The pandemic, politics, and Camp Pekiwewin: Don Iveson reflects on 2020 in Edmonton

EDMONTON — It’s been a year like no other for governments around the world. In Edmonton, the mayor and council have navigated soaring costs and plunging revenues brought on by the pandemic, which combined with low oil prices for a one-two punch to the city’s bottom line.

The pandemic impacted virtually every decision at City Hall in 2020. Administration declared a state of local emergency on March 20 as it prepared to lay off hundreds of employees at places like libraries and recreation centres.

“I have to be careful. I get emotional thinking about it,” said Mayor Don Iveson in a year-end interview with CTV News Edmonton. “How proud I am of the efforts of the people here at the city, and I mean our staff.”

Throughout 2020, the city has laid off staff, re-hired them, and in some cases, laid them off a second time in response to the shifting circumstances of the pandemic.

While there has not yet been a full “lockdown” in Edmonton, in the early months of 2020 the city changed dramatically. Schools, playgrounds and recreation centres were closed, transit made free, and trails and sidewalks were temporarily expanded to give people more room to pass each other.

Possibly the city’s biggest pandemic misstep came after council passed a mandatory mask bylaw that took effect August 1. The bylaw included exemptions for people with medical conditions, young children and those exercising indoors. The city created exemption cards and began handing them out at rec centres.

“Initially I think those were helpful to those who really needed them, and then they became politicized,” Iveson recalled. “People started getting them just to prove a point and to be difficult.”

READ MORE: Mask exemptions being issued for Edmonton residents

The city stopped issuing the cards after just two weeks, but not before handing out about 4,000. Interim city manager Adam Laughlin has said existing cards will be honoured.

The mayor considers it a learning experience.

“I think erring on the side of trying to help people is usually where the city falls, and in this case it didn’t work out. We learned some valuable lessons from it, but by and large Edmontonians can be trusted to do the right thing, and are doing the right thing in compliance with the masks.”

Squabbles with the provincial government were common as the pandemic progressed and the jurisdictional game of “hot potato” peaked in December as COVID-19 cases soared. Council prepared a “Pandemic Restrictions Bylaw” as it felt restrictions implemented by the province in late November were inadequate. Ultimately the bylaw was shelved, rendered redundant by stricter rules announced Dec. 8.

READ MORE: Edmonton council pausing pandemic bylaw talks given new province orders ‘meet’ same ‘imperative’

“Rest assured, the city was ready to do what was needed,” Iveson said. “Perhaps it shouldn’t have come to that.”

The pandemic also amplified the homelessness problem in Edmonton: the EXPO Centre was transformed into a shelter and isolation space for the vulnerable, although it closed August 1. The homeless responded by setting up the largest encampment Edmonton has seen in more than a decade.

At one point, more than 600 people were spending their nights at Camp Pekiwewin in Rossdale, and dozens of people set up a second camp in Old Strathcona’s Wilbert McIntyre Park. Organizers of that camp moved it a few blocks North to Light Horse Park after the city gave them an eviction deadline.

READ MORE: New homeless camp appears as Edmonton works towards a housing solution
READ MORE: Camp Pekiwewin is officially closed, homeless campers moved to shelters

Volunteers and social workers who spent time helping camp residents said the camps created a much-needed home base and sense of community for many who chose to stay in them. Ultimately they were shut down when the weather got cold.

“Edmonton is one of the only cities where we’ve been able to disband those camps without arrests and without violence,” Iveson said. Ending homelessness has been a top priority for the mayor throughout his time in office.

“The answer is not shelters, the answer is housing for everybody, and I still believe that’s possible.”

The year also brought a bit of drama to a typically cordial council as next fall’s election looms. In September, the city’s integrity commissioner, Jamie Pytel, found Coun. Mike Nickel broke council’s Code of Conduct in a handful of social media posts.

READ MORE: Coun. Nickel narrowly escapes sanction after ‘disrespectful, misleading’ posts

Nickel narrowly avoided an official reprimand. When Iveson announced he would not seek re-election, the councillor claimed Iveson was abandoning Edmonton.

“It comes as no surprise with the photo ops drying up and the money all but gone, the Mayor has announced his farewell tour,” a Nov. 23 statement from Nickel’s office reads. “I have no plans to abandon Edmonton. The people give me hope each day to continue.”

Iveson made it clear political differences with coworkers are not his priority.

“Only he can speak for his intentions and his motivations,” the mayor said of Nickel. “Really though, his actions speak for themselves, and that’s really all I have to say about it.”

Iveson is entering his final year in public office. In November, he announced he would not seek a third term as mayor in the upcoming 2021 municipal election.

READ MORE: Iveson: Not seeking re-election a ‘family decision,’ successor must have ‘good character’
READ MORE: 2021 Edmonton mayoral race heating up with four possible challengers emerging

In the meantime, he plans to make the most of the time he has left, including leading the city through the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

“There’s still lots to do, so I’m certainly not throttling back at all as your mayor.”

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