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Tribute to Canada’s ombudsman expert, Don Rowat – 1921-2008

Date: 2008-12-05

December 5, 2008 - Canada’s foremost academic expert on ombudsmen and oversight of public agencies has passed away after a long and prolific career.  Professor Donald Rowat , who taught political science at Carleton University for over 40 years, died in hospital in Ottawa on December 2.  He was 87.

“If ever there was a giant within the ombudsman profession, it was Professor Don Rowat,” said Ontario Ombudsman André Marin, who was a student of Prof. Rowat’s in the early 1980s.  “It was his work and his renowned 1965 book, The Ombudsman: Citizen’s Defender, that helped define and set the stage for ombudsman offices in this country, before any existed.”

William Angrick, Ombudsman of Iowa and president of the International Ombudsman Institute, agreed: “Prof. Rowat was a champion of the independent ombudsman.  He was indeed a giant in our community.  His intellectual contributions will be lasting.”

Prof. Rowat’s work helped popularize the role of the independent parliamentary ombudsman in Canada, and he often consulted with ombudsmen around the world.  Both Mr. Marin and Mr. Angrick praised his advise and counsel, as well as his encyclopedic knowledge about the institution and traditions of the classical ombudsman, an office first established in Sweden in 1809.

As most of Canada’s provinces established ombudsman offices during the 1970s, Prof. Rowat continued to research and promote the institution in other countries and areas outside the public sector.  He was also a strong advocate of and expert in public access to government information, and in 1997 he produced a paper for the International Ombudsman Institute called “A Worldwide Study of Ombudsmen.”

In 1999, Prof. Rowat joined Canada’s provincial ombudsmen in calling on the federal government to create a national ombudsman, and repeatedly made the case for such an office until his recent illness made writing too difficult.  In 2000 and 2001, he assisted the United States Ombudsman Association (USOA) when the American Bar Association was rewriting its ombudsman standards.  In a 2004 article in Policy Options magazine, Prof. Rowat wrote of the need for a Canadian national ombudsman:

“The fact that the provinces have been operating successful ombudsman plans for many years means that a national ombudsman would be a popular, well-tested reform whose benefits clearly outstrip its cost.  In the 1970s the provinces were world leaders in adopting this reform, which  has since spread throughout the democratic world at all levels of government.  There are now national ombudsman systems in 65 democratic countries.  It is ironic that the … federal government has been promoting the ombudsman idea in developing democracies, yet has never implemented a general scheme of its own.  In these countries,  an ombudsman is widely regarded as one of the indispensable pillars of a democratic society.”

Among Prof. Rowat’s other works are numerous books and other publications on public administration in Canada and abroad, municipal and provincial governments, freedom of information and relations between governments and universities.

“Whether in the pages of an academic journal or a local newspaper, his writings were pointed and persuasive,” said Mr. Marin.  “Thanks, Don, for enhancing our world.” 

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