Amid the Stanley Cup Excitement, Edmonton’s Downtown Struggles

By the time this newsletter is published, the Edmonton Oilers will be either one game away from winning the Stanley Cup or out of the competition.

While I was in Edmonton recently to write about the city’s deeply ingrained nostalgia for the Oilers’ glory days and the excitement around the team’s trip to the Stanley Cup finals this year, I met with Amarjeet Sohi, who became the city’s mayor in 2021.

Mr. Sohi has an unusually varied background. When he returned to his native India from Edmonton in the late 1980s — the wonder time for the Oilers — he was imprisoned for 21 months and endured torture after being arrested on what the Canadian government, and ultimately an Indian court, deemed to be false terrorism allegations. He has been a taxi driver and a bus driver, a federal member of Parliament and a minister in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet.

We spoke about the Oilers’ return to the finals, which has highlighted the vibrant bar and restaurant scene that developed around the team’s arena after it opened eight years ago — and about the stark contrast with the rest of Edmonton’s downtown.

Since the last two department stores closed, the shopping malls have been largely filled with empty storefronts. Many office towers in Edmonton, like those around the world, are still awaiting a return of workers after the pandemic. And there are large numbers of people living on the streets, many of whom appear to have severe addiction and mental health struggles.

Our conversation has been edited for space and clarity.

When you were in Ottawa, what did you find that people outside Alberta don’t understand about Edmonton?

Well, Canada’s a very, very big country, we’re very diverse, and we don’t travel as much within Canada as we need to. So there’s always different perceptions of people from different parts of the country.

Sometimes people have a very bad impression of Edmonton being just a small town. It is a big city. We’re bigger than Vancouver, although people sometimes think Vancouver is bigger than us.

People are moving into Edmonton. These last two years, we have seen 10 percent population growth — that’s almost 100,000 new people. It’s a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity.

Is that adding to the housing challenges that are affecting most of Canada?

We remain the most affordable big city in Canada. We are on target to build 35,000 homes in three years to retain that affordability.

But we don’t have enough low-income, or nonmarket, housing. So we are looking at freeing up more city-owned land for housing. We no longer charge property taxes on projects by nonprofit, affordable housing providers. We also have a specific stream for Indigenous housing now.

What’s behind the homelessness problem in Edmonton?

The number of people who are experiencing homelessness has doubled — that’s the reality coming out of Covid. While we are housing more people, more and more people are falling into homelessness.

Edmonton serves a larger regional population, and the augmented Alberta population, as a health care and social services hub. So people who fall on hard times end up in Edmonton. Then they fall through the cracks, and they end up on the street. We see a lot of that happening, but we also see that people come to the city to access health care. If you talk to doctors, you will hear firsthand stories about people who don’t have a home to go to when they’re being released, and they end up on the street.

The second part is that the vast majority of the First Nations communities in northern Alberta are poorer and smaller than many other communities. So social infrastructure doesn’t exist on those communities, and people move to Edmonton.

And the third one is that Edmonton has the highest amount of correctional facilities and jails in Western Canada.

What’s needed to solve it?

There are societal issues that are beyond the control of the city. We have no control over the root causes of poverty, mental health issues and homelessness. It is all interconnected and beyond the capacity of the cities to solve. That’s where the federal and provincial governments have a bigger role to play. They are stepping up. But I think the need far exceeds the interventions.

What direction is downtown Edmonton headed in currently?

We are creating more festivals to bring more people downtown. We have created specific grant funding to encourage more people to live downtown and 11 projects that are underway, and once they’re completed, there will be close to 2,500 new residential units. Hockey definitely helps to bring more people downtown.

It is slowly getting better because we are able to provide more support to the vulnerable population. But we need to do more. The worst crisis we’re facing is the overdose crisis.

  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau once told asylum seekers that Canada would welcome them. But thousands of refugees each year are now being jailed.

  • In his obituary of Donald Sutherland, who died this week at 88, Clyde Haberman writes that the actor had a “chameleonlike ability to be endearing in one role, menacing in another and just plain odd in yet a third” that appealed to famous directors in Europe and North America. Scott Tobias selected 15 performances by Mr. Sutherland to watch, out of the nearly 200 films he made. And in her appraisal of Mr. Sutherland’s work, Alissa Wilkinson writes that he “worked constantly and, unlike some actors of his generation, never really seemed like he belonged to a single era.”

  • Two cyberattacks brought disruption to Canadian car dealers this week.

  • In their midyear list of the best songs of 2024, our pop music critics Jon Pareles and Lindsay Zoladz included releases by the Canadian artists Saya Gray and Lido Pimienta.

  • Dr. Daniel Drucker, an obesity researcher at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, was involved in the discovery of obesity drugs that also make other chronic medical conditions go away.

  • An Indian man has pleaded not guilty to charges of orchestrating a failed assassination plot against a Sikh separatist in New York, a plan that prosecutors in the United States say he devised at the behest of officials in India’s government. Evidence links the unsuccessful murder plan to the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, British Columbia, which Canada has said was done by agents of the Indian government.

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for two decades. Follow him on Bluesky at

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