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

A man prepares to move his belongings as police and cleanup crews prepare to tear down homeless encampments in Edmonton on Dec. 29. The city's practice of removing camps has sparked intense debate over Edmonton's housing crisis.  (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A man prepares to move his belongings as police and cleanup crews prepare to tear down homeless encampments in Edmonton on Dec. 29. The city's practice of removing camps has sparked intense debate over Edmonton's housing crisis. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avnish Nanda, one of the lawyers representing the coalition, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the decision.

"There's a lot of difficulty when you're trying to hold governments and powerful folks accountable, particularly for the most vulnerable and marginalized in our society," he said outside the courthouse.

Nanda said his client will spend time looking at the decision before deciding whether or not to appeal.

In a statement, the City of Edmonton said it doesn't believe litigation is the best way to find solutions to homelessness.

"As we presented to the court, our lawyers felt the coalition did not meet the legal test for standing on this matter. While we are pleased that the court agreed with this position, our response to this legal action is in no way intended to diminish the City of Edmonton's concern and dedication to ensuring the safety of our unhoused residents and the well-being of our communities," the statement said.

Edmonton Police Service also got involved in the case, after gaining intervenor status. EPS lawyer Jeffrey Westman called the coalition a "heartfelt and sincere" organization, but said Chief Dale McFee remains confident in the EPS approach to encampments.

"He wanted to show the public the very deep, meaningful, thoughtful ways that our police officers engage with vulnerable persons every day. And I think that that was done," Westman said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An officer stands at the centre of a central Edmonton encampment, the last of eight sites the city had classified as high risk and marked for removal.
An officer stands at the centre of a central Edmonton encampment, the last of eight sites the city had classified as high risk and marked for removal.

An officer stands at the centre of a central Edmonton encampment, the last of eight sites the city had classified as high risk and marked for removal. (Marc-Antoine Leblanc/Radio-Canada)

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

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

After hours of chaotic debate, council deferred its vote on the declaration and agreed to resume the meeting Tuesday afternoon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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