The Coalition for Justice and Human Rights (CJHR) initiated legal action against the City of Edmonton regarding its policy of encampment removals where the city takes down the places where houseless individuals have been living during the warmer months.
“Due to the city’s policy of displacing encampments, unhoused individuals have endured severe hardships… and an elevated risk of injury, and even death from exposure to extreme weather,” said Chris Wiebe, a lawyer who acts as co-counsel for CJHR and read from a prepared statement outside of city hall.
Read the statement of claim
“Unhoused people have the same rights as anyone, which include rights to personal property and rights protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This legal action aims to protect those rights and to stop or restrict the city’s harmful encampment displacement policy.”
The lawsuit, filed Aug. 28, is not seeking damages but, instead, looking for a permanent injunction to prevent the city from continuing encampment removals and a statement saying that the people whose property has been removed had their charter rights breached.
Wiebe’s statement quoted numbers from Homeward Trust, which keeps a tally of unhoused people in the city.
As of Aug. 2023, there are 3,137 unhoused individuals in the city – 58 per cent of those identify as Indigenous. According to statistics, 1,380 of those people are not “provisionally accommodated” meaning they don’t even have temporary shelter.
Wiebe spoke about the lack of affordable housing having a particular effect on Indigenous people. He mentioned a tipi set up at city hall by a man he called “Dwight” also known as Raymond Shirt.
Earlier this year, Shirt set up a temporary tipi outside of city hall. It was a move that harkened back to something his mother, Lillian Shirt, a housing activist, had done 50 years ago.
“In 1969 a 26-year-old woman named Lillian Shirt was evicted from her apartment in Edmonton after her building changed ownership and her new landlord refused to rent to an Indigenous single mother,” Wiebe told APTN News.
Shirt later established the Alberta Native Peoples Defense fund and participated in Indigenous rights protests across the country.
Wiebe said he had talked to Lillian’s son, Raymond who is also homeless.
“He told me about how he had become homeless, and about how the community he had that depended on encampments,” said Wiebe, whose voice shook with emotion.
In July, Edmonton disbanded the encampment in which Raymond had been staying.
Bear clan response
Judith Gale, the leader for the Bear Clan Beaver Hills House and a member of CJHR was working with lawyers on the lawsuit. She said that the “continuous attacks” on encampments made this step necessary.
“It was necessary to ensure that the city of Edmonton is taking into consideration the charter rights of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters on the streets,” said Gale who also Dene Cree from Salt River First Nation.
She told APTN it’s hard for people to get out of addictions or get employment when they are constantly being removed from where they sleep and have their locations.
“Other provinces like B.C. and Ontario have been lobbied to stop infringing on the rights of our brothers and sisters,” said Gale.
In January 2023, a Superior Court in Waterloo, Ont. found that a municipal bylaw the regional government sought to use to evict a homeless encampment was an infringement on section 7 of the Charter.
“The housing crisis is just unbelievable right now…guess who is in tents right now? It is families because we don’t have any shelters for families,” said Gale.
City responds to lawsuit
“While we will not debate the legal elements of the case outside the courtroom, we will simply say that we are preparing to vigorously defend the city’s balanced approach to keeping people safe while working with our partners to seek long term solutions to ending houselessness in Edmonton,” Michelle Plouffe, legal counsel for the city told APTN.
The mayor also responded to a request for comment saying that he can’t comment on the details as the matter is before the courts.
“The City takes this issue very seriously. As we all know, Edmonton is experiencing an unprecedented level of houselessness that is beyond the capacity of the city to solve alone, and I have been calling for help from the day I took office. I and my Council colleagues will continue to work with all orders of government to address the housing crisis that many Edmontonians are facing,” said mayor Amarjeet Sohi.
Sohi also called homelessness “a symptom of underinvestments in the social sector for far too long.”
“When an encampment is removed, efforts are made to connect people to appropriate supports available in the community,” he said.