental health support.
The cost of policing is a major municipal expense, taking up a projected 14.71 per cent of tax supported city expenditures in 2020—the largest single expense on the books. Since 2016, there has been a 23.4 per cent increase in the police budget, looking at the projected 2020 expenses. Alberta has a year-over-year population growth of 1.38 per cent. The estimated 187.3 officers per 100,000 people, which was data reported in 2018, makes Edmonton the fourth strongest police presence in the country.
These funding realities exist despite Mayor Don Iveson often addressing the lack of affordable housing. In a letter released on social media on October 7, Iveson wrote that Edmonton faces a critical shortage of 900 units of supportive housing, while the city is estimating that 180 new people are becoming homeless each month.
This crisis in affordable housing is increasing, possibly due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying 11 per cent record unemployment in Alberta. As a result, Edmonton continues to grapple with how to provide more housing options, as evidenced by the emergence of Camp Pekiwewin, a 170-tent camp erected in Edmonton’s river valley.
“Now is the time to shift our focus and tax dollars from policing and surveillance to community-led initiatives that nourish our communities.”
Black Lives Matter YEG
“No other provisions were made for the houseless in the city,” says Shima Robinson, the media liaison for Camp Pekiwewin who spoke to The Yards a few days before the camp closed on November 6. “Obviously there’s an issue [around homelessness] and that is partly what the camp was established to address,” she says.
The camp’s placement at the Rossdale power plant was deliberate. “The camp site is, traditionally, a place of ceremony. Reclaiming it was a big big deal,” says Robinson. The space was being used as overflow parking for the nearby ReMax Field.
“That is not the proper use for the land given that kind of history,” says Robinson. She added that the camp was also created as a prayer camp, and is meant to fulfill spiritual needs as well as fill the gap in housing.
The organizers of Camp Pekiwewin are among those who want to see the city’s financial resources allocated differently. They also don’t believe that the police are necessarily best suited to respond to community members in crisis. “There’s an endemic culture in policing for disdain for houseless community members. They just don’t see them as valuable citizens,” says Robinson.
The camp has had a lot of interactions with the police during its short existence. Police Chief Dale McFee, during a community update on October 7, 2020 said that calls to police in Rossdale have more than doubled since last year. The calls were often related to nuisance or a disturbance.
“There were a number of incidents at the outset of the camp that required EMS where police showed up instead or with EMS and escalated situations,” says Robinson.
“Ideally, police don’t show up for any kind of wellness check or minor disturbance,” she adds. “We have a social infrastructure of outreach workers and mental health counsellors. There are social workers where people are trained to deal with mental illness. It is imperative that people have access to these services when they are at their highest point of crisis.”
Black Lives Matter Edmonton, who co-organized the summer rallies, called for police funding to be transferred to services such as REACH Edmonton’s Crisis Diversion Team, and gathered more than 13,000 signatures this summer with calls to invest in community and divest from policing, writing on their website: “Cyclical police violence against Black people, Indigenous people and other marginalized communities has persisted since the inception of policing in North America. Anti-Black practices, like carding, remain an entrenched tool the Edmonton Police Service uses to inflict harm on our loved ones. Now is the time to shift our focus and tax dollars from policing and surveillance to community-led initiatives that nourish our communities.”
Hannan Mohamud is the co-host of “Is This For Real,” a podcast that explores the lived experiences of Black people in Edmonton, and they are working on a soon-to-be released episode on mental health.
“I feel like mental health wellness in the Black community is something that is rarely acknowledged within ourselves, let alone society. And to talk about mental health and policing is a very underrated, serious, dangerous conversation that needs to happen,” says Mohamud.
Mohamud also feels like the public does not hear much about police interaction and what can go wrong. “If you listen to the Alberta Serious Injury Response Team, police and some news articles[…] no one is really saying that mental health calls coincide with police services and lead to brutality. It is community members who have been saying this,” she says.
In September, the Edmonton Journal reported the use of force by city police was on the rise, with mental health complaints leading the cases where force is involved, according to a report to the Edmonton Police Commission.
Between January and June, there were 1,290 use of force occurrences—up 11.9 per cent from the same time last year. Eighty-three of them involved Mental Health Act complaints.
David Veitch, Deputy Chief Community Safety and Well-Being Bureau with the Edmonton Police Service, acknowledges that he has heard concerns about the excessive use of force or discrimination from the community. “I’m not saying that we don’t have issues with some of our interactions. We know that and we heard that from the public.”
He also added that they have a professional standards branch that investigates complaints.
Veitch says that there has been a review of calls for service to police, to see what calls could be handled by a different service, but sometimes it is difficult to know in advance who should respond. “When we look at the data, we sometimes don’t know the nature of the call until we get there,” he says.
Along with the increase in use of force occurrences, domestic violence calls to police have also increased during the pandemic. According to Veitch, there has been a 10 per cent increase in domestic violence incidents, and the police are seeing the level of violence increase in the calls that they respond to.
Veitch says that once a situation is deemed safe, they can still hand off care to the appropriate agencies. However, both Robinson and Veitch mentioned that hours for social services tend to be Monday to Friday, and not typically late into the evening.
“That doesn’t help us at three or four in the morning. Although there is work with REACH Edmonton who we do a number of these hand-offs to, we still need agencies that are 24/7,” Veitch says.
When asked about the concerns raised by community groups like BLM and Camp Pekiwewin about a hesitancy to call police, Veitch says that they are undertaking more than 50 community consultations, although these consultations are complicated because of COVID-19 and not being able to gather in large groups.
“Many of those communities are coming to the meetings and talking about very disappointing interactions with police. But they’re also talking about very positive interactions with the police. What we would all like is a consistency in response and practice,” says Veitch.
Many community groups and police agree there is a need to expand services to include more assistance for people in crisis, but how that looks amidst funding cuts from government remains to be seen. One thing remains clear—there are many in the community who are asking for change.