Chief McFee's unforgivable sin

Edmonton Police Chief Dale McFee has been signalling mass decampment for months. A scheduled Christmas massacre woke up the city to his intentions.

Chief McFee's unforgivable sin
Boyle Street Community Services was closed in September after a lease agreement with Oilers Entertainment was not renewed. Two of the eight encampments targeted for eviction are 3 blocks north of this location. Photo by Jason Franson for the Toronto Star.

Decampment. Eviction. Forced displacement. Teardown. Sweep.

Call it what you want—the evidence is clear that pushing people out of their tents at any time of year increases their risk of death.

But Edmonton Police tearing down 130 tents in mid-December? Call that what it is: mass murder.

While Edmonton city council lines up to offer excuses for the City’s premeditated eviction of over 150 people from tents one week before Christmas, at least one prominent politician has failed to cover his tracks: Edmonton Police Chief Dale McFee.

Last January, we dissected a CBC Edmonton interview with McFee, in which his language around ‘open air drug use’ signalled an incoming crackdown on the city’s unhoused population. He asserted, “If you’re looking at someone with a drug problem, who’s violent, the answer isn’t going to be a house.” In one breath, McFee associates unhoused people with violence and affirms that police funding must stand in for housing, in the name of public safety.

In September, McFee joined UCP Minister of Public Safety Mike Ellis at a press conference announcing new legal measures to clamp down on “violence, social disorder and open-air drug use.”

In November, McFee spelled out his zero-tolerance plan: "It starts with saying, 'No more camping.' It's just like 'No more use of drugs in open air downtown.'"

That was one month ago. Silence from the City of Edmonton indicated its tacit approval.

There is obvious revenue to be generated by police agencies through endless encampment teardowns, searches, arrests and legal proceedings. Repeat customers are a basic tenet of business. But the profit in these crackdowns is not only harvested by Edmonton Police: several of the targeted encampments are in the near vicinity of the Ice District, developed and owned by the Katz Group.

Recall that in September, Boyle Street Community Services announced the closure of its location adjacent to Rogers Place (Oilers arena). The daytime drop-in serving local unhoused people had a longstanding lease agreement with Oilers Entertainment Group, owned by the Katz Group. The development of Rogers Place by the Katz Group from 2014-16 forced the eviction of many residents from nearby low-income residences. (A powerful depiction of this, The Lofts, is free to read online.)

Two of the encampments targeted for eviction are within a few blocks of the shuttered Boyle Street Community Services location set for development. Has a new front opened in the Katz Group’s war on the poor?

Star = Rogers Centre and Ice District; X = Boyle Street Community Centre (closed Sept 30); tents = 6 of the 8 encampments targeted for eviction this week.

There is also a pseudo-intellectual basis for the Edmonton Police policy manoeuvring: the Money in the System report.

Prepared by Calgary-based HelpSeeker Technologies, journalists Rumneek Johal and Stephen Magusiak framed the report as part of a strategy to artificially inflate perceptions of spending on social services before comparing this against spending on police. This helps police justify their budget requests to the City, a playbook that has been rolled out in cities across Canada including Ottawa, Edmonton and Vancouver. Indeed, the Edmonton Police website posting of the report asks “What effect does this have on the defund the police conversation?"

Reporting by Rumneek Johal for Press Progress described HelpSeeker as helping police justify bigger budgets and belittle social services.

According to Johal and Magusiak, “McFee and [HelpSeeker CEO Alina] Turner have another connection. Turner sits on the board of the Community Safety Knowledge Alliance, Inc, an organization that lists seven police services as its members, and of which McFee is Chair and President.” Simon Fraser professor and reliable United Conservative Party ally Dr. Julian Somers has prepared multiple commissioned reports for the CKSA, including the report that the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police used to justify its stance against decriminalization.

This cold-weather fiasco has a hot-weather precedent. Amid June’s extreme heat wave, Edmonton Police and City workers were caught evicting the same encampment twice in six days. As one resident told Progress Report, “When the city shows up they don’t offer you housing, they give you a garbage bag. All these assholes will laugh at you as you pack up your life in front of them.”

City of Edmonton staff dismantle an encampment on 105A Avenue between 96 and 97 Street on June 14, 2023. From: Progress Report.

It turns out, Chief McFee may not be sitting well with his rank-and-file officers. Reporting in The Tyee in August, veteran investigative journalist Charles Rusnell reported that a June piece in the police union newsletter written by the union’s vice-president exposed “major trust and morale issues within the EPS and deep division between the leadership and rank-and-file,” according to University of Alberta criminologist Temitope Oriola.

It’s conceivable that while McFee is feeling pressure from his officers to expand EPS resources and make them feel more supported, the City is experiencing pressure from the Katz Group to create an appealing district for development around the former Boyle Street Community Services.

Given that last winter, physicians were hollering about an unprecedented frequency of frostbite injuries among unhoused people presenting at hospital, why has it taken this long for encampment evictions to generate public backlash?

Enter the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights.

Led by justice-oriented Edmontonians including lawyers Avnish Nanda and Chris Wiebe, the Coalition launched a lawsuit in August against the City of Edmonton to ban encampment evictions while it continues to provide no housing alternatives. With this already on the front burner, the Coalition was in position when this largest-ever eviction was reported by Progress Report last week after an edict was issued to local nonprofit and service agencies by Edmonton Police.

The Coalition sprang into action to seek the emergency injunction in court late afternoon on Friday, December 15. Shortly before 5PM, the judge granted the injunction until court resumes on Monday, December 18.

This is critical, as it pre-empts the typical EPS playbook of getting an early start on scheduled evictions while the public squabbles over the ethics. Frequently in Edmonton, unhoused folks will be notified of an eviction to be conducted in a few days, only to return later that same day to find their tent in tatters and their belongings in trash bags.

If all of this elicits empathy for the folks being abused by our development-friendly systems of bureaucracy and armed land occupation, here are a few actions you can take as the Coalition’s court case resumes today:

  • Donate to the legal fund to obtain an injunction against encampment evictions
  • Express your disapproval to the Mayor and City Council
  • Request that Edmonton Police Commission end Chief McFee’s reign of terror.

Drug Data Decoded provides analysis on topics concerning the war on drugs using news sources, publicly available data sets and freedom of information submissions, from which the author draws reasonable opinions. The author is not a journalist.

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