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Stanley Cup fever hits downtown Edmonton

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By the time this newsletter is published, the Edmonton Oilers are either one game away from winning the Stanley Cup or being eliminated.

I recently wrote about The city’s deep-rooted nostalgia In honor of the Oilers glory days and the excitement of the team reaching the Stanley Cup Final this year, I met with Amarjeet Sohi, who in 2021 becomes the city’s mayor.

Mr. Sohi has an unusually colorful background. When he returned to India from Edmonton in the late 1980s — during the Oilers’ golden age — he was imprisoned for 21 months and tortured. The Canadian government and Indian courts have argued that Mr. Sohi was arrested on bogus terrorism charges. He has worked as a taxi and bus driver, as well as serving as a member of federal parliament and a minister in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet.

We talked about the Oilers’ return to the finals, which highlighted the booming bar and restaurant industry around the team’s arena since it opened eight years ago, and the stark contrast with the rest of downtown Edmonton.

Shopping malls are largely filled with empty storefronts since two department stores recently closed. Many office buildings in Edmonton, like those around the world, are still waiting for their employees to return after the pandemic. There are also large numbers of people living on the streets, many of whom appear to have serious addictions and mental health issues.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

While you were in Ottawa, what did you find that people outside of Alberta didn’t know about Edmonton?

Well, Canada is a very, very large country, we’re very diverse, and we don’t travel as much within Canada as we need to. So people always have different views on people from different regions.

Sometimes people have a bad impression of Edmonton, thinking it’s just a small town. It’s a big city. We’re bigger than Vancouver, even though sometimes people think Vancouver is bigger than us.

People are moving into Edmonton. In the last two years, our population has grown by 10 per cent — almost 100,000 new immigrants. This is a challenge, but also an opportunity.

Will this exacerbate the housing difficulties facing much of Canada?

We remain the most affordable large city in Canada and our goal is to build 35,000 homes over three years to keep prices that way.

But we don’t have enough low-income or non-market housing. So we’re looking at freeing up more city-owned land for housing. We’re no longer collecting property taxes on projects by nonprofit affordable housing providers. And we now have a dedicated fund specifically for Indigenous housing.

What’s behind Edmonton’s homelessness problem?

Homelessness has doubled – this is the reality of the pandemic. While we are housing more people, more people are falling into homelessness.

Edmonton is a hub for health care and social services, serving a larger regional population and an expanding Alberta population. So people who are in trouble end up in Edmonton. Then they get into trouble and end up on the streets. We see a lot of that, but we also see people coming to the city for health care. If you talk to doctors, you’ll hear firsthand stories of people who become homeless after being discharged from the hospital and end up on the streets.

The second part is that most of the First Nations communities in northern Alberta are poorer and smaller than other communities. So those communities lack social infrastructure, and people are moving to Edmonton.

Third, Edmonton is the city with the most correctional facilities and prisons in Western Canada.

What needs to be done to fix it?

There are social issues that are beyond the city’s control. We can’t control the root causes of poverty, mental health issues, and homelessness. All of these are interconnected and beyond the city’s ability to address. That’s where the federal and provincial governments can play a bigger role. They’re stepping up. But I think it takes much more than interventions.

Which direction is downtown Edmonton heading in right now?

We are hosting more festivals to attract more people to the city centre. We have a special grant to encourage more people to live in the city centre and have 11 projects underway that will add nearly 2,500 new residential units once they are completed. Hockey has definitely helped to attract more people to the city centre.

Things are slowly getting better as we are able to provide more support to vulnerable populations. But we need to do more. The worst crisis we face is the drug overdose crisis.


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Ian Austin was born in Windsor, Ontario, educated in Toronto and now lives in Ottawa. He has been covering Canadian news for The New York Times for 20 years. Follow him on Bluesky @ianausten.bsky.social.


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