Keith Gerein: Task force on Edmonton social issues raises hopes, worry

Keith Gerein: Task force on Edmonton social issues raises hopes, worry

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When it comes to the Alberta government’s announcement this week of establishing a task force to address social issues in Edmonton, I wonder if a “better late than never” and “better some than none” attitude is the best response .

On the one hand, we must remember that for years the City Council has been calling for this kind of provincial attention to the homelessness, mental health, addiction and community safety crises – much of which is primarily the responsibility of the province.

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The new task force brings together four cabinet ministers, along with city, police and health officials, to hopefully make some decisions on how to implement solutions, rather than just re-examining the problems. It is not often that such a concentration of political power is brought to bear on a single mission.

“This is about having the right people in the right place at the right time to be quick and address the issues that we’re seeing,” new local affairs minister Rebecca Schulz said at a news conference on Tuesday. “I got my colleagues in a room to ask, ‘How can we step up and meet the needs of the City of Edmonton?’ because none of us can do it alone.”

That’s a refreshing stance from the minister, considering her UCP government has previously shown little more than indifference to Edmonton’s pleas, even using social disorder at its core to disparage left-wing politics and politicians.

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Finally, the creation of the task force suggests a willingness to coordinate and prioritize, although we allow ourselves some frustration that it took an escalating crisis to achieve this.

However, there is an element of “be careful what you want” because although the provincial government is now investing more, it does not mean that it will coordinate its strategy with that of the city.

Among other things, the province still appears to be pursuing an approach of funding temporary housing rather than investing in more year-round permanent housing and adequate supportive housing. Likewise, I have not seen a commitment to minimum accommodation standards to ensure that more people feel safe and welcome enough to use these facilities.

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There are also likely to be different ideas about the use of law enforcement agencies. Plans for a “hub” to house police and health services together will raise questions, as will discussion of “involuntary treatment” for drug users who repeatedly pose a risk to themselves and/or others.

Should this latter idea go ahead, it would be highly controversial, as it essentially amounts to a form of incarceration and compulsory treatment of a disease, which, frankly, seems somewhat inconsistent for a government opposed to vaccination regulations.

However, this is premature as the province is just beginning to explore the concept. So I would suggest holding onto the fear until justified.

Given these concerns, I remain cautiously optimistic about this task force, based on the hope that when you bring together a critical mass of appropriate decision-makers to really address an issue, positive change tends to follow. (Commitment to marginalized communities must not be neglected in this process).

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A big question, however, is this “appropriate” characterization, even when it comes to the two councillors. Tim Cartell and Sarah Hamilton, who were hand-added to the task force without the approval of the council or Mayor Amarjeet Sohi.

There are a couple of ways to look at this.

It is clear from this approach that the UCP government sees no problem in bypassing Sohi and, by extension, the will of Edmonton voters. Only in the interests of respect and good governance does the province dictating who they deal with set a bad precedent.

As for the appointments of Hamilton and Cartmell, both councilors have experience with police commissions, but they also belong to the more centrist-conservative voices on the council and are therefore likely to be more amenable to provincial ideas.

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“It is clear that policies that once worked no longer work, and it is time to address the systemic changes that can take us into the 21st century,” Hamilton said in a statement about her appointment.

On the other hand, given the province’s choice to go down this route, what should Hamilton and Cartmell have done?

Accepting the invitation was not well received by colleagues and I recall that both Council members have previously denounced a ‘toxic culture of governance’ in the Council, so there is some hypocrisy at play here. Additionally, joining the task force under these circumstances may represent a test of divided loyalties.

While I suppose they could reject the answer in principle, that response might have risked having no one from the council on the task force, which would be a worse outcome.

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While it’s unclear how much they knew in advance, it appears both councilors received official invitations just a day before the announcement, at which point they took steps to update the mayor of what had happened.

Anyhow, I think both Cartmell and Hamilton can be good advocates for Edmonton’s interests and will represent the Council’s positions fairly.

With that in mind, it’s important to note that Homeward Trust CEO Susan McGee, who knows Edmonton’s approaches intimately, has also been appointed to the task force, and I hope City Manager Andre Corbould will accept his invitation to join as well .

Success on this file will require compromises and collaboration that have been sorely missed in recent years. Let’s hope this task force, while overdue and flawed, finally has the right ingredients to really make a difference on a perplexing problem.

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