Space Race

As the city’s first big-city sized towers begin to throw shadows across downtown Edmonton, ‘For Lease’ signs hang prominently in shop windows on 104 Street, on Jasper Avenue on 99 Street and within City Centre Mall. To an untrained eye, on some streets at least, it can appear that more spaces are empty than occupied. But is downtown’s retail scene actually struggling? Or is it, as some experts say, in a “holding pattern” as we wait for buildings and an expected increase in people coming to fill them?

First, let’s reflect on the changes to retail and business space in downtown and Oliver. When it comes to retail, several new developments have joined the market in the last couple of years, such as the Kelly Ramsey tower and the Brewery District. The big-box Brewery development alone brought 20,000 square-feet of retail space to Oliver in 2016, vacuuming up blue-chip tenants like TD Canada Trust from street-side retail spots on Jasper Avenue. Meanwhile, the Ice District will add a staggering 300,000-square-feet of fresh retail space when it comes online in January 2019 (for comparison, City Centre Mall, across the street, already with several empty retail bays, already offers more than 725,000 square feet). All the while, numerous new retail bays in the podium of the Fox Two tower and Kelly Ramsey are still up for lease. A few are taken, but definitely not all.

The story for office space is similar. With 18-million square-feet of total space downtown and a 16 percent vacancy rate, Edmonton now has almost 2.9-million square feet sitting empty and waiting for business tenants. That’s likely to mushroom when the Stantec Tower in the Ice District opens its doors and offers more than 20 floors to office tenants. Indeed, commercial real-estate brokerage Cushman & Wakefield estimates Edmonton’s office vacancy will hit 18 per cent by the end of 2018. For comparison, Edmonton’s office-vacancy rate is less than recession-struck Calgary’s, at 27 percent, but significantly higher than Toronto’s (four percent) or Vancouver’s (six percent).

Developments have appeared just as Alberta’s economy left for a vacation in the south. And space needs for offices are also shrinking as the years tick by. In 2017, for example, North American offices average 151-square-feet per employee, down from 225-square-feet in 2010, according to real estate data provider CoreNet Global. Meanwhile, online shopping and changes in consumer spending patterns are disrupting old-school retail.

But experts say, despite appearances, all is fine. And they point to what they say are two very different markets for retail and office space, which, they add, are in two very different states right now, as well as the future demand these new developments will incentivize.

Are they right?

Jamie Topham, a partner with Cushman & Wakefield, estimates downtown Edmonton currently has a 5.5 percent vacancy rate for retail space. That’s nearly two points higher than the city average, at about 3.8 percent, but Topham says downtown retail is not in trouble. “If there’s an exodus [from retail in the core], I sure haven’t seen it,” he says. Instead, Topham says, the core is in “a holding pattern” that isn’t permanent. “Downtown is going to be really shaped and reformed after the Ice District gets fully up and going,” he says. “You’re going to see more demand from specialty leases from local businesses after the Ice District, when it’s established and bringing annual traffic counts. I think it’s going to get stronger and healthier as the arena district comes to shape, and other developers and landlords around the arena district amend their plans, once they fully understand the traffc this new development is bringing.” Optimism aside, it’s still unclear who will fill the 300,000-square-feet in the retail portion of the Ice District. So far, Ice District has confirmed a Cineplex UltraAVX and VIP Cinemas as anchor tenants, along with a JW Marriott hotel, a food court in the Stantec Tower, a Rexall drugstore and the already-opened casino beside Rogers Place — as well as an as-yet-unnamed grocery store and fitness centre.

The situation at street level is mirrored above in the offices. Vacancy rates there have more than doubled over the past two years but many suggest that’s due to new supply and businesses closing, rather than tenants vacating for other locations. Karnie Vertz, a principal with Avison Young’s office leasing and sales team,
says it’s nonetheless a good time to be an office tenant. “We’re not seeing any significant growth [in demand] in the downtown market,” he says, “though I think you are seeing some professional companies and some growth in the IT sectors [and] artificial intelligence.”

And just as with retail, the first glances that suggest struggles may be wrong, according to experts. Indeed, some say downtown’s high vacancy rates might actually be good news, as the vacancies and new investment mean there’s an opportunity for employers who may have never considered the area previously to come downtown.

Jimmy Shewchuk is one of them. Shewchuk is a business development manager with Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, and says many new people are starting to “dip their toes” into downtown. As he says, the usual counter arguments – it’s too expensive, there’s no parking – don’t really hold up anymore. “You really see people’s eyes light up when you talk to them about talent retention and being downtown, and how much easier it is. If that’s the talent you’re looking for – young, energetic, smart talent – it’s much easier downtown as opposed to if you’re somewhere else.” Employees increasingly don’t want to work in an industrial park where it’s a 10-minute drive just to get a mediocre sandwich at lunch, he says.

The biggest shift is in car-commuting. “Really the biggest ‘Ah-ha’ moment that we have all the time is talking to [businesses] about parking,” Shewchuk says. He recalls a recent EEDC client who thought they needed well more than 30 parking stalls, based on a survey carried out several years earlier. But when they conducted the survey again recently, the number was actually 11. “It’s that point of clarity, of ‘Oh wait, our talent isn’t driving to work anymore — they’re taking public transit, they’re biking here, they’re walking to work because they live downtown now, so we don’t need that [parking] quite as much.’”

There have been some recent good-news stories to bolster the concreteness of this narrative, too. Chief among them is BioWare, Edmonton’s superstar videogame development company, which announced in November that it will relocate its more than 800 employees from its current south-side location on Calgary Trail to three floors of the Epcor Tower in late 2018 or early 2019, and occupy some 75,000 square feet of space. “We’re thrilled to be moving into a modern, state-of-the art facility and live in a space that empowers and inspires us to do our best work every day,” said BioWare General Manager Casey Hudson, in a news release.

Just a couple of weeks after this announcement, DynaLife announced it had signed a new lease for its current downtown location, in Manulife 2, which will keep its 700 health-lab workers in the core until 2022. Downtown champions celebrated this as welcome news. Still, shortly afterwards, the news was followed by an announcement that the provincial government is funding a new “superlab” location, at the University of Alberta’s south campus, meaning those DynaLife employees will relocate out of downtown in four years.

Another wrinkle complicating a clear answer on the state of things downtown is that 2018 should also see an increase in smaller businesses popping up — if even only for a few days, weeks or months at a time. That’s thanks to the city’s recent decision to join This Open Space, which EEDC recommended. The platform follows an Airbnb model, where prospective tenants can search for space downtown to occupy for shorter periods of time. The hope is that This Open Space will allow businesses to enter the downtown market to test ideas and products without the usual three- or five-year lease commitments.

PERHAPS THE HARDEST SIDE OF THE DOWNTOWN real-estate story for many to understand is building ownership. Experts suggest the reason there are so many aging, dated office buildings downtown — and why many storefronts and retail spaces sit empty within them — could be that the owners aren’t Edmontonians. In fact, they aren’t even people, really: many downtown buildings are owned by large institutional investors, like investment fund trusts or REITs.

“The guy that owns the office tower isn’t the person that lives in a cul-de-sac down the street,” Shewchuk says. “They’re not local owners.” Instead, the buildings and what’s in them are line numbers on a portfolio, he says. “So, it becomes, ‘Is it performing or is it not?’ No one’s walking by and saying, ‘There’s a couple of paint chips, we really need to fix that.’”

IN THE PAST, THIS MATTERED LITTLE AS LARGER (and often multinational) property owners such as REITs rode out lows rather than downgrade their pricing or invest in upkeep that appeared unnecessary. “We’ve had the luxury of being lazy for a long time,” Shewchuk says. “There’s a lot of space that hasn’t been upgraded because it hasn’t had to. I don’t necessarily blame those property owners for not, because it was full, or close to full for a long time.”

But now that things aren’t full, and new supply is arriving, some see opportunity rather than trouble. The arrival of new, highly desirable office and retail spaces on the downtown market is forcing some established landlords to change this indifferent approach. Experts say there has been a new emphasis put on quality, with increased investment in older buildings, more creative lease deals to entice businesses to set up shop.

And there has even been full overhauls of a building’s purpose, such as office conversions that transform old office space into something else, usually residential. EEDC has set up a task force to study these scenarios, which have already started to happen: in May of last year, Calgary firm Strategic Group announced that they will be converting Harley Court, a 1970s-era office tower located on 111 Street and 100 Avenue, to a mix of one- and two-bedroom residential suites.

It will be years before the effects of the Ice District can be measured by anything other than speculation. The company itself is bullish, however, boasting of nearly 2,000 new residents to its own 25-acre development and of 13,000 within a 10-minute walk, along with 75,000 daily employees.

BUT UNTIL THE STREETS ARE CRAWLING WITH PEOPLE and Edmonton is attracting new business investment outside of building office buildings, tenants who decide to stake a claim in the new downtown are in many ways hedging their bets that it’s sustainable to operate here over the long term.

To Shewchuk, homegrown growth potential is key. We may have failed to lure Amazon here to build its second headquarters, but we did lure BioWare, as well as Jobber, Yardstick and others. “Edmonton is a city that has always been built on entrepreneurship,” he says. “Opening the doors and making downtown very accessible to those two-, three-person companies that, one day, become 300, 400 person companies, would be great for us. We’ve never been a city that has done well chasing the whale. We need to focus on what’s always worked for us, and that’s creating the environment for a city that’s been built on entrepreneurship.”

How To Act When You See Others Harassed

One day last summer, a woman racially harassed Tracy Hyatt (The Yards Contributing Editor) in downtown Edmonton. The woman, who Hyatt says was a total stranger, approached her and some of her friends who were standing near the Grandin LRT station. And then she called Hyatt a slur. Hyatt was the only African-Canadian person in the group, so it was clear the slur was lobbed at her. But nobody called the stranger on her actions.

“I was quite surprised that, following the Make Something Awkward campaign, not one person said anything,” Hyatt says. “There were at least 10 people in the vicinity that saw and heard this go down.” Since no one came to her defense, Hyatt stood up for herself and said something to her harasser, who she says then backed down.

Experts say there are right and wrong ways to deal with harassment. Doing nothing, though the easiest play, is never the best option.

Harassment is a singular word for a range of behaviours, from the obvious (a verbal slur or physical touch) to the subtle (a vaguely threatening note, consistent belittling from a colleague). It can follow you anywhere, from the sidewalk to the bus, to your workplace, and even home. And it can be defined as aggression, pressure or intimidation. Victims often feel like they can’t speak up or defend themselves. But just as there are different types of harassment, there are also different techniques to handle it.

Here’s a quick guide to what experts say are the best responses are to different types of harassment.

Verbal Harassment


If you witness someone being verbally harassed, direct intervention is just one of the actions you can take, says Mary Jane James, executive director of Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (SACE). Saying something along the lines of, ‘Hey, that’s not cool. That’s not okay, please stop,’ can work, she says. Other techniques include engaging with the person being harassed to de-escalate the situation, or asking someone else to help you intervene. It’s also important to report the behaviour to a bus driver, security guard or other authority figure where the harassment is taking place. And it’s vital you document what you witnessed, James says, and check in with the victim. “After the fact, it can be helpful to simply ask the person if they are okay, if there is anything that you can do.”

Workplace Harassment


As the fallout of #MeToo illustrates, harassment often takes place among colleagues in a workplace environment. But people don’t always recognize negative behaviours like bullying, name-calling, belittling or intimidation, as harassment. It’s also something that can be challenging to speak up about, particularly if the behaviour is coming from someone in a senior position to the victim. In situations where someone is bullying a co-worker, having co-workers on your side can make a big difference. But both victims and bystanders often choose not to speak up for a number of reasons. “Self-preservation, not wanting to be seen as a troublemaker, fear of losing their job, fear of being ostracized by other employees, fear of losing friends, fear of not being considered for a promotion … the list is endless,” James says.

If you are the one being harassed, naming the behaviour is a good first step, James says. “Say what he’s done and be specific. Hold the person accountable for his actions,” she says. “Don’t make excuses. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen. Ask that the behaviour stop. One should also seriously consider filing of an internal complaint within their organization. Documenting the harassment is important.”

Physical Harassment


The harassment that’s easiest to recognize is physical harassment. If you or someone near you is in physical danger from a harasser who appears to be violent there are ways to handle the situation without escalating things. One simple step is to create distance between yourself and the harasser, says Randy King, owner of KPR Combat, a gym in Oliver that offers self-defense classes. “Don’t be there. If someone is harassing you and you can leave, then do that,” he says. There are also ways you can build self-confidence and physical skills to prepare for dealing with a potentially violent situation. KPR offers Self-Defense 101, a crash course for those with little to no martial-arts experience. The gym also has a more advanced course, which offers a look at the psychological aspects of self-defense, as well as more physical scenarios.

King says people who come to KPR for self-defense training sometimes share “very personal stories” about their experiences with violence. He believes self-defense training can give individuals the confidence they need to deal with harassment, even though they will hopefully never have to use the skills they have learned. “Self-defense training is a lot like a spare tire: You may never need it but if you need it and don’t have it, you are in trouble,” he says.

Sexual Harassment


Strangers, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, partners – basically anyone can sexually harass someone else. This makes sexual harassment one of the more pervasive types that both men and women face. The Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton is a not-for-profit organization that provides trauma-informed services and support to victims of all genders over the age of three. In 2017, they received more than 3,500 calls to their 24-hour hotline, and they had about 1,000 new clients who access counselling services. Approximately 80 per cent of their clients are female.

Like workplace harassment, documentation is an important step to take if you are being sexually harassed or witness someone else experiencing it, James says. Whether you report the harassment to SACE or the police, having a paper trail can prove valuable if the problem persists. Having someone to talk to is also an essential part of accepting what happened and moving on from it.

Preventative Measures


Whether or not they have experienced harassment themselves, men play an important role in preventing it. That’s why SACE began offering an extensive program to several junior and senior high schools in areas that are more vulnerable and “at risk” about a year ago, James says. “Part of the program is teaching and mentoring these boys to be leaders, to be actively involved in the mentoring and education of their peers on issues of consent, healthy relationships.”

There are currently more than 100 boys involved in the program across the city, and James says she hopes SACE will receive the funding to continue the program in years to come.

Of course, men of all ages can contribute to a positive environment where no one feels harassed. Education often plays a role in diffusing situations where harassment can easily come into play, such as someone’s work environment – especially in male-dominated industries where women may feel more pressure not to speak up. In addition to other programming, SACE offers a comprehensive professional public education program on sexual harassment in the workplace, something many businesses in the city have participated in.

There isn’t a one-size fits all solution to dealing with harassment. That’s mainly because harassment can take place in many forms, in many different areas of someone’s life. The main thing to remember is to take action.

Preventing harassment means challenging the social and cultural attitudes that condone and facilitate it. Everyone has to take a stand, James says. “Calling people out on their behaviour is the first step to eliminating the pervasiveness of this issue.”

The Legend of the Lane

In 1990, a group calling itself simply ‘The Road Doctors’ painted Edmonton’s first guerrilla bike lane. Soon after, the city removed this lane and repainted it, creating the first ever official, on-road bike lane in Edmonton. To this day, nobody knows exactly who The Road Doctors actually were. But 27 years after the fact, one is breaking his silence.

Back in 1990, David Boroditsky—who’s now a business owner—was an avid environmentalist and active in Edmonton’s cycling community. As Boroditsky tells it, some “enterprising” city bylaw officers had been giving students tickets that summer for riding the wrong way down 88 Avenue (between 109 Street and the University of Alberta, 88 Avenue is an eastbound one-way). The tickets irked a lot of people. “It seemed like monetary injustice, preying on poor, defenceless university students, and the road was amply wide to enable cars, parking and bikes,” he says.

So he and two friends decided to act. “With paint rollers, duct tape and hockey sticks—and we had some stencils for ‘bike lane’ and ‘bikes not cars’—we took a trip down there on a Saturday night,” Boroditsky says.

Unfortunately, there were a lot of people out that night, so the trio hit—what else?—a frat party, where they drank beer and recruited a fourth member. Then, later that night, “we went back and laid down a line,” he says.

Later, Boroditsky anonymously wrote a press release from The Road Doctors about the lane. “We apologise (sic) for the wigglyness of the line,” it read, “but owing to our budget of $7.42, we were unable to employ state of the art straight line application technology.”

Boroditsky also gave a local radio station an anonymous interview, from a phone booth.

And then, magic. “There was a nasty editorial in The Sun, an article in The Journal and the city scraped the paint off, and threatened us with an $800 cleaning bill,” Boroditsky says. “But then they came back a few days after and actually put in a proper bike lane.”

The Yimby Hero

MICHAEL PHAIR PULLED ON THE BUILDING’S ugly tin cladding and saw red brick underneath. This building was worth saving. “No one knew — including me — that it had any architectural value at all, until a couple of people working there dragged me over,” Phair says.
“I pulled back a little bit and I was like, ‘Oh my God, look at that — that’s brick.’”

It was 1999. Phair was peering at bricks of the Phillips Building, on 104 Street in downtown Edmonton. Midco Equities Ltd., owned by Bill Comrie of The Brick, had purchased the building and adjacent parking lot in 1981. It first wanted to erect a 25-storey of office tower, but the economic crash of the early ’80s erased those plans. By the mid-’90s, Midco next wanted to demolish Phillips Building and replace it with a surface parking lot.

Local residents wanted the building to remain. So they contacted Phair, who was a city councillor at the time, and asked for his help to save it. And he did. Preventing developers from demolishing the Phillips Building became one of Phair’s first major YIMBY wins. He’s had dozens more since.

What’s YIMBY? The acronym stands for ‘Yes in My Backyard’ and it’s the opposite of the far more well known NIMBY (Not in My Backyard). Proponents of YIMBY actively seek to obtain or keep things in their neighbourhoods instead of trying to keep them out. From tangible YIMBY successes like the Icon and Fox tower developments on 104 Street, to the new downtown bike grid, to less obvious achievements like establishing the AIDS Network of Edmonton, Phair has made a career out of saying ‘Yes.’

One cheery July afternoon, Phair sat in his eponymous park on 104 Street to reflect on what the street was like before he and other YIMBYs got involved — and how people who want to become YIMBYs can learn from his approach.

“Most people forget that this was all empty here,” he says, gesturing at the high rises surrounding us. “There were no buildings here at all, except on the corner.” That corner, on Jasper Avenue, was occupied by the ruin of the Cecil Hotel. Running north from the Cecil were empty lots, derelict properties and a few historic structures, such as the Birks, Metals, Phillips and Great West Saddlery buildings. Some had businesses but many were empty or partially vacant.

Saving the Phillips Building — Worthington Properties bought it in 2000 and converted it into loft apartments — was an early victory for 104 Street and also Edmonton in a broader sense. It marked a slow shift in local thinking and proved that a small group of dedicated citizens could shape the future of their neighbourhood.

After the Phillips Lofts were completed, in 2002, developers next proposed several high rise towers on 104 Street — the Century first, then the Icon towers, and later the Fox towers. But the original plans for these towers looked a lot different than what developers eventually built. That’s thanks, again, to the YIMBYs.

“There were a number of people living in the area who met with me and formed a kind of coalition group to push the city and developers that high rises were fie, but we don’t want ugly buildings — this is a historical area,” Phair says. “And, we don’t want this parking that you see everywhere. And we want podiums — which was not in the plans.”

But Phair knew fighting for improvements on individual projects was always going to be a losing battle. The key was zoning. Phair recognized changes were needed to prevent developers from proposing to build whatever they wanted on 104 Street. “The importance of the zoning, in the end, is probably what ensures that you are getting kind of what you’d hoped and wanted,” he says. Eventually, Phair and others got city council to change 104 Street’s zoning, in 2004.

But because council makes zoning decisions, Phair says, YIMBY groups seeking influence over what needs to be added to development proposals will need to make their case before that body. “It’s important that you have connections with the local councillors or MLAs, depending what the situation is, so they know what’s happening,” he says. “Even if they don’t agree or don’t push for anything, it’s always better if they know – but hopefully you can make allies out of them. Many members of council — hate to be blindsided. I’ve been that way a little bit, too.”

To become an effective YIMBY, then, Phair says you’ll need to get in touch with city administration to discuss zoning options in your neighbourhood, inform your local councillor and then meet with developers, property owners and other stakeholders about any proposed development. Developers usually aren’t keen to make changes to their plans, Phair says, especially ones that cost more money. This is why he says it’s critical to gain allies with positive voices — you can always find someone to oppose something, and often that negative voice is the loudest.

Phair says compromise is also key.
The zoning changes council made on 104 Street — which requires towers to have podiums for retail and commercial space, design elements reflecting the area’s historic nature, and parking set backs — doesn’t have everything residents asked for, Phair says, but it was a good compromise. “Quite frankly, 104 Street would not be what it is today if that hadn’t happened,” he says. “It made just this huge difference.” But sometimes YIMBY voices can’t make compromise actually happen. Chris vander Hoek, a former board member of the Oliver Community League (OCL) and intern architect with NEXT Architecture, says the Brewery District, in Oliver, is a good example of that. Vander Hoek was on the OCL board in 2013 when First Capital Realty and Sun Life Investment presented its initial proposal for the site. He says he remembers feeling alarmed when he saw it.

“Everything was internally oriented around the parking lot,” vander Hoek says. In response, the OCL worked to amplify the community voice. It hosted open houses and charrette sessions so residents could provide feedback to the developer. Initially the tone was optimistic, vander Hoek recalls, but that changed after the OCL met with the developers. “It became evident that they weren’t interested in compromising at all,” he says. “Their whole attitude was simply, ‘Let’s just build it now. Let’s build this hybrid suburban model and then when the LRT comes and when it becomes more urban, then we’ll just knock it down and build a new version that’s more urban.’”

Today, vander Hoek says Brewery District is not a walkable space, as Oliver asked it to be, because nobody likes walking across parking lots or among blank façades, “We saw that in the plans early on,” he says. But the YIMBY voice could not change it.

It should go without saying, then, that effective YIMBY campaigns require patience — often, a lot of it. Phair says Edmonton’s bike lanes are a perfect example of a project that required not just compromise and political support, but also heaps of patience.

“I live on 102 Avenue and we’ve been wanting a bike lane and arguing and yelling at the city for years to get that,” he says.

Phair chaired a working group on the downtown bike lane project that the OCL established five years ago. Things got bogged down due to the costs involved, and then delayed by the 2013 civic election. Phair remembers endless meetings with city administration trying to push them to take action, to no avail.

Meanwhile, though, the number of people working on bike lanes continued to grow. Paths for People, a nonprofit advocating for better cycling and walking infrastructure in Edmonton, formed in 2015; Phair is on the board.

The process seemed permanently stalled, Phair remembers, until a couple things happened. First, almost all of the senior management team at the city’s transportation department either retired or was let go. Second, Stantec offered to cover half the cost to trial downtown bike lanes.

“All of a sudden, very positively, it’s all happening,” Phair says. “We are busy now putting together some information for candidates running for city council and for the school board members, because there needs to be some work done on schools, encouraging bikes.”

The thing about YIMBY projects is that they can be about more than just buildings and bike lanes. They can be about building community supports for things that some in the community may even be fearful of. Phair has done that YIMBY work, too. In the early 1980s, he helped establish the first version of the Edmonton Pride Parade, as well as the AIDS Network of Edmonton (later renamed HIV Edmonton).

When the AIDS crisis hit Edmonton—the first case was identified on July 1, 1984 — no one was working on the issue locally. Phair formed the AIDS Network in response. The group worked out of his house at first, because no one would rent them office space. At the time, sexual orientation wasn’t protected under the Alberta Human Rights Act.

“There was a great deal of hatred —‘You deserve it; this is God’s scourge’ — every Bible verse that you could use, twisted,” Phair remembers. “We called ourselves the AIDS Network. We chose that name because we were clear that it needed to be more than just members of the gay and lesbian community. There needed to be other players. I think that was critical, knowing that in order to get what you want, and when you’re dealing with a situation that’s negative or difficult, is you look for others that need to be part of it.”

Some of those other players included local unions and churches, who were friendly to the cause, as well as contacts with the police and media. Savviness with media is critical to YIMBY, Phair says, especially when the issue at stake is contentious.

“Any major story about AIDS, we always got called for the local angle, and learned that you need to respond,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to put forward what we would think as the best foot, to put forward how we saw it and what we were doing — which then got through the media, got out that there were local people that had AIDS, there were local groups that were working on it to try to do things. We tried to sound reasonable.”

Sandeep Agrawal sees the YIMBY and NIMBY conversations through a planning lens. Agrawal is a professor and inaugural director at the University of Alberta’s Urban and Regional Planning Programs, where he focuses on the inclusion of human rights in urban planning. He is pushing Edmonton planners to look not only at planning legislation, bylaws and policy, but also to consider the Charter and human rights legislation, when dealing with NIMBY/YIMBY issues, like safe injection sites, supportive housing and potentially even adults-only buildings.

“Eventually, something that’s intangible becomes quite tangible in the form of use of land and a building and such — and then it becomes a planning issue,” Agrawal says. “Frankly, so far planners have yet to understand how these things affect their thinking, their practice and obviously their policies.”

The University of Alberta doesn’t have a course on NIMBYism specifically, but Agrawal teaches a course on land-use planning and policy that discusses it. “Land-use planning is all about uses of land and zoning, and when it comes to any kind of development, you have to deal with NIMBYism,” he says.

Awareness and education are ultimately what overcome NIMBYism, Agrawal says, since it’s often a knee-jerk, emotional reaction to change. Once people become aware of an issue and are exposed to it, more people come to accept it. Consider how absurd it seems today that someone could be denied office space based on their sexual orientation. This will undoubtedly hold true for everything from safe injection sites to bike lanes – it just might take a while.

Phair agrees. “I think in another eight or nine years, having bike routes will be so commonplace that they’ll just automatically happen, but it’s still going to take that time,” he says. Until your YIMBY victory has become permanent, he says, you just have to keep working on shifting the narrative.

“I can’t tell you how important I think it is to find some either positive voices or at least positive compromising voices,” he says. “As opposed to those that just don’t want it, period – and let them run the show and be seen as what everybody thinks and wants.

“Easier said than done,” he adds, with a laugh. “I wish it was that simple.”



SOCIAL MEDIA AND PRINT MEDIA: Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook can help you nd and connect with people interested in working together, as well as to make you aware of what others are working on already. Consider physical newsletters, posters on bulletin boards in local businesses and ads in community newsletters, and local newspapers to reach community members who aren’t online.

CROWDFUNDING SITES: Kickstarter, GoFundMe, Indiegogo and other crowdfunding sites can help grassroots organizations and startup dollars and help cover costs associated with public outreach and consultation.

CITY OF EDMONTON ZONING RESOURCES: There are zoning resources and information on the City of Edmonton website. Contact the planner who works on your area of the city for detailed information.

EDMONTON FEDERATION OF COMMUNITY LEAGUES: The EFCL can put you in touch with local community leagues and other associations and organizations who may be interested in working on YIMBY projects in their area. The EFCL also hosts seminars and work- shops on community issues.


YIMBY asks for DECL and OCL

MORE DENSITY DONE RIGHT: The design of developments is more important than just density or height. Still, increased density can bring more people to live downtown, and more amenities, which will make the area more sustainable in the long-term.

BIKE LANES: If built correctly, bike lanes can benefit all people. It’s all about offering more mobility options to engage a younger population who doesn’t want to own vehicles, and this can be augmented by car-share and ride-share.

MORE GREEN SPACE, LESS PARKING: Surface parking lots don’t make for the vibrant downtown we want. Some empty lots should be reserved for open green space and parks. Parks are people’s living rooms when they don’t have their own yard.

BETTER STREETSCAPING: Well-considered streetscaping is critical to the success of downtown for people as well as local pedestrian-oriented businesses.

REC AND COMMUNITY FACILITIES: Oliver has the population of a small town, yet many don’t drive, so we need recreation facilities close by. The Stanley Milner library in central downtown is out of reach for many Oliver residents, as are downtown rec facilities like the Don Wheaton YMCA.

SUPPORTIVE, AFFORDABLE AND FAMILY HOUSING: Oliver needs greater housing diversity to support inclusive, long-term human investment through socially responsible development.

FAMILY INFRASTRUCTURE: The downtown core lacks physical supports as well as services for families, like all-ages buildings, appropriate recreation facilities, affordable child care and even public washrooms.

Knock-On Effect

Coun. Andrew Knack is at a grey bungalow in Crestwood saying nothing much at all. Knack is campaigning for re-election in Ward 1 but tonight, the older female homeowner he has summoned with his knock to her door is not a supporter. Knack stands wordlessly absorbing views on subsidized housing (does not belong in Crestwood, she says) and property taxes (too high, she says) while, nearby, three boys play catch beside a white BMW. Crestwood’s average household income is $165,668, or nearly double Edmonton’s average, and it will be a central door-knocking target for Ward 1 candidates. Finally, after 15 minutes, Knack bids the woman goodnight. “I kind of make a terrible politician because I listen, even if I know, like her, they aren’t going to vote for me”, he says, once at the sidewalk.

Knocking on doors can win an election. In 2016, an unpopular Ted Cruz beat a popular Donald Trump in the Iowa Republican Party leadership primaries by hitting more front doors. For municipal politicians, who lack the political parties that help voters navigate toward or away from candidates and platforms, door-knocking is doubly-important. Fittingly, Knack is door-knocking tonight primarily to re-win his seat. It is serious business. As we walk, Knack opens Canvasser, an iPhone app he pays $100 a month for to organize his plan to knock on all 18,000 or so single-family, row-house and duplex doors in his ward, and crosses the woman’s house off the list. But Knack says there’s more to it. Door-knocking gives him a too-rare chance to hear peoples’ concerns face to face. It is a democracy moment with the purity of apple pie. “I care whether you can vote or whether you can’t—I talk with permanent residents who can’t vote, and I care equally as much about their opinion as someone who can go vote,” he says.

Let’s assume Knack is right, and that door-knocking is essential for potential city councillors to hear the concerns of residents. What does it mean, then, that up to half the doors in our city will likely not get a knock? According to Statistics Canada, about 49.3 per cent of Edmonton’s housing is multi-unit, from condo towers to low-rise apartments to mid-rise rental buildings. But these doors and the people who live behind them are effectively terra nullius during a campaign. According to Knack and several other council candidates I spoke to, it is hard to get inside multi-unit buildings to meet people. Once in, many residents—leery of marketers—do not want you there. And what is worse, Alberta’s election rules only allow you there for a short period, anyway.

Add these factors up and you understand why one candidate who is aggressively targeting multi-unit housing puts his odds at getting inside buildings at less than one in three. Knack, who lives in a multi-unit condo himself, says he has not had a candidate knock on his door during any election campaign. And as he walks toward his next door to knock on, he says his 18,000-door tally does not include multi-unit doors and that the pattern concerns him. “It’s a struggle. You actually technically can’t access [a multi-unit] building until nomination day [on September 18]. Think about that. I’ll be lucky, having started door-knocking at the beginning of July, to hit every door once—and that’s just every single-family house door. You add in all of the multi-unit dwellings and the ability to try and hit every door in four weeks, it’s impossible. You won’t connect with everyone.”

For candidates to come first, Knack has sketched out why those living in multi-unit housing in downtown, Oliver and throughout Edmonton could be coming last. Given so many of us live in buildings with multiple doors, how can it change?

Back in August, on another door-knocking night, Knack says he came to see what disengagement really looks like. He was in the Canora neighbourhood, where the average household income $59,976 and where many rent, often in multi-unit housing. At the doors, he says three individual people living in rental housing shared that they feel invisible. Knack says one resident told him, “as a renter,” she was “not allowed to vote”— (“I have no idea where she was taught that,” he says)— while two others told him their opinion did not count. “They said, ‘I just rent, so I don’t want to waste your time.’”

Knack has a compelling theory for why. To win elections, politicians door-knock and engage voters predominantly in areas with a history of high voter turnout. Those high turnouts are, traditionally, clustered in the high-income areas of wards where the doors are easily reached. And to Knack that embeds the cycle. “It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he says. “The spots where we have, by far, the largest voter turnout are some of the wealthiest communities with some of the highest percentages of detached-home ownership. And so if you’re a candidate, it’s not that you want to ignore areas [with multi-unit renters and owners] but you’d better go to where the highest voter turnout is first.”

Next, add the time-crunch created by rules that limit legal protection from being told to leave multi-unit buildings until a month before the vote. That amplifies things, he says. “If you’re short on time, something’s not going to get done, and often times it’s those areas that have low home ownership or low voter-turnout. Because nobody engages them, very few people go out and vote, which means the turnout is low, which means the next crop of candidates see that and say, ‘Well, why would I go there first?’”

“They said, ‘I just rent, so I don’t want to waste your time.'”

Edmonton historian Shirley Lowe says there are other amplifications of the pattern and that they link to historic election laws. Lowe points to Jack K. Masson and Edward C. LeSage’s book, Alberta’s Local Governments, where the authors write: “Election rules are seldom neutral; they operate to the advantage of some people and the disadvantage of others.” In Alberta municipal elections, the authors argue advantages have been created by laws such as one that allowed British citizens living in Canada to vote in municipal elections even if they were not Canadian citizens. Another, dashed only in 1983, discriminated against non incumbents by allowing a candidate’s occupation to be shown. Incumbents would simply write, “Mayor,” or “alderman,” as their job and look far more electable on the ballot as a result. It made incumbency then—and arguably now—an iron-like qualification for Edmonton City Council.

But it’s rules around property ownership that Lowe points to as we talk about the multi-unit engagement gap. Up until 1977, a bylaw explicitly favoured people who owned property over those who did not by allowing only them to vote on council candidates and fiscal rule changes. While the rule now only requires a voter to be a resident of your municipality on election day, and to have lived in Alberta at least six months prior to it, some of the property sentiments linger. And they disadvantage people in multi-unit housing. “It’s systemic,” Lowe says. “The City of Edmonton still sends out notices about developments, but they don’t do it for renters. That means even a temporary land owner, like a developer, has more rights than someone who’s lived around that property for a long time.” As a result, she adds, renters have long been “second class citizens.”

That feeling, directly expressed to Knack on the doorstep in Ward 1, is something being thought about in wards across the city as politicians campaign. That includes Ward 6, which covers downtown and Oliver.

The ward’s incumbent, Coun. Scott McKeen, says he’s run up against the barriers to door-knocking in multi-unit condo buildings similar to the one he lives in. In 2013, he says, he had volunteers inside a multi-unit building knocking on doors when they were challenged in the halls. “The resident told them they had to leave, but it turned out one of the volunteers was a former city hall lawyer,” he says. “He knew the legislation and explained it. The resident grudgingly let the volunteers continue.”

“If people are not voting, you’re caught in this silo of making decisions based o a very select group of individuals”.

Is this unexpected? No, McKeen says. “I don’t think this [reaction] is unusual. Most buildings don’t allow people in to canvas door to door. The election rules allowing entry are not widely known and so people can be upset with the intrusion. I live in a condo building and it’s weird to have someone knock on your door. As someone once said, the door to your apartment is unlike the door to a house. It’s more like opening your bedroom door to a stranger. You feel more vulnerable.”

One of McKeen’s main challengers in Ward 6, Tish Prouse, says he has encountered anger from people while trying to engage residents in multi-unit buildings and has resorted to different techniques as a result—from simple social media discussions to a series of barbecues near the larger buildings that people can come to and meet him at. He says that he recognizes candidates over-emphasize door-knocking on single-family homes and that it skews their take on what matters to their ward. “You want to have proper representation of a demographic,” Prouse says.

Voter turnout in Edmonton is low compared to the Canadian average, at less than 37 per cent in both the 2010 and 2013 municipal elections. And the least likely age block to vote is the 18 to 29 bracket. Matthew Redfern, who is running for council in Ward 7, has a term for that group. “Those are what I associate with the rental years,” he says.

For some in Edmonton, the rental years are transitional, while for others they are a lifestyle choice. Regardless, for a city where the median age is just 35, renters are a significant number of voters. Indeed, according to Edmonton’s 2016 census, 49 per cent of residents own their housing while 29 per cent rent it (though, a whopping 21 per cent provided no response to that census question). For context, the 2011 federal census put the owner-renter spread in Edmonton at 65 per cent and 35 per cent, respectively.

Redfern feels connected to the people living as renters in multi-unit voters. He identifies as Dutch and Cree (his mother, a residential school survivor, was born on a trapline near Moosonee, Ontario) and for much of his 20s and 30s lived as a renter in multi-unit apartment buildings. And this meant that he never interacted at his door with a municipal politician, he says. “It didn’t enhance my engagement in democracy and local politics.”

So, like many in the 2017 campaign, Redfern is trying to work around the traditional engagement gaps. His approach is to venture into Beverly Heights, the lowest income portion of Ward 7, to knock on doors and meet people. Many of the people living in the neighbourhood live in older detached housing, which they rent, though there are some low-rise apartments, too. The average household income in Beverly Heights is $68,749.

Redfern says the feedback can be stark. “I haven’t met a single person yet that told me they’ve had someone knock on their door [in Beverly Heights],” he says. “I’m the first candidate they’ve seen in any election— municipal, provincial or federal. In Beverly, it’s a lot of rental houses, a lot of…”— here, his voice changes and he grins—“…indigenous type people. They don’t get much attention. We’ll find out if it works. Those are home owners, renters and definitely voters.”

How can the engagement gap for Edmonton residents living in multi-unit housing change?

McKeen says it is “critical” to door-knock in multi-unit housing. “Though some buildings do a terrific job at creating a sense of community, apartment living can be isolating. So it’s important that candidates take on the challenge of getting in those buildings, knocking on doors and meeting people where they live.”

His solution is simply perseverance.

Redfern is actively seeking to engage a voting group that others have ignored, but is not sure it will lead him to victory. He admits he is doing it out of principle. “We’re missing their voice, a whole different perspective—people who are living a different life than your detached home homeowner,” he says. “Not everybody has a house and a dog and a wife and 1.8 children, whatever is ‘normal’ now. Most people in their renting years don’t vote, which is a shame because they use a lot of city services.”

He also says there is a need for more open venues for voters to engage with candidates, and laments that some community leagues have stopped offering candidate forums.“Maybe the elections office could hold forums,” he says. Knack says he has also thought about how to fix the situation but has not hit on the magic bullet. “There’s several things” to try, he says. “Could we open up the rules to allow candidates to get in [to multi-unit buildings] earlier?” But, do that, he says, and “you would run up against the issue of people just not feeling comfortable answering the door.”

Still, as he walks to knock on doors in Crestwood, Knack says he hopes to work to change the situation. “How do you start to break through it,” he asks. Canora, he notes, has a voter turnout below 20 per cent, which could mean as little as 10 per cent of households (some have more than one resident) are reaching the ballot box. Voter turnout in Crestwood, on the other hand, where he has just gotten an earful from a resident about taxes, is way higher.“You have to be careful to expand who you’re hearing from,”he says. “If people are not voting, you’re caught in this silo of making decisions based on a very select group of individuals.”

DECL Fall Events

Cornfest 2017
Experience the new Alex Decoteau Park,
at 105 Street and 102 Avenue, with some
free corn on the cob, kids and dog activities,
and a chance to grab your new 2017-’18
DECL membership ($5). Starts at 11am
and runs until 3 pm.

Alex Decoteau Park Dedication
Join DECL President Chris Buyze, Mayor
Don Iveson, members of Alex Decoteau’s
family, police, military (on horses!) and
local residents for the official opening of
our first new downtown park in 30 years.
Starts at 11 am.

BreakOut West Festival
The festival takes over downtown Edmonton
and our community space with local and
Canadian talent. Enjoy all venues for only

SEPTEMBER 6, 13, 20, 27
Free noon-hour yoga at DECL
Take a break to breathe and relax your mind
with Irma and Jessica, enjoy some flow and
Hatha practices at lunch. All levels welcome.
Beginner friendly. Runs 12:10 – 1:50 pm.
Space is limited so please register at irma.

Up+Downtown Festival
The festival returns for a third year at DECL,
with performances by Woodhawk, Chron
Goblin, Weaves, the Garrys, Ia Am Machi
and others. for more info. 18+

Edmonton Election Day
Don’t forget to vote.
Polls are open until 8 pm.

Urban Kids Family Night
Our monthly family night returns for kids and
parents. Join us for games, talent shows and
more, from 6-8 pm.

OCL Fall Events

Walking Pub Crawl
Meet with friends new and old, and walk
to pre-determined pub location to enjoy
the Oliver nightlife. Starts at 8 pm, meet in
Oliver Park by the playground. (note: no
pub crawl in December).

Municipal Election Forum
Ward 6 forum runs from 7-9 pm.
St. Joseph Catholic High School,
10830 – 109 Street.

Holiday Craft Market
Get your holiday shopping done in one place
and have league volunteers wrap your gifts in
exchange for donation to our hall redevelop-
ment. 9am-2pm, Location to be announced.

Holiday Potluck
Bring your favourite holiday dish and join
friends and neighbours for a hearty meal.
Eating together is a wonderful way to build
community and celebrate the season. Runs
5-8 pm at Grace Lutheran Church gymnasium,
at 9907 – 114 Street.

Civics Committee
This highly engaged committee meets on the
second Monday of the month to discuss develop-
ments in Oliver. Runs from 7 pm. Grace Lutheran
Church social room, at 9907-114 Street (enter by
east grey door).*changed to Tuesday for October.

Events and Programs Committee
If you like event planning, this is the committee
for you. Runs at 6:00 pm, Nosh Cafe, 10235
124 Street.

Alex’s Park

Every community needs green space. These spaces help connect us to nature, offer a quiet spot to relax or a place to meet our neighbour. And downtown is finally getting one. After 10 years of steady effort and planning by the community league, and support from city council, downtown is opening our first new park in 30 years — Alex Decoteau Park.

Our downtown population continues to grow. As it does, green spaces become even more crucial to the everyday lives of residents. When you live in a condo or apartment, parks within walking distance are important and necessary parts of a healthy neighbourhood.

But Alex Decoteau Park is not only downtown’s first new park in decades, it’s also a first for our city in many ways. It was designed with community input and features many ‘active’ uses that residents can participate in and enjoy. These include a community garden (complete with raised beds, shed and composting); a fenced, off-leash dog area for our furry friends (a first for Edmonton); grassed areas; lots of seating and meeting places, and push-activated fountains that every kid (and parent) will doubtlessly enjoy on hot summer days.

The park is significant for what it brings our community, but it’s also a reminder of the life and legacy of Alex Decoteau, its namesake. Decoteau was the first indigenous police officer in Edmonton, working on the beats right around what is to be the park named after him. He represented Canada at the Olympics in 1912, and died in the Second World War at the second battle of Passchendaele, in 1917.

While Decoteau is no longer with us, his legacy will live on. I invite you to join us for the opening of the park, at our annual CornFest, on September 9. Or you can come to the the official dedication on September 16. We have talked about the park for a long time. Now it is time to enjoy it.

Chris Buyze
President, Downtown Edmonton Community League

My Journey to YIMBY

The first time I heard ‘Yes in my backyard’ was at a workshop for the proposed rezoning of the Molson Brewery site. It was 2013. I had just moved back to Edmonton from eight months in the United Kingdom, where I had fallen in love with narrow roads, centuries-old buildings and the pubculture. But within a few weeks of being home, the Oliver Community League hosted a workshop in response to the Molson Brewery proposal, which was essentially a higher-end suburban strip mall.

The workshop catalyzed OCL’s strategic plan, as the 60-plus attendees determined what we value in Oliver. Little surprise, then, that at the City of Edmonton’s public meeting for the Molson site proposal, hosted a couple months later, resident after resident stood up and rather than saying “No,” instead asked the developer for more. Some literally said “Yes in my backyard.”

“Give us mixed use development,” some said.

“We’re fine with high-rises — this is the perfect site for them,” others said.

“Give us less parking, we actually don’t want surface parking lots at all,” some said.

“Give us high quality pedestrian access and amenities. Give us buildings that face both the Oliver and Queen Mary Park communities. Give us a development that allows better connection between the two neighbour- hoods,” many said.

They said yes.
Then those with power said no.
The Brewery District officially opened more than a year ago and new businesses continue to open there. But while we are thrilled to have another grocery store in our midst, for me the development falls short, for all the reasons I’ve just discussed. The Oliver Community League certainly welcomes all of the businesses into our community and we wish them every success.

It represents a missed opportunity. The community’s vision for this significant development was shared, and ignored. Having the community stand up and ask for more, ask for the envelope to be pushed, even ask for more density and less parking, was unique. And was ignored.

Still, while saying “Yes in my backyard” did not produce the results we were looking for, this time, that Oliver spoke of what it wanted in unison started something. Residents have become more active in shaping the change in their community. And yes, that’s exactly what OCL wants to foster in our backyard.

Lisa Brown

President, Oliver Community League

Are Injection Sites Safe?

Supervised injection sites are set to arrive downtown by the end of 2017 as the province, the city and health agencies all dig in to battle an opioid crisis that claimed 343 lives in Alberta in 2016 alone, and 80 in Edmonton in the first six months of 2017.

But are they safe? Yes, experts say— because they are safer than the alternatives.

“The main reason that we started looking into this was the health and safety of people,” said Marliss Taylor, program manager of Streetworks Needle Exchange, a roving injection-supervision service that operates primarily in the Boyle Street area. “Health and safety were our two big drivers. When people are injecting these substances outside, and it’s just poisonous out there, overdose is a huge risk factor.”

Community agencies including Streetworks and Moms Stop the Harm, along with researchers from the University of Alberta and the Edmonton Police Service, have all endorsed adopting supervised injection sites in Edmonton. But rather than a single location, as other cities have used, by the end of 2017 Edmonton will see multiple supervised injection sites within or close to downtown, including the Boyle McCauley Health Centre, Boyle Street Community Services, the George Spady Society and the Royal Alexandria Hospital (for inpatient treatment only).

Why multiple sites? Taylor said many potential users of the new sites told researchers they would only be willing to travel between four and 10 blocks to use them, meaning multiple locations were needed.

Unsurprisingly, some worry that the locations will draw people in from elsewhere—but it’s not the case, said one expert. “I know a lot of people are convinced we are going to be bombarded with people, but [research shows people will travel only] four to 10 blocks,” said Rosemary Fayant, a peer specialist at George Spacy Society. “You’re not going to go downtown, use a safe consumption site, and take a bus home— if that’s how you get around. You would do it in the comfort of your own home. But in the downtown area, there’s so much homelessness, that they don’t have that luxury.”

The locations also have other services in place, offering discretion for people wanting supervised injection. Taylor said 80 per cent of those surveyed said they were already injecting in public near the future sites as it is.

The model for Edmonton’s supervised sites is the layout of Dr. Peter Centre in Vancouver, a HIV day-health facility and 24-hour nursing care residence.

The Dr. Peter Centre and Insite, the first supervised injection site in North America, have both helped reduce the spread of HIV in Vancouver, with only 30 new cases reported last year (compared to 2,100 in 1996), as reported Insite’s website. They also state that users of the facility are 30 per cent more likely to receive treatment for addiction.

In Edmonton, the supervised injection sites will consist of three rooms: An intake, where a nurse obtains information about the person; a series of booths and a resident nurse, where the user injects; and a third room, where Taylor said, “the magic happens.”

Magic? Because the community member will be lucid and not going through withdrawal, the third room is where social workers will engage with them. If they are open to seeking treatment, Taylor said this is where trust will be built to facilitate those services.

During a presentation at DECL about the sites, Ann Galbradt, project coordinator with Access to Medically Supervised Injection Sites Edmonton, said community information nights have shown most downtown residents area are either supportive or neutral about the sites.

She said some are concerned the inner city will be bombarded with addicts, and that the risk of violence will increase.

But Taylor said a person injecting in a safe, sterile and calm environment versus in an alley, where they are scared, is comparable to enjoying drinks with friends versus having drinks at a tense family dinner. “When you’re injecting in a back alley, and you’re frightened, and it’s dark, and you’re just hoping to inject fast, you would have a very different reaction to the drug then if you are in a place where you feel safe and secure,” she said. “Our anticipation is that by the time they’re in the third room, they’ll be in a much better headspace, and the reaction to the drug will be different.”

During the meeting, Milap Petigara, DECL treasurer, said he worried the sites would give people another option to inject while also seeing them inject outside in an unsafe manner. He also expressed concern that this was further entrenching the homeless community into overburdened areas like downtown, as well as attracting traffickers who prey on addicts.

But Taylor pointed out that these people are already in the community, injecting near fences and behind dumpsters. This would allow them to inject safely to prevent skin infections, disease and death.

“That’s been the concern, we get a lot of ‘Oh my gosh, you’re going to be releasing people that are out of their minds in our neighbourhoods?’ But that’s kind of what’s already happening right now.”

Other cities in Canada have discussed safe injection sites, including:

VANCOUVER: Currently home to the only two operational supervised injection sites in Canada. Since 2010, there have been more than 1.5 million visits.

TORONTO: After nearly 200 drug-related deaths in the first half of 2016, the city received funding for three safe injection sites that will be opened within the year. Three-quarters of residents who inject drugs said they would use it.

VICTORIA: There are three proposed sites in the city after 622 reported fentanyl-related deaths in 2016. A pop up location built in late 2016 reached capacity in a matter of days.

The size of the crisis: Edmonton and fentanyl

By Kevin Pennyfeather

In the first six months of 2017, Alberta Health recorded 241 deaths caused by fentanyl overdoses — and 80 happened in Edmonton.

Elaine Hyshka is an assistant professor at the University of Alberta’s school of public health, and has devoted her career to tackling the opioid crisis. We caught up with her to chat about Edmonton and fentanyl.

Q: Is fentanyl a dominant street drug in Edmonton?
A: Yes, essentially we have a variety of opioids available on the illicit market, and the majority of them do tend to test positive for fentanyl. That implies that a lot of the opioids that are circulating right now are clandestinely manufactured and that they’re being produced with fentanyl. Sometimes they’re made to look like Oxycontin or Oxy 80 pills, or they’re these golden powders — and those powders are either identified as fentanyl or being sold as heroin.

Q: Why would substance users intentionally use fentanyl?
A: If it’s the only drug or opioid that’s the easiest to access, then people who have opioid use disorder, are going to use fentanyl because that’s all that’s available to them, or potentially all that they can afford — even though there may be knowledge that fentanyl is a risky substance.

Q: What misconceptions exist about the kind of people dying from opioid overdoses?
A: It’s pretty clear that overdose deaths are affecting people from across the socioeconomic spectrum and from all walks of life. If you look at the recent overdose report [released in August], it gives you a sense of the diversity of people who are dying. The easiest way to think about this is everybody is affected by overdoses — but if you are low income, you are particularly at risk.

Whereas before the quote was around 80 per cent are dying outside Edmonton’s core, now it’s 59 per cent. That’s significant, and I think it speaks to the need to provide overdose prevention services in the core, as well as in other parts of the city.