(TORONTO – August 10, 2022) Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé today reported that public concerns and complaints to the provincial watchdog have returned almost to pre-pandemic levels. His office fielded 25,161 complaints and inquiries in fiscal 2021-2022, an increase of 25% over the previous year. Most (52%) were resolved in two weeks or less.
Notably, several of the sharpest increases and top topics of complaint were in areas that weren’t part of the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction prior to 2016, when Mr. Dubé was first appointed. These include municipalities, universities, school boards, child protection services and French language services.
“The expansions of our mandate in 2016, and again in 2019, were very challenging for us as an organization. However, they did present an opportunity for us as problem solvers,” Mr. Dubé said today in releasing his report.
“We have been able to help so many more Ontarians, by using our expertise to promote transparency, fairness and accountability more widely across the public sector. We also helped public servants by either validating their work, or providing constructive feedback on how to improve their services.
Between April 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022, the COVID-19 pandemic continued to drive many cases (including complaints about public health units, which remain outside of the Ombudsman’s mandate), Mr. Dubé writes in the report. But Ombudsman staff also took on “the sort of complex administrative issues that have always been our forte – such as helping families access developmental services or social benefits,” he notes. “As always, helping vulnerable people with difficult or unfair systems was a priority.”
For example, Ombudsman staff helped prompt changes that allowed new arrivals from war-torn Ukraine to get expedited driver’s licences, and Ontarians with disabilities to renew their health cards online. They also assisted parents and business owners in accessing various types of pandemic relief.
Cases related to municipalities increased by 25% over the previous year, and were largely focused on councils, local accountability and by-law enforcement. Complaints about closed council meetings were up 103%, as municipalities continued to grapple with the logistics of keeping virtual and hybrid meetings open to the public, as required by law.
Mr. Dubé cited his office’s two latest investigation reports as further examples of helping new groups of Ontarians: In March, French Language Services Commissioner Kelly Burke reported on the impact of Laurentian University’s cuts to French-language programs during its restructuring, which left numerous students with no way to complete their studies in French. In April, Mr. Dubé reported on the sudden closure of two youth justice programs in Northern Ontario, and its impact on the affected Indigenous youth and their communities.
All of their recommendations were accepted, which Mr. Dubé attributed to his office’s longstanding investigative methods and the expertise of its new French Language Services and Children and Youth Units, established in 2019.
The “passionate and dynamic” French Language Services Unit has resolved “hundreds of cases each year in which Francophones feel that government services have not conformed to the standards prescribed by the French Language Services Act,” he writes, noting Commissioner Burke will discuss this work in more detail in her separate Annual Report later this year.
Similarly, the Children and Youth Unit is “committed to being as accessible as possible to children and youth in care” and “constantly engaged in outreach to inform young people in care about their rights, and service providers about best practices,” the Ombudsman notes. The team’s approach to engaging and addressing issues affecting Indigenous youth and other groups disproportionately represented in the child welfare system “will be key to further outreach efforts by our office as a whole,” he says.
School boards and post-secondary institutions also generated significantly more complaints and inquiries in 2021-2022 (27% and 70%, respectively), as many dealt with returning to in-person classes and other challenges.
Among provincial organizations, the top sources of complaint continued to be correctional facilities (3,691 cases) and Tribunals Ontario (1,110 cases, 964 of which were about the Landlord and Tenant Board). The Ombudsman noted that he plans to report on his major systemic investigation of delays and other issues at the Landlord and Tenant Board later this year; meanwhile, his report details how numerous individual cases as well as administrative glitches affecting hundreds of people were fixed through his staff’s intervention.
Today’s report also sheds light on a lesser-known aspect of the Ombudsman’s role – making submissions to government on regulatory and legislative changes. Mr. Dubé made six such submissions between May 2021 and May 2022, focused on promoting transparency and accountability and drawing on his office’s expertise. Among other things, he called for all municipalities and school boards to have integrity commissioners with mandatory provincewide standards; better regulatory protections for vulnerable youth (particularly regarding the use of physical restraints); and stronger oversight of inmates in segregation. “We continue to actively engage with the province on these issues,” he writes.
Mr. Dubé’s report also notes the growing international recognition of the role of the Ombudsman, including a UN resolution citing it as “essential to democracy” in 2020. “Such progress is a hopeful and fitting sign for a world that is yearning to overcome the heavy challenges of the past two years,” he writes, citing his role as North American President of the International Ombudsman Institute.
Looking ahead in fiscal 2022-2023, the Ombudsman notes that he looks forward to completing several new and pending investigations, and being able to “resume in-person outreach and building on the relationships and initiatives begun before the pandemic – in particular, our work with children and youth, our engagement with Indigenous communities, and our commitment to reconciliation.”
About the Ontario Ombudsman: The Ombudsman is an independent, impartial officer of the Ontario Legislature, established in 1975. The Office of the Ombudsman resolves and investigates public complaints about provincial government bodies, as well as child protection services, French language services, municipalities, universities and school boards. The Ombudsman does not overturn decisions of elected officials or set public policy, but makes recommendations to ensure administrative fairness, transparency and accountability. In addition to the Ombudsman’s Annual Report, the Office publishes special reports on investigations and a separate Annual Report of the French Language Services Commissioner.
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