Statement by the Ombudsman: COVID-19 – Message to the public

Statement by the Ombudsman: COVID-19 – Message to the public

March 23, 2020

23 March, 2020

As I write this, Ontario is in an unprecedented state of emergency, due to the global outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Millions of people are working from home and practicing “social distancing” as frontline health care workers and public sector leaders work to contain the outbreak and ensure that tests and treatment are available for those who need them.

(TORONTO – March 23, 2020) As I write this, Ontario is in an unprecedented state of emergency, due to the global outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Millions of people are working from home and practicing “social distancing” as frontline health care workers and public sector leaders work to contain the outbreak and ensure that tests and treatment are available for those who need them.

I have always said it is a privilege to the work we do, but that is especially true in this context. We public servants who are working from home during this crisis are committed to doing our best to assist those who require assistance from their government more than ever.

With our public services greatly challenged at all levels, and leaders having to make decisions swiftly, based on rapidly changing information, we all must do our part. For the Office of the Ombudsman, this means continuing to fulfil our important role in helping Ontarians and public sector officials through the crisis.

My team and I are working from home, as advised by public health authorities. As always, while we are not on the front lines or involved in political decisions, we are here to help by sharing information and identifying gaps in services and processes that result in people being treated unfairly or falling through the cracks.

While delays should be expected as all public services adapt to a new reality, we are working very hard to ensure that Ontarians continue to have access to us. The logistics are challenging but every effort is being made to be as accessible and responsive as possible.

We are receiving and responding to complaints filed online and by email. We are working proactively with the provincial and public sector bodies we oversee to flag trends and serious issues that Ontarians have raised with us.

First and foremost, we are looking out for the most vulnerable and how they are being affected by this crisis. We have received many complaints related to the provision of services during this state of emergency, and as always, we are resolving them as quickly as possible by referring people to the information they need or the officials who can help them, or by directly contacting the agency in question.

Our Children and Youth Unit is continuing to respond to phone calls from children and youth in care (as well as online complaints), and we have alerted all children’s aid societies and other child protection providers to remind them of their duty to let youth in care know we are here for them. We can hear their concerns, investigate problems, and ensure their rights are respected.

We are also in close contact with the Ministry of the Solicitor General about potential effects of COVID-19 in correctional facilities. Our staff resolve more than 5,000 complaints every year from inmates, and our experience and relationships with correctional officials are already proving valuable as the correctional system deals with this unique situation.

We are also keeping an eye on how the broader public sector bodies we oversee – municipalities, school boards and universities – are coping with this crisis, and offering guidance where possible.

For example, our municipal team, who are experts in the rules that require local councils to have open meetings, were alerted to gaps in the law that hampered municipal councils’ abilities to hold “virtual” meetings. We raised this with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, which was working on emergency legislation to address this (it passed the next day). We will review the application and effectiveness of these new rules, to ensure local governments remain transparent and accountable as they navigate this difficult time.

And from the start of this crisis, our French Language Services Unit – under the leadership of Commissioner/Deputy Ombudsman Kelly Burke – has worked proactively to ensure that Franco-Ontarians are receiving public health information in their own language, as required by law. Commissioner Burke published a statement about this and her Unit’s recent activities on March 20, the International Day of the Francophonie. As she notes, we are encouraged by the efforts of provincial authorities thus far to ensure the messages they put out are always in English and French. We will remain vigilant and engaged, however, to ensure the offer of French language services is fair and aligned with legislative expectations.

Meanwhile, our ongoing investigations, including our systemic investigation into delays at the Landlord and Tenant Board, are continuing, even as many of the relevant public servants, like us, are working from home. Our Special Ombudsman Response Team is reviewing evidence and interviewing witnesses remotely, as well as reviewing the impact of the state of emergency on this issue.

Although all of our general outreach activities have been cancelled for the foreseeable future, we are doing our best to make sure we are accessible to Ontario citizens and those who provide public services to them. To that end, we are still hiring for several open positions, including reviewing resumes and testing applicants. And of course we are maintaining our social media channels, monthly e-newsletter and website to keep you informed.

I am in regular touch with my fellow ombudsmen across Canada and around the world as we all seek insight about best practices that could benefit our citizens and public officials in weathering this storm.

As always, I encourage anyone who needs our help with the administration of Ontario public services to contact us online, and we will do our best to respond. We look forward to returning to our offices and doing so in person soon.

Paul Dubé
Ombudsman of Ontario