(May 11, 2016) It is an honour to serve as Ontario's seventh Ombudsman. But an ombudsman cannot do this work alone and this is far from a one-person operation. It takes a large organization of dedicated people, passionate about promoting fairness, transparency and accountability in the public sector.
It also takes a dedicated group of people with special skills to be able to effect positive change for the people of Ontario. I’m extremely privileged to have joined such an organization on April 1. The first month of my term has been a busy and productive one for the entire office.
This message is my way of keeping you informed about what we’re up to – it’s something I did regularly in my previous position as federal Taxpayers’ Ombudsman and you can expect regular postings from me.
Ontario Ombudsman, Paul Dubé, in his first meeting with staff.
Since January, the Ombudsman’s Office has been undergoing the most significant expansion in its 40-year history. Our Human Resources team and all directors and managers have been working flat out on the recruitment of the very specialized talent we require for the work involved in our new areas of responsibility - municipalities, universities and school boards. So far, we have staffed 17 of the 57 new positions created to handle these new jurisdictions.
In our new jurisdiction, we have received 1,255 complaints about municipalities (since January 1); 445 about school boards (since September 1); and 85 about universities (since January 1) – all while working to staff the positions we require to handle these complaints. As one observer noted, “it’s a bit like trying to change a tire on a bus that’s moving at high speed.” Nevertheless, we have been successful in attracting and hiring many talented people with an impressive combination of intelligence and experience, and we will continue to do so.
In other good HR news, our directors negotiated a new five-year collective agreement with the Canadian Office and Professional Employees union local 343, which represents our unionized staff. This contract – ratified at the end of March, just before I took office – helps ensure a stable workforce for the important work we have to do. We were also pleased to open new office space in early April – in the same building as our headquarters, 483 Bay Street – for our expanding team. We’ve optimized everything for maximum flexibility, from the technology to the furniture. Our Information Technology team has worked hard to create an environment where employees can work and move seamlessly between the two spaces.
In addition, I signed off on two reports on investigations of closed municipal meetings, conducted by our Open Meeting Law Enforcement Team (OMLET), relating to council meetings in the Township of Russell and the Municipality of The Nation. Both found instances that contravened the Municipal Act.
General Counsel, Laura Pettigrew, speaking to the Canadian Association for the Practical Study of Law in Education (CAPSLE).
Our Early Resolution team continues to demonstrate its effectiveness in getting problems solved for Ontarians quickly and at the lowest level possible and our Investigations team has resolved and investigated a wide range of complaints. For example, they helped a homeless student get approved for welfare, and they helped a man who owed no family support clear up a mistake by the Family Responsibility Office that had resulted in an unjustified writ against his property.
Addressing systemic issues is a key function of an ombudsman and it will always be a priority of mine. In my seven years as Taxpayers’ Ombudsman, I published eight special reports and an observation paper on systemic issues. As rewarding as it is to resolve individual complaints, if we looked at them in isolation we would miss the opportunity to address the root causes and prevent them from recurring. We seek to address systemic issues whenever possible, with a view to preventing future complaints.
Our Special Ombudsman Response Team (SORT) is working hard on assessments for potential new investigations and updates on others in progress. We will report on our two pending investigations as soon as possible. It is not uncommon for the entities being investigated to review their policies and procedures and implement changes during the course of an investigation. For our reports to be accurate and our recommendations to be feasible and appropriate, we often need to step back and monitor the impact of those changes before finalizing our observations, conclusions, and recommendations. Of course, with an expanded jurisdiction, we have many more areas to monitor for trends and systemic issues and that means more opportunities to be an agent of positive change.
Engaging with complainants and meeting with senior government officials to alert them to trends we observe are also key aspects of our work in identifying and correcting maladministration. On April 27, I made a submission to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services as part of its consultations on the use of solitary confinement – or segregation – in provincial correctional facilities. My submission calls for the abolition of indefinite segregation and the introduction of measures that provide alternatives to segregation and adequate review and treatment of inmate health issues. We issued a press release on this submission on May 10 and posted it in full on our website.
Our Communications team has co-ordinated several outreach initiatives in recent weeks, including our first webinars for stakeholders in the This link opens in a new tabmunicipal and This link opens in a new tabschool board sectors. I participated in these webinars on March 31, which were extremely well received – they remain on our website as a resource for viewing anytime. Communications staff have also criss-crossed the province in the past few weeks, supporting me and other representatives from our office at speaking engagements, meetings and conferences in the municipal and school board sectors. (They even livestreamed a few speeches via Periscope.) In just the past month, our office has been at events in Englehart, Ottawa, Kingston, Sault Ste. Marie, Niagara Falls, Brantford, Strathroy, Cobourg, Vaughan, Thunder Bay, Burlington, Goderich and Mississauga (not to mention Toronto) – and by the end of this week, we will add Timmins, Alliston and Windsor.
From left to right: Deputy Ombudsman Barbara Finlay, Speaker of the House Dave Levac, and Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé, at an information session with MPPs at Queen’s Park.
Members of our Executive Management Team have been busy doing many of these presentations as part of our outreach to build relationships and inform stakeholders within our new jurisdiction, as have I. On April 26, I addressed the spring meeting of the Municipal Integrity Commissioners of Ontario in Vaughan. On May 6, I spoke to the annual conference of the Ontario Small Urban Municipalities in Goderich, and on May 12 I will speak in Timmins at the annual conference of the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities.
As part of our outreach to key stakeholders,our office hosted an information session with MPPs at Queen’s Park on May 4. I was happy to meet numerous MPPs from all three parties and share some ideas on how we can help their constituents. It was also a pleasure to have some of my fellow officers of the Legislature in attendance, including Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, Environmental Commissioner Diane Saxe, and Integrity Commissioner David Wake – as well as colleagues like Human Rights Commissioner Renu Mandhane.
Finally, our Executive Management Team held a one-day strategy session on May 4 to develop a five-year plan as well as value, mission, and vision statements. This corporate planning session resulted in a well-defined road map for the next five years and a clear statement of how our goals will be achieved. We will share more details publicly soon.