Edmonton mayor aims to tackle racism, social issues in 2022

·4 min read
Amarjeet Sohi thinks the city should find private sector partners to develop mainly vacant lots at Blatchford, the Exhibition Lands and the Quarters.  (Jamie McCannell - image credit)
Amarjeet Sohi thinks the city should find private sector partners to develop mainly vacant lots at Blatchford, the Exhibition Lands and the Quarters. (Jamie McCannell - image credit)

Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi has an ambitious plan to curb racism and tackle the city's social and drug issues as he looks ahead to his first full year as the city's 36th mayor.

Two weeks after the fall municipal election, council approved the city's first anti-racism strategy, which includes grants for community and cultural groups and amendments to the city's public places bylaw to ban hate symbols.

The initiative followed attacks on Muslim women in Edmonton.

"It's unacceptable in a city likes ours that someone wouldn't feel safe walking in a public place just because of their religion, and their ethnicity or what they decide to wear," Sohi said in a year-end interview with CBC News in December.

Sohi emphasized one of his priorities is to help Indigenous people dealing with systemic racism in the city.

"I think that anti-racism work directly ties in to the work of reconciliation, directly ties to work that we need to do ending houselessness and mental health and addictions issues."

Sohi said his drive to change attitudes goes back to his journey of immigrating to Canada in 1981, at 18 years old.

"I had a lot of difficult times, early days — the racism I faced in school, discrimination, or the lack of ability to communicate in English or not understanding the Canadian way of life," he said. "All those challenges, I still think of them sometimes."

Under the anti-racism strategy, grants to community and non-profit groups totalling $215,000 are divvied up among 16 groups for projects involving arts, education, workshops and sessions.

During its budget deliberations in December, council also redirected $3.75 million to community and sports groups under the Community Investment Operating Grant Program. Council redirected money from the police budget to the community initiatives.

Resetting the tone

One of Sohi's goals is to improve the city's relationship with the Alberta government.

"I have been working hard to reset our relationship with the provincial government," Sohi said.

He's met with Premier Jason Kenney and cabinet ministers for what he called "very productive conversations."

Former mayor Don Iveson sparred with the province on several issues, when the Kenney government backtracked on the city charters and municipal sustainability initiative, which both Iveson and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi had worked for years to progress.

There was also tension at various points about the province's response COVID-19 pandemic.

Safe injection sites were another issue the city and province disagreed on. Sohi was clear that he believes safe injection sites are part of the solution to the drug problems.

"Supervised harm reduction sites are integral to tackling the opioid crisis, so we had conversations with the provincial government on that."

He said it's still not clear whether the province will reinvest in more safe injection sites.

Carbon budgeting, new communities

The new council will be need to make decisions on moving ahead with fledgling residential and commercial neighbourhoods like Blatchford, and developing Exhibition Lands and the Quarters in Chinatown.

Sohi is firm that the city should look for partnerships in the private sector to build these developments, into more compact, climate resilient communities.

"I don't believe that the city alone should be developing these sites," Sohi said. "We need to have a more comprehensive, collaborative approach to it and we need to tap into private sector expertise to unlock the potential of these sites."

He said he doesn't know how fast the city can move on the sites but he wants council to prioritize the sequence of developments in the new year.

The new council will also wrap its thinking about carbon budgeting — how to lower greenhouse gas emissions over the next 30 years to meet the city's climate goals.

It means electrifying the transit system, using hydrogen to fuel city vehicles, and investing in district energy systems, Sohi said.

A former Member of Parliament under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party and a federal minister, Sohi was also an Edmonton city councillor from 2007 to 2015.

Sohi said he's reinvigorated to be back at Edmonton city hall in a non-partisan environment.

"Now being the mayor of the place that embraced me, on a personal level it's very rewarding, and I feel honoured."

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