In accordance with the guidance of public health authorities and the provincial government, the office locations of Ombudsman Ontario have been closed since March 16. Despite this, my staff and I continue to work from home during the provincial state of emergency and remain available to assist the people of Ontario.
During this period of pandemic and social distancing that has disrupted our lives so much, I want the people of Ontario to know that my team is working diligently to ensure that we remain accessible and able to help them as much as possible.
Our Executive Management Team (EMT) meets by conference call every morning to review the latest developments and public health news, share updates on the progress of work being performed by each section of our office, find solutions to the challenges they face, and engage in issues management and problem solving with the public and key stakeholders.
Although the workload and challenges have increased considerably, I am immensely proud of the concern and dedication my entire team has exhibited these past weeks for the people we serve, and their commitment to doing what it takes to continue to assist citizens and inform government during these trying times.
Almost all of our staff (more than 100) are equipped with the necessary technology to enable them to work remotely in a technologically secure and effective manner. Our Information Technology team has done an incredible job of keeping us connected and operational while ensuring security of our data and the confidentiality of complainants’ files. We have activated teleconferencing lines to enhance communication among teams and with stakeholders, as well as video conferencing tools that have enhanced internal collaboration and will facilitate interviews for recruitment and investigations.
We continue to receive complaints in all areas of our jurisdiction through our website and by email. While working from home over the past few weeks, we have received some 800 new cases, including more than 300 related to the COVID-19 pandemic alone.
Complaints are being received and responded to according to our normal processes, with the most urgent ones triaged for quick response. Although response times in some cases may be slower because the officials with whom we regularly interact are also working remotely, we are achieving critical results.
One of my main preoccupations since the pandemic was declared has been how to remain accessible to the most vulnerable citizens in our province.
Children and youth in care or custody, for example, may not have online access. Our Children and Youth Unit staff have cell phones and can be reached while working remotely. Young people in care or custody can leave a message at 1-800-263-2841 or 416-325-5669 – all calls are being reviewed. In the past few weeks, the Unit has handled almost 100 new cases. We are also in regular contact with youth justice facilities regarding the effect of this situation on youth in custody, and officials there are responding to our inquiries promptly. The Children and Youth Unit also continues to monitor and follow up on reports of death or serious bodily harm related to young people involved in the child welfare system.
I have serious concerns about the potential impact of coronavirus on correctional facilities, so we have also arranged to set up special phone lines to enable inmates to reach us. This was essential, because their normal points of contact with us – our toll-free phone line and mail-in forms provided through jails – aren’t accessible during the present shutdown. (We typically receive thousands of complaints from inmates – 5,711 in 2018-2019).
Several of our Investigators have been issued cellphones so that, beginning next week, inmates can call them during designated hours. Correctional facilities will post these new numbers near the phones used by inmates. This constructive solution is the result of ongoing efforts between our Office, the Ministry of the Solicitor General and senior officials in correctional facilities to keep abreast of the serious risks that coronavirus poses to inmates and correctional staff.
In the meantime, we have responded to several complaints from family members concerned about loved ones who are in correctional facilities. The Ministry has been forthcoming with us in providing its plans and safety protocols to deal with the pandemic, and we have been able to provide some of this information to reassure many of those who came to us with concerns.
We continue to help Ontarians resolve complaints quickly and effectively, as we do with thousands of cases every year. (Of 27,419 cases in 2018-2019, 62% were resolved within two weeks). Our staff have used their expertise in navigating bureaucracy to help people sort through the rapidly changing and sometimes confusing information about public services during this time.
For example, a woman whose job has been deemed an essential service during the pandemic sought our help when her driver’s licence was suspended due to a medical matter and she was temporarily unable to get to work. Our staff were able to facilitate the reinstatement of her licence within a few days.
We reassured one woman whose driver’s licence expired while she was self-quarantining, by pointing her to information about the Ministry of Transportation extending all driver’s licences due to expire after March 1. And we eased the concerns of a man who couldn’t pay his property taxes while in quarantine, by confirming with its municipality that it planned to waive late tax payment penalties.
As well, we are assessing several complaints from the public and frontline staff that relate to COVID-19 health and safety protocols in a number of provincial and broader public sector bodies. The Directors of our Investigations, Legal Services, Children and Youth and French Language Services teams hold regular teleconferences with senior officials in several ministries to bring issues to their attention, learn about their pandemic planning measures, and share information about complaint trends.
We continue to investigate complaints about closed municipal meetings, and engaged with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing regarding municipal councils holding virtual meetings during this emergency, to ensure the requirements for open meetings are balanced with public safety.
Our systemic investigations into Landlord and Tenant Board delays and the province’s handling of ambulance service complaints continue, and reports will be issued upon completion. Timelines for these will be determined by the ability of the organizations in question to provide the necessary evidence and, once the investigations are complete, to respond to our findings. In dealing with these organizations, we make it clear that while we understand the pressures and challenges they are facing during this time, this does not prevent us from fulfilling our oversight responsibilities.
The French Language Services Commissioner and her Unit remain vigilant and engaged to ensure that, among other things, government communications during this crisis are provided in French as well as English. For example, the Commissioner recently wrote to the Premier to underscore the heightened importance of government messages being communicated in French as well as in English during this crisis. In his response to the Commissioner, the Premier committed to ensuring all information about COVID-19 is available in both languages, that Telehealth service is available in French, and that ministers speak French where possible at news briefings. He wrote: “As you noted, Francophones in Ontario have the right to receive communications services in French, equivalent to those offered in English. This is even more critical at this time of crisis.”
We are also continuing to build the French Language Services Unit, the Children and Youth Unit, and our Early Resolutions team. We are actively recruiting Early Resolution Officers and Investigators through our online hiring portal, and interviews and tests are being conducted via videoconference. Our Human Resources and Administration team is working steadily to find the right people to place in the right positions.
It goes without saying that during a state of emergency, timely and effective communications become more important than ever. Our Communications team has been busier than ever, helping keep stakeholders informed and aware, in both English and French.
I want the citizens of Ontario to know that the Ombudsman’s Office is here for you and working hard to respond to your needs. Furthermore, with the knowledge gained during this exceptional time, we are – and will continue to be – uniquely positioned to inform the government about the impact of its administrative actions and assist it in optimizing its responses.
As always, it is a privilege to lead such a professional and passionate team that is playing a key role during this crisis, and remains more committed than ever to serve the people and institutions of Ontario.
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.
As we close 2019 and look ahead to a new decade, it’s a fitting time to reflect on the recent historic changes to the Ombudsman’s Office, and to discuss our priorities for 2020.
In 2019, Ombudsman oversight was extended for the first time in Ontario’s history to child welfare and French language services. In adding these areas to our mandate, we have worked to combine our proven Ombudsman techniques of complaint resolution and investigation with the expertise of the staff who joined our team from the former offices of the Child Advocate and French Language Services Commissioner.
Across all units, we seek to promote fairness, transparency and excellent customer service – not only in the public sector bodies we oversee, but in our own work as well.
Over the past year, in both these new areas and in our work with provincial government bodies, municipalities, universities and school boards, we have also been able to ensure the rights of vulnerable people were respected, and their voices heard. The people we helped were struggling with administrative problems in all types of organizations, whether they were young people in care, Indigenous and transgender inmates in correctional facilities, families seeking help with developmental services for loved ones, or French-speaking Ontarians seeking public services in their language.
We also promoted democratic principles of transparency and accountability at the local level in more than a dozen investigations of municipal closed meetings, an in-depth investigation of a deeply unfair process for hiring a chief administrator in Niagara Region, and a review of a controversial school closure in North Bay. And we did all this while dealing with a 30% surge in complaints in fiscal 2018-2019 over the previous year.
It has a been a challenge, but also an enormous privilege, to lead this Office at such a key time – and to have the opportunity to extend Ombudsman services to areas where we may not yet be well known. In the coming year, as we continue to share stories about the improvements that our work has prompted in a wide spectrum of public services, our goal is to help Ontarians in even more communities and walks of life, including in Northern and Indigenous communities.
As I noted in my Annual Report in June, I have made it a priority to reach out to Indigenous leaders and community members in an effort to assess the relationship between provincial institutions and Indigenous people and determine what role my Office can play in reconciliation. We will continue seeking input and dialogue in 2020. In the past two months, I had the opportunity to speak to the Indigenous Child and Family Well-Being Conference on Rama First Nation, as well as to meet Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler in Thunder Bay. I look forward to learning more through future discussions as my Office develops our Indigenous Action Plan.
We will continue to focus on helping Ontarians who have nowhere else to turn, who need our expertise in rooting out systemic problems in government administration, navigating complex and unfair bureaucracies, and making public services work better.
Of course, none of this can happen without the hard work of our passionate and committed staff. I am endlessly grateful for and inspired by the drive and the passion of our team, particularly after such an eventful year.
On that note, I also want to recognize the work of one key member of that team, Gareth Jones, the founding director of our Special Ombudsman Response Team, which has led all of our systemic investigations since 2005 – who is retiring in January 2020. Gareth’s extensive experience in investigations and dealing with bureaucracy helped this Office gain its international reputation for excellence. His knowledge, strategic thinking, and leadership style earned him the respect and credibility he enjoys with our team and around the world. We will launch a search soon to fill his sizable gumshoes.
Last but certainly not least, I know there is much public interest in our recruitment of a new French Language Services Commissioner, who will lead our French Language Services Unit and promote the linguistic rights of franco-Ontarians. Our process is very nearly complete, and I look forward to announcing the new Commissioner’s appointment in January.
The end of the calendar year is a fitting time for our office to review its accomplishments and impacts on governance in Ontario, and to look forward to the tremendous opportunities and challenges that we will take on in the near future.
There is no doubt that 2019 is shaping up to be one of the busiest and most challenging years in our office’s history.
We are entering a brand new era of oversight with the changes announced in the government’s fall economic statement, which will extend our oversight to children’s aid societies and French-language services by May 1 at the latest (the exact date has not yet been proclaimed). We are committed to devoting the office’s 43 years of experience to these new areas. What’s more, the addition of staff from the offices of the Child Advocate and French Language Services Commissioner, who bring extensive knowledge and expertise in these fields, will become an integral part of our office, enhancing the vitality of our organization and injecting new talent and energy into our work.
As we broaden our scope, Ontarians in all areas we oversee can expect the same rigour for which our office is known in impartial investigations, confidential complaint resolutions, and recommendations for positive changes in the public sector.
To get a sense of these results, and some of the other work we’ve done in the past year, you can read my 2017-2018 Annual Report (the 2018-2019 version will be out this coming June). But I would like to recap some of the highlights here, as well as some of our office’s more recent achievements.
Of note is the efficient and effective way we handled over 21,000 complaints and enquiries, resolving 63% within two weeks.
Our Special Ombudsman Response Team (SORT) has also been working diligently this year, in multiple levels of government.
In an event that caught the attention of media around the province, a journalist was ejected from a municipal council meeting and had his laptop seized by the Regional Municipality of Niagara in December 2017. Our investigation and July report, "Press Pause", found that the region’s actions were unreasonable, unjust, wrong and contrary to law – and a significant violation of journalistic rights and freedoms. The region apologized and made changes, following my recommendations.
We’re also investigating matters related to the hiring of the region’s Chief Administrative Officer, so keep an eye out in 2019 for that (and sign up for our newsletter to be the first to know about any investigation developments).
Our investigations of closed municipal meetings also continue in the context of an amended law with new exceptions, and our new online search tool for those decisions is due to be unveiled in late January.
At the provincial level, in September I released "Suspended State", my report on how the Ministry of Transportation notifies drivers about licence suspensions and reinstatements, and provided 42 recommendations to help ensure drivers are aware that their licences can be suspended for non-payment of fines.
In one case detailed in the report, a woman was unknowingly using a licence that had been suspended for four years, which ended up costing her hundreds of dollars in reinstatement fees – as well as time off work – as she had to repeat the graduated licence system meant for novice drivers. I recommended several changes to improve how the Ministry tracks its notices and allows drivers to check their licence status. I also recommended that Ministry staff have discretion to waive the graduated licencing requirements in some circumstances.
The Ministry agreed to my recommendations and has started to implement them. We will update the public on their progress in our next Annual Report. Meanwhile, SORT is wrapping up our investigation (announced in spring 2018) into how the province deals with ambulance service complaints. Watch for our report in 2019.
Another major provincial issue we tackled this year stemmed from a national change: The legalization of cannabis across Canada on October 17. Within about a week of legalization, we began receiving complaints about issues with the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) – and within a month, we received more than 2,300 complaints about delayed deliveries, poor customer service, and billing problems.
This was an excellent opportunity for our staff to put their early resolution skills into action. As we do with many persistent provincial issues, we established regular contact with senior staff at the OCS and flagged complaint trends to them. They in turn reported back to us regularly on what they were doing to resolve the issues we identified. Complaints have dropped significantly as the OCS has addressed these matters, but we continue to monitor complaints and emerging trends. You can read our initial press release about the OCS on our website.
This resolution approach is similar to that we use for complaints about correctional facilities. Throughout the past year, senior staff and I have visited correctional facilities across the province as part of our ongoing efforts to resolve complaints and systemic issues at the frontline level whenever possible. Correctional facilities are the top source of complaints to our office (more than 5,000 in fiscal 2017-2018), but our staff work efficiently with them to ensure urgent matters of health and safety are flagged, and potential systemic problems are dealt with before they grow. One example of a systemic issue in this area is the monitoring of inmates in segregation (solitary confinement), which sparked my investigation and April 2017 report, "Out of Oversight, Out of Mind". The Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services has continued to report back to me this past year on its progress in implementing my recommendations to reform the use of segregation.
A review of the year would not be complete without noting the broad reach, impact and reputation that the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman has around the world. Not only is the expertise of our office sought out by similar oversight bodies throughout Ontario and Canada, we also help train watchdogs across the globe. Outreach and engagement with other ombudsman offices makes us better at what we do and enhances our ability to serve Ontarians. As we do every year, we hosted our “Sharpening Your Teeth” course for some 80 ombudsmen and administrative watchdogs in Toronto in November, and conducted similar training (always on a full cost-recovery basis) in Manitoba, Alaska, Australia and the Netherlands.
We also had the honour of hosting the annual International Ombudsman Institute board meeting in May, to mark the 40th anniversary of that organization’s founding in Canada. The productive discussions on best practices and issues of importance in our field included ombudsmen from the U.S., Asia, Europe and Africa.
In the interest of sharing valuable learning experiences, our office invited several other oversight bodies to participate in a course on complaint management in Toronto, delivered by a trainer from Australia’s New South Wales Ombudsman. In November, I was invited to Australia for an investigations symposium, where I spoke about our work in helping to improve services for people with developmental disabilities; and was featured in The Mandarin, an online news source for public sector leaders.
As I reflect on the past year and the new year to come, I know there are significant challenges ahead, but also even greater opportunities to enhance public sector governance, and I look forward to doing it with our strong and growing team.
As this summer draws nearer to a conclusion, I am taking stock of what has been a very busy and eventful few months.
In June, we published our latest Annual Report, which illustrates our work on so many vital issues and highlights the assistance we have provided to people and public sector bodies across Ontario.
In July, my report on our investigation of events at a December 2017 meeting of Niagara regional council received considerable attention, and I am pleased that the recommendations therein are being acted upon.
While we kept an intentionally low profile during the recent provincial election campaign, we continued our work of helping people navigate bureaucracy and working with the administrative branch of government to help officials optimize transparency, accountability, and fairness.
With roughly 1,000 public sector bodies within our jurisdiction, the scope of our work is vast. Yet there is one common issue I see running through all aspects of our jurisdiction, and that is the prevalence of issues related to mental health. For instance, our office regularly hears from families struggling to access mental health supports for loved ones.
Whether at the local or provincial level, we continue to see significant numbers of people struggling to access the supports and services they require. The result is a tremendous strain on individuals, families, educators, employers, health care professionals, the police, and correctional services, to name just the most obvious.
In addition to helping hundreds of families and individuals address gaps in mental health services, we have also dealt with the impact of these gaps on first responders and correctional officers. In our systemic investigations, we have long recognized the need for additional training and resources for first responders – front-line police and correctional officers – in order to deal effectively with the challenges they face in this regard.
This past February, during hearings on Bill 175 (which was later passed into law as the Safer Ontario Act), I made a submission flagging gaps in the proposed legislation and stressing the need to recognize the government’s commitment – made in response to my 2016 report, "A Matter of Life and Death" – to train and require police to use de-escalation techniques when dealing with persons who have a mental illness or are otherwise in crisis. I also noted the need to for a legislative commitment to create a new use-of-force model that would help enforce and standardize de-escalation techniques across the province. (Read the full submission, "Oversight Enhanced").
The event that sparked that investigation and report was the death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim, who was alone on a Toronto streetcar, in crisis and holding a small knife, when he was shot and killed by police in July 2013. My report, which reviewed dozens of similar cases dating back 20 years – and several more such deaths that occurred after 2013 - made 22 recommendations, and all were accepted by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. Their efforts to implement them are ongoing – for instance, as noted in our Annual Report, some changes to the Ontario Police College curriculum are expected to be in place soon.
Improvements also continue to be made to address the treatment of inmates who have mental health issues and other challenges, in the wake of my April 2017 report, "Out of Oversight, Out of Mind", which focused on the province’s use of segregation (solitary confinement) in its correctional facilities. Among the systemic challenges our investigation uncovered is that many inmates who are held in segregation have mental health issues (which are often brought on or exacerbated by such conditions), and correctional officers often more appropriate options for housing them, as well as training to deal with their symptoms.
Mental health issues also present serious challenges for many of the individuals and families who come to us for help in accessing support and services for those with “dual diagnosis” - mental health issues in addition to developmental disabilities – is so common.
It has been two years since we released our report "Nowhere To Turn", which revealed that some individuals were ending up in long-term care homes, homeless shelters and even jail because their families were unable to find appropriate care or placements for them. The Ministry of Community and Social Services accepted all 60 of my recommendations; it has already implemented many of them and continues to work on the balance and report to us on its progress. When we receive complaints from people who have ongoing issues in this area (almost 300 have come in since the release of our report), our staff respond on an urgent, individual basis, working to connect people with appropriate help in the system, which can be particularly challenging in cases of dual diagnosis.
For example, one mother sought our help after waiting years for a community residential placement for her adult son, who has a developmental disability, schizophrenia, and difficult behaviour, and had been living in a hospital psychiatric ward since 2010. Our inquiries revealed the Ministry was aware of the case, but had failed to include the man in its residential funding plan. After our intervention, a residential placement was found for him in a local community living home with special supports.
We continue to monitor and meet with Ministry officials on a regular basis to assist with individual cases and ensure the implementation of the rest of the report’s recommendations. Among other things, the Ministry has been developing communication tools to enhance awareness of developmental disabilities and dual diagnosis among justice sector staff and first responders.
The Office of the Ombudsman of Ontario is uniquely positioned to be able to spot systemic problems and issues amongst the more than 20,000 complaints we receive every year from Ontarians about their public sector bodies. We are committed to continuing to work with these bodies to help address service gaps and flag brewing problems, to monitor their progress as they make improvements, and to provide input on new pieces of legislation.
 Ombudsman AR 2017-2018 – page 30.
While we may not have been making many headlines the past few months, it has been a busy winter for our office!
As we will demonstrate in our Annual Report, which we plan to release at the end of June, our work promoting transparency, accountability, and fairness never stops - even if much of it goes on without publicity or fanfare. From our referrals and helping citizens navigate bureaucracy, to submissions and consultations on policy development, to large-scale systemic investigations, we play a crucial role in driving positive change and enhancing governance all around the province.
We have surpassed 9,200 complaints about municipalities, universities and school boards since we began overseeing those sectors, in addition to thousands of provincial cases. Scores of complex files – especially those including challenging provincial, municipal, and educational issues - have been handled in a professional and collaborative manner by our staff, and most are resolved efficiently through referral or early resolution. Our municipal open meeting investigations continue to provide the opportunity to promote transparency while building relationships with stakeholders, and later this year we will be launching a digital Digest of these cases.
Our submissions and recommendations to improve policing and corrections were reflected in new legislation that will protect human rights and potentially save lives. In our submission to the committee reviewing Bill 175, the Safer Ontario Act, we flagged gaps in the new policing legislation, warning that they could undermine strong civilian oversight of police. In early March, the bill received royal assent, taking some of our recommendations into account. When the new legislation is fully in force, our office will have the power to take complaints about the three police oversight bodies in Ontario. The new legislation also reflects a recommendation in my 2016 report, “A Matter of Life and Death”, to require police have training to de-escalate conflict situations.
New legislation aimed at reforming the province’s correctional services was also introduced recently. The Correctional Services Transformation Act proposes that segregation be strictly limited to no more than 15 days and defined as any type of custody where an inmate is isolated for more than 22 hours a day. I am encouraged by this bill, as I recommended both of these changes in my 2017 report, “Out of Oversight, Out of Mind”, after our investigation into the tracking and reviewing of segregation placements.
Our Special Ombudsman Response Team has also been hard at work investigating how the Ministry of Transportation communicates licence suspensions and reinstatements to drivers who were suspended for unpaid fines. Another investigation, into an incident at a Niagara council meeting when a journalist and a citizen blogger were reportedly asked to leave the premises and had their property seized, is wrapping up. Keep an eye out for updates on these investigations as we’ll be sharing developments regularly through our Newsletter and in our Annual Report in late June.
And our team has been busy representing our office all across the province. You may have seen our staff at the Rural Ontario Municipal Association conference, the Ontario University Registrars’ Association annual conference, community and career fairs, and even a drainage convention. We also recently provided customized Sharpening Your Teeth courses to the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne and the French Language Services Commissioner, and have similar plans later this year for groups in Canada and abroad. The spring will continue to be packed full of engagements as we work to reach as many people as we can, and in turn, impact the lives of Ontarians in a positive way.
We have also met with officials at a number of the province’s correctional facilities, including the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, the Ontario Correctional Institute and the Toronto South Detention Centre. These observational visits provide us with an opportunity to see the infrastructure, living spaces and conditions of confinement firsthand, and meet with stakeholders. Most complaints we receive about correctional facilities are quickly resolved, but our staff flag urgent matters of health and safety, meet quarterly with senior officials to discuss complaint trends, and monitor potential systemic problems.
In the midst of all this activity and growth, maintaining consistent communication with and providing information to the public and stakeholders is an important task. To that end, we have created new municipal tip cards, which are already helping inform council members and citizens about municipal best practices, local complaint processes and more. We are also working on new brochures and other informational materials. These are all available on our website to download, or you can contact us to request your own copies.
To stay up to date with our office during these busy times, subscribe to our Newsletter, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook and LinkedIn, and check our website for regular updates.
Welcome to our new home on the web! We are delighted to be revealing our brand-new website to the public today. After months of work, this new site offers a much-improved experience for people learning about our work or looking to make a complaint. Our goal was to make it more accessible, responsive across devices, and much simpler and easier to navigate. We hope you enjoy it. In the spirit of openness and accountability, we also hope you reach out to us directly if you notice any glitches, like broken links or missing pages. Let us know and we would be happy to look into it.
This fall has been productive. In early November, a new package of policing legislation was tabled by government. We were encouraged by the government’s proposals to ensure consistent police training and standards across the province, and the legislation is a welcome response to numerous recommendations our office has made to improve the oversight and accountability of policing. In particular, the proposed police oversight changes will extend Ombudsman jurisdiction to all three revamped oversight bodies, as I recommended in my submission to Justice Michael Tulloch’s review last fall. As well, they reflect my recommendation that these bodies collect demographic information regarding incidents between civilians and police. My office will review the legislation closely and will make further submissions during the legislative process to assist in its development as warranted.
Our Special Ombudsman Response Team has also been working diligently on our investigation into how the Ministry of Transportation monitors and communicates with drivers whose licences are cancelled or suspended, including how it co-ordinates with ServiceOntario. The field work has been completed, and the preliminary report is being drafted as we speak, after which it will go to the Ministry of Transportation for comment.
Our team has been criss-crossing the province to represent our office at outreach events. We appreciate these opportunities, because they give us a chance to speak directly with stakeholders and the public, and explain more about how we work and how we can help. For example, our staff attended the Parents Engaged in Education Dream Big! event in Markham in October (watch for our piece in their December newsletter); answered questions at the Developmental Services Ontario fair in Toronto; spoke to participants at the Older Adult Centres’ Association of Ontario fair in Mississauga; and provided information to municipal officials at the Ontario East Municipalities Conference in Kingston and the Francophone Municipalities of Ontario conference in The Nation.
We spent time with international oversight offices, too. We provided our investigative training course, Sharpening Your Teeth (SYT), to oversight agencies in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and I spoke at the Forum of Canadian Ombudsman’s Essentials for Ombuds professional developmental course in Toronto. I also had the chance to share expertise with police oversight professionals at the National Association of Civilian Oversight in Law Enforcement conference in Spokane, WA and fellow ombudsmen at the United States Ombudsman Association Conference in San Antonio, TX. We also presented our annual SYT course in Toronto, welcoming 80 watchdogs from across Canada and around the world, including the Bermuda and Botswana ombudsmen. And, I was pleased to meet with the Netherlands Ombudsman at our office to share best practices and discuss common challenges.
Meanwhile, our team has been busy with investigations of closed municipal meetings. Since I joined the office in April 2016, we’ve reported on 47 such investigations, making scores of recommendations to improve municipal governance. To that end, we are also working on a brand-new digital digest of these cases. The Open Meetings Digest will be a fully searchable, easy-to-use database of the hundreds of decisions we have made in closed meeting investigations since 2008. This will be the first digest of its kind in Ontario, and we hope to have it ready for launch in the coming months. We anticipate it will become a much-perused resource for municipal councils and anyone interested in this area of municipal law, or open meetings in general – especially as new changes to the open meeting requirements in the Municipal Act come into effect in the new year.
As we head into December, watch for our top 10 moments of 2017, which will be released in a few short weeks at the end of the year. And don’t forget to stay up to date by following us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and signing up for our newsletter.
It’s hard to believe summer is already more than half over, with the return to school almost upon us.
With that in mind, we released the report on our first school board investigation just last week. “The Route of the Problem” examined the Toronto District and Toronto Catholic District school boards’ oversight of student busing, and their response to delays and disruptions at the start of the 2016-2017 school year.
As you might recall, early in the 2016 school year, we began to receive complaints about Toronto families experiencing chronic busing delays, and parents who were scrambling to get their children to school when their buses didn’t show up at all.
We launched an investigation and what we found was troubling. The Toronto Student Transportation Group, which organizes busing for the two boards, was aware of the potential for service delivery issues in the weeks leading up to the first day of school. However, it failed to heed the early warning signs that dozens of bus routes had no drivers.
And then, when the crisis materialized, both the boards and the Transportation Group were wholly unprepared to deal with the disruption – there was no contingency plan in place to ensure student safety and supervision, and communication with parents, school administrators, and students about the ongoing problems was dismal.
My investigation looked at 127 complaints, many from families who were hard hit by the busing disruption. For example, several young children with special needs went missing for hours after being dropped off at the wrong stops. A mother lost her job because her daughter’s school bus was repeatedly late and she couldn’t get to work on time.
Our investigators reviewed emails and documents that revealed officials were aware of potential problems dating back to early 2016, after a new transportation service contract was signed and a new method was implemented for assigning routes. By August 2016, numerous routes had been repeatedly revised, leaving some operators and drivers unable or unwilling to cover them.
On September 1 – five days before the start of school – an email from the top transportation official warned both boards that “significant service delivery issues” should be expected, and one Catholic board official told a senior colleague: “You need to let everyone know.” Yet neither board sent formal written notification to parents until September 8 and 9.
In my report, I made 42 recommendations, all of which have been accepted by the boards and the consortium. In a letter, the boards’ transportation governance committee pledges to “ensure that the startup for this coming September is less disruptive and is well communicated.” Among other things, an online portal has been launched to keep parents informed about bus delays, and a professional call centre has been engaged to handle inquiries and complaints.
The boards will report back to my Office on their progress on other improvements – such as a planned “where’s my bus” app targeted for September 2018 – in response to my recommendations.
In other news this summer, you’ve likely already seen my Office’s 2016-2017 annual report, which was released on June 27. This was the first-ever annual report covering our new jurisdiction (which now includes municipalities, universities, and school boards). It provided detailed explanations about our office and our work, as well as about the 21,318 complaints we received last year. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, take a look at the 2016-2017 annual report.
I was asked by a journalist why we think it’s important to publish an annual report. Well, other than the fact that it’s a legislative requirement under the Ombudsman Act, it’s a crucial tool for effecting positive change.
Our Office is funded by taxpayers. As I said in a column in the Toronto Sun in July, our annual report not only educates and informs them of how we can be of assistance, it is also our accounting to the public about how we dedicate our resources and the outcomes we achieve.
Without our annual report, many problems we uncover would never see the light of day – and government organizations would be far less motivated to address them.
Once we get involved, we work proactively with an organization (often quietly, behind the scenes) to find solutions. If we can’t resolve the issue, we’ll investigate and use our credible and effective voice, and our moral suasion, to fix the problem.
So our annual report is not simply a recounting of our year – it’s a tool for us to be transparent, to hold organizations to account, and to report on the good work we’ve done. It also encourages people to come to us with similar issues, such as a problem they didn’t realize we could fix.
So please take a few minutes to read our annual report, and pass it along to someone who might find it useful.
In the meantime, as summer draws to a close, we’ll be spending a few days at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference in Ottawa. We've also created new tip cards for municipalities, including for closing meetings and creating complaint processes, which we debuted at the AMO conference.
Then we'll start a busy fall of outreach engagements, speeches, presentations, and our annual investigative training course, Sharpening Your Teeth. Keep up with us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and we’ll see you next time!
As the first anniversary of my appointment as Ombudsman approaches, I think it is an appropriate time to take stock of what the Office accomplished in the past year. It has been a year that saw not only the arrival of a new Ombudsman, but new areas of jurisdiction for our oversight of the Ontario public sector – effectively doubling our mandate to include municipalities, universities and school boards.
As many of you know, the first step I took as Ombudsman was to oversee the development of Value, Mission, and Vision statements which defined what we stand for as an organization and what we are striving to achieve. With this milestone achieved, we are now working to finalize three- and five-year plans.
In the twelve months since my appointment, we went on to complete three complex systemic investigations and issue the resulting reports. In Nowhere to Turn, we made 60 recommendations calling for better supports and services for adults with developmental disabilities. In A Matter of Life and Death, we pointed to the need for better police training to deal with people in crisis and made 22 recommendations to address the problems we found. All 82 of our recommendations have been accepted and we are following up on their implementation.
We also recently completed our investigation into non-competitive procurement practices at the City of Brampton. While our investigation revealed no wrongdoing or maladministration, in Procuring Progress we took the opportunity to propose some best practices that would optimize accountability and transparency in Brampton’s procurement processes. I was also pleased to see Mayor Linda Jeffrey tweet that she supports one of my principal suggestions to appoint an Auditor General to improve financial processes in the city. This is a recommendation we feel is relevant to municipalities across the province, and would encourage them to consider taking this step.
I support the @Ont_Ombudsman recommendation for an independent Auditor General in #Brampton. Read my release here: https://t.co/CtGrqFpPbg
— Linda Jeffrey (@LindaJeffrey) March 6, 2017
I support the @Ont_Ombudsman recommendation for an independent Auditor General in #Brampton. Read my release here: https://t.co/CtGrqFpPbg
In addition to our systemic reports, we made credible and authoritative submissions to the provincial government and its advisors, calling for an end to indefinite segregation in prisons and enhancements in police oversight that will give members of the public greater confidence in their safety and security.
And of course, we published our Annual Report in a new format which highlighted the great work our staff accomplished in all our areas of jurisdiction. We shared many of the compelling stories we dealt with over the course of the year and explained how we add value by helping get problems resolved as efficiently – and at the lowest level – as possible.
These accomplishments were realized despite the fact that we have still not reached our full staffing complement. The intensive work of recruiting and training new staff members is ongoing and continues to inject new energy into an already dynamic team. On another staffing note, it has also been a year since a new five-year collective agreement with unionized staff was ratified and implemented, just before I was sworn in.
Needless to say, our accomplishments over the past year have been the result of an incredible team effort. With the expansion to our oversight, and the need to grow our office, have come new challenges for everyone, from recruitment and training in new areas of jurisdiction, to building new relationships internally and externally. I am grateful for the energy and passion everyone in the office has devoted to the tasks at hand.
While we’re only halfway through the month, we’ve already been busy and have much more to come. We’ve planned many speaking engagements at which stakeholders want to hear updates on our recommendations as well as what we’re doing to improve the lives of Ontarians.
Earlier this month, many of our staff had the chance to take in a presentation from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, Dianne Saxe, about her recent report, Facing Climate Change. It was a sobering wake-up call on the state of our environment and how our action - or inaction - affects the future of each and every person in Ontario. The state of our environment is an important issue and we thank Commissioner Saxe for taking the time to educate us. I am committed to doing what we can to help her educate Ontarians about environmental issues.
Ombudsman staff have been active in the recruitment community as well, attending university legal career days to attract the best and brightest as we look to continue growing our office. Over the past few weeks, our staff have taken part in career fairs at This link opens in a new tabQueen’s University, the This link opens in a new tabUniversity of Windsor, and the University of Ottawa, providing information about our office and about the kinds of creative and analytical minds we hope to hire. We’ll be at the University of Western Ontario’s Career Day on March 23, so please stop by and say hello.
Later this month, I’ll be sharing updates on the recommendations we made in Nowhere to Turn at a conference hosted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health at the launch of a new service to help adults with developmental disabilities transition into the community. Our senior staff will also be speaking at CUPE’s Social Service Workers Coordinating Committee conference on the same topic. These are significant opportunities to discuss our recommendations and our hope for improving supports in the developmental services sector, including the importance of breaking down barriers to support, and helping people access the care they need.
In early April, our staff will be at the National Business Improvement Area Association conference in Toronto, discussing the issues we’ve dealt with in municipalities and with local BIAs, and we have conferences and outreach engagements lined up right through to the end of the summer and beyond.
We need to continue to drive positive change and demonstrate our value to the people of Ontario. As an office that promotes accountability and administrative fairness, it is our duty to ensure we are achieving this in a constructive manner. We’ll continue developing and nurturing relationships with stakeholders, who are paramount to our success as an impartial oversight body. As I continue to hear from stakeholders across the public sector, collaboration is the best way to maximize progress. With the talented and energetic team we have, I am confident we will do just that.
To all those enjoying a well-deserved March Break, I wish you a safe and enjoyable time with your family and friends.
With the New Year well underway, we have hit a significant new milestone in our Office. We have now received more than 5,000 complaints related to our expanded oversight of municipalities, universities, and school boards. More than 90% of these cases have been closed.
The volume of complaints and the newness of these areas of jurisdiction underscore the need for continuous outreach and relationship building with stakeholders in order to get problems solved and influence positive change. In a typical month, representatives from our Office may be speaking to groups about policing, prisons, universities, school boards, municipalities, or any of the other 1,000 government or public sector bodies we oversee. February was no exception, as I was busy attending events with different stakeholder groups and building collaborative, productive relationships.
I was honoured to have been invited to speak at the Badge of Life Canada conference “Surviving Trauma and Building Resilience in the Workplace” in Toronto, where I met several first responders and some of the health care professionals dedicated to providing them support in dealing with occupational stress injuries. The contacts I made and the conversations I had at this event provided me a greater insight into how police officers, firefighters, paramedics, correctional officers, and even border agents are exposed to trauma and suffer occupational stress injuries as a result. I was grateful for the opportunity to speak about our role in mental health and policing, and more specifically about two of our Office’s systemic investigations related to policing in Ontario. Our 2012 report In the Line of Duty looked at how the OPP and the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services addressed operational stress injuries affecting police officers. One of our most recent reports, A Matter of Life and Death, released this past June, looked at the direction provided to police by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services for de-escalating conflict situations. In both reports, we made recommendations spurring government change to training and education programs to improve services for active and/or retired Ontario police officers.
Earlier this month, I spoke to the Ontario Principals’ Council. This is an important stakeholder group in our new school board jurisdiction, and I was happy to provide attendees with an overview of the role and mandate of our Office and an update on complaint trends since our jurisdiction expanded to include school boards on September 1, 2015. There were excellent questions from participants about complaints related to special education, and about how we refer complainants to other oversight bodies, where appropriate. You can watch the video of my speech in full below. I also gave a presentation to the executive heads of the Council of Ontario Universities, explaining that the Ontario Ombudsman is an office of last resort and that we encourage all universities to bolster or put in place their own ombudsman or other complaint resolution office.
Ombudsman staff also recently attended the Rural Ontario Municipal Association annual conference in Toronto, where staff spoke to hundreds of municipal delegates about everything from how we resolve most municipal complaints informally to the role of local integrity commissioners. General Counsel Laura Pettigrew gave two sessions to participants about the role of the Ontario Ombudsman in handling municipal complaints and the importance of local complaint processes and policies. Her presentation offered some useful tips for municipalities when creating or reinforcing complaint procedures.
I also recently sat down with the Integrity Commissioner J. David Wake and his staff for a lunch and learn. We had a great discussion about best practices for handling complaints efficiently and effectively and the types of issues our respective offices encounter on a regular basis.
Our first systemic investigation into a municipality has been completed and our findings on the non-competitive procurement practices of the City of Brampton will be submitted later this month. We also continue to make progress on our systemic investigation into segregation practices in the province of Ontario - stay tuned for updates on this file in the coming weeks.
Looking to the month ahead, Ombudsman staff will be visiting law schools across the province to attend career day events. We are always on the look out for new talent to join our team, and information about different career opportunities can be found on our website.
Since Christmas, I have been taking advantage of a planned - but nonetheless welcome - lull in my travel obligations to sit in on the meetings of our Office’s various teams and become familiar with more of the casework being done at the operational level, and the issues being dealt with early in the resolution and investigation processes. I continue to be truly impressed with the level of intelligence, collaboration and teamwork in our office. These meetings are conducted in a supportive and collegial manner and in a democratic fashion with everyone having the opportunity to share their knowledge and concerns. What comes through in these discussions is the passion of our staff for fairness, accountability, and transparency as well as a commitment to drive positive change. In all my professional life, I have never seen such an inspiring group of people coming together in such a positive way.
I will end this message with another observation. If there is one theme that I am seeing run through all of our jurisdictions, it is the prevalence of mental health issues and their impact on our society. From policing and corrections, to municipalities and provincial departments, to social services and education – we see families, educators, employers, and civil servants facing the challenges posed by serving and supporting our fellow citizens with mental illness. That point was underscored by Dr. Catherine Zahn, President and CEO of Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health this month at an event hosted by the Empire Club. While there is more awareness and somewhat less stigma since we have moved from an institutional model to a community-based approach, people with mental illness and developmental disabilities still wage a constant battle for health care and their human rights. We must continue to work towards breaking down barriers and do more to help these people access care and support.
To stay up to date with our office, subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, and check our website for regular updates.
As we head into 2017, I would like to wish everyone a happy New Year. I hope that this year brings you health and fulfillment in everything you do.
At the end of December, we posted a retrospective summary of our top 10 stories of the year, such as our two systemic reports, our annual report, and our expanded mandate. January 2017 also marks the one-year anniversary of our jurisdiction over municipalities and universities.
As busy and productive as the past year has been for our Office, we are looking forward to 2017 with much anticipation. This is the time of year when we set goals and establish priorities. Over the next few months, staff at our Office will continue with our regular external activities – such as outreach events, community and stakeholder fairs and conferences, and presentations to various groups – but our Office will also be focusing on internal projects.
To kick off the year, my team and I will be examining our Office’s efficiency with a view to improving our effectiveness. We’ll be reviewing many of our policies and procedures and updating them as necessary, as we continue to build appropriate and productive relationships with stakeholders. We will also look at ways to work more proactively with stakeholders in municipalities, universities and school boards, to develop best practice materials and continue to provide them with feedback on complaint trends and recurring issues.
We currently have three systemic investigations in progress. We launched our first formal municipal investigation, into the city of Brampton’s non-competitive procurement practices. Two other Special Ombudsman Response Team (S.O.R.T.) investigations are also underway – our first school board investigation, into the Toronto District School Board and Toronto Catholic District School Board’s busing issues, and an investigation into how the province of Ontario tracks and reviews the placement of inmates in solitary confinement. As our team brings these investigations to completion, we will continue assessing trends and prioritizing which issues to investigate next.
For our stakeholders and the public, we’ll be developing new and updated resources and communications products to support and complement our outreach and education initiatives, and better explain our processes and procedures. Explaining what we do and how we do it is a crucial element of our work with stakeholders. You can access our current resources – like brochures, posters, and videos – on our Resources page.
While the year is just getting started, I already have several meetings scheduled with various stakeholders and groups, including the public sector bodies we oversee. These meetings, along with the information resources and communications products we provide, help our office build and foster the relationships that enhance our effectiveness as an agent of positive change.
Later this month, members of our staff will be attending the 2017 Rural Ontario Municipal Association Annual Conference to speak about the importance of complaint policies for municipalities. We’ll also discuss best practices for creating local complaint processes, and how municipalities can work together with our Office and with other accountability officers. I am pleased to see the co-operation we are receiving from so many municipalities that understand the value we can add to their efforts to optimize transparency and accountability.
I also have the opportunity to make several presentations in early February. I’ll be speaking at the Badge of Life Canada conference about our office’s role in spurring government change to help Ontario police officers in dealing with PTSD, and our recommendations to provide police with better de-escalation training for crisis situations. That same week, I’ll be presenting to the Ontario Principals’ Council at its annual general meeting, and then to the Council of Ontario Universities. The aim of these talks is to share how we work with these stakeholder groups to resolve issues.
I am also looking forward to continued, productive partnerships with ombudsman offices from across the country and around the world – especially those with expanding jurisdictions – as we develop standards and collaborate on best practices.
Of course, a key component to our plans for the upcoming year is the continued expansion of our team with the recruitment of passionate and talented individuals who will enable us to tackle more issues and solve more problems for the people of Ontario. Take a look at this video – it shows some of the work we do. If our work sounds like something that would interest you, consult our current postings for career opportunities with our office.
Finally, I saw an excellent example earlier this month of the value for organizations in embracing complaints as a valuable source of feedback. In an exemplary response to a service complaint, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk acknowledged the complaint, admitted the problem, and took action to resolve the problem immediately. Mr. Musk had received a complaint from a Tesla owner on Twitter that some Tesla car owners were leaving their already-charged electric vehicles in the specialized charging docks for several hours, denying other Tesla owners access to the chargers. Seeing an opportunity, Mr. Musk responded to the man on Twitter and just six days later, Tesla introduced a fleet-wide update that would charge users an idle fee for unnecessarily occupying a charger. You can read the entire article.
What Elon Musk has shown us, and what our office believes as well, is that complaints drive positive change. As Bill Gates once said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” Customer complaints are an organization's best source of feedback and information upon which to correct problems and build improvements. They should be embraced.
There are many ways to stay informed about the goings-on at our office. Subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, and check our website for regular updates.
December is upon us, and with that, the end of 2016. I can hardly believe that it has been nine months since I took office in April – time really does fly when you are busy and loving what you do.
I see every day how busy everyone else in the office is as well. The dedication of management and staff to our Mission and Vision – and the passion with which everyone devotes themselves – is profoundly impressive and heartening. I am extremely proud of the team that we have and the work that we do.
We definitely could not have received and resolved thousands of complaints and requests for assistance, published two reports on significant systemic investigations and have all 82 recommendations accepted, produced two well-received submissions on segregation and police oversight, issued our Annual Report, conducted dozens of outreach events, launched new systemic investigations, held hundreds of meetings with stakeholders (all while recruiting and training the new talent we require to enhance our capacity to affect positive change) without tremendous efforts from everyone.
With the historic expansion of our mandate to municipalities, universities and school boards now in full effect, we’ve greatly increased our outreach activities to continue building meaningful, productive relationships with stakeholders. Many of us have been travelling frequently to engage and inform stakeholders and share the work that we’ve been undertaking. Wherever I go, I am constantly reminded of the strong reputation that the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman has within Ontario, across Canada, and throughout the international watchdog community.
For example, at last month’s 11th World Conference of the International Ombudsman Institute (IOI) in Bangkok, where I was invited to speak about our new jurisdiction, I had the chance to meet with fellow ombudsmen from Africa, Europe, Asia and the Caribbean to discuss issues surrounding multiple and expanding jurisdictions of ombudsman as well as share best practices. In the elections for a new IOI Board of Directors, I was honoured to be acclaimed as the new regional president for North America. I was also invited to meet with Japan’s ombudsman, known there as the Administrative Evaluation Bureau, in Tokyo, and to discuss best practices and common challenges we face in the oversight world.
Here at home, our office welcomed representatives from the parliament and national ombudsman of Georgia, with whom we discussed our role as a provincial oversight body and how we work to achieve positive change for stakeholders.
I announced earlier this month that we have launched a formal investigation into segregation and solitary confinement processes in Ontario jails. This comes after our submission to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services in May calling for the abolishment of indefinite segregation. We have a couple of systemic investigations near completion and have several other important issues in the hopper for consideration.
I was pleased to have the opportunity to speak recently with the Deputy Ministers’ Council - the top managers of every provincial ministry – about how our work in investigating and resolving public complaints helps improve governance. As I noted in the presentation: “It’s essential that we build trust and credibility with all stakeholders. If stakeholders on all sides understand that the Ombudsman will act fairly, we can come up with the most effective solutions to administrative problems.” Outreach and relationship building is essential to our work and will continue to be a priority for our office.
Among our many outreach events this month were the Ontario West Municipal Conference, where members of our staff addressed attendees and also had a booth to engage with stakeholders, the Annual General meeting of the Ontario Municipal Management Institute, and a committee of the Ontario Association of School Business Officials.
Outreach and speaking engagements afford valuable opportunities to explain our processes and findings, but also to hear from stakeholders and get input and information from them firsthand. For example, on Dec. 8, I was the keynote speaker at a human rights forum organized by the Ottawa Police, where I discussed our report, "A Matter of Life and Death", and our recommendations to improve police training for de-escalating conflict situations. We had plenty of great feedback and engagement from attendees ranging from police officers, to human rights advocates, to local politicians and students. And last week, I was invited to visit the Ontario Police College (OPC) and meet with the director and management team. This was an opportunity to observe de-escalation training firsthand and learn about how our recommendations have already led to changes in the OPC program. I also discussed police oversight issues with Ontario’s Independent Police Review Director, Gerry McNeilly, at a meeting in Toronto.
In the spirit of the holiday season, our annual staff potluck lunch raised $800 for the United Way – congratulations to all involved on a successful and enjoyable event. To all readers of this message, I wish you and your families a safe and happy holiday, and a healthy and satisfying 2017. I look forward to sharing more with you in this space in the coming months.
November has been an exciting month at our Office, with the release of our 2015-2016 Annual Report on November 2—our first annual report since our mandate expanded to include municipalities, universities, and school boards. If you missed the release, you can watch the video of the press conference on our website or read the full report.
Our Annual Report reviews the work of our Office over the last year – including dealing with more than 22,000 complaints - and provides updates on recent and ongoing systemic investigations. The report also outlines our role, mission and processes, and, for the first time, categorizes significant cases and trends by topic. We’ve also highlighted individual cases that our team was able to help resolve.
Our investigation into busing problems that both the Toronto District School Board and Toronto Catholic District School Board have been experiencing is progressing. Since the beginning of the school year, we have received more than 100 complaints relating to busing, and more than 1,000 complaints about school boards in total since September 1, 2015. As with all of our Special Ombudsman Response Team (SORT) investigations, we will be examining the matter in-depth, gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses and reviewing documents. Read more about our investigation process.
Our team has attended several meetings and outreach events in the past few weeks. In early November, Deputy Ombudsman Barbara Finlay welcomed the Ohio Legislative Fellows to our office and explained the role and function of the Ontario Ombudsman.
We’ve also had opportunities to share the findings of our most recent systemic investigation, "Nowhere to Turn", about the Ministry of Community and Social Services’ response to situations of crisis involving adults with developmental disabilities. General Counsel Laura Pettigrew and SORT Investigator William Cutbush spoke at the CUPE Developmental Services leadership meeting in late October and Mr. Cutbush also met with Opportunities Mississauga for 21 Plus.
And just this past weekend, Ombudsman staff spoke at the People for Education Annual Conference on the first year of our oversight of school boards.
I was honoured to have been invited to participate in the 11th World Conference of the International Ombudsman Institute, where I spoke about the recent expansion of our Office’s jurisdiction and shared our tips and best practices for planning and executing the expansion of an Ombudsman’s jurisdiction. It was a pleasure to connect with colleagues from around the world and share our knowledge and expertise in this area.
Here at home, I gave a presentation to the Forum of Canadian Ombudsman’s Corrections Course in Ottawa on November 7 on our recommendations for improving segregation practices in the province of Ontario, including our recommendation to abolish indefinite segregation. You can read our submission to the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, entitled "Segregation: Not an Isolated Problem".
Though the holiday season is fast approaching, things are by no means slowing down at our Office. We have several outreach events planned in the upcoming weeks, including the Ontario West Municipal Conference in London, the Ontario Municipal Management Institute conference in Toronto, and meetings with various stakeholder groups around the province.
There are many ways to stay informed about the goings-on at our office. Subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, and check our website for regular updates.
A lot is happening at our Office these days as we continue to be busy and productive. Following the release of two important systemic reports in June and August (all of our 82 recommendations were accepted), we are now preparing for the release of our Annual Report on November 2. You will be able to catch the live webcast on the main page of our website at 2 p.m. – so mark your calendar!
Yesterday, I also made public my submission to the Independent Police Oversight Review, led by the Hon. Michael Tulloch, as well as attended the public Ottawa consultation on October 26. As I noted in my submission, “Our civilian oversight bodies represent critical checks and balances in our democracy, and public trust depends on their effectiveness.” I made 16 recommendations, including calling for all three of Ontario’s police oversight bodies – the Special Investigations Unit, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, and the Ontario Civilian Police Commission – to be included in my mandate, as well as municipal police services boards. At present, the only one of these bodies within my jurisdiction is the SIU, which investigates cases where police are involved in incidents of serious injury or death. To leanr more, read the submission.
We were also pleased to hold our sold-out annual investigative training course, “Sharpening Your Teeth” in Toronto earlier this week. This course is targeted to investigators, ombudsmen and other professional watchdogs, with a focus on advanced investigative techniques. We were honoured and excited to have participants come from as far as Tonga, Ukraine, Antigua and Barbuda, and Nebraska, as well as from across Canada. We were also delighted to have two special guest speakers again this year – New Brunswick Ombudsman Charles Murray, who discussed the challenges and value of independent oversight, and Premier Kathleen Wynne, who emphasized the importance of open government.
On September 26, I announced a systemic investigation into ongoing busing problems that both the Toronto District School Board and Toronto Catholic District School Board have been experiencing. I spoke with Global News’ Focus Ontario about the matter. Since the beginning of the school year, we have received more than 50 complaints relating to busing, and 970 complaints about school boards in total since September 1, 2015.
As with all of our Special Ombudsman Response Team (SORT) investigations, we will be examining the matter in-depth, gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses and reviewing documents. You can read more about our investigation process.
Our team has attended several municipal events in the past few weeks. I was invited to speak to 40 member municipalities at the Francophone Association of Municipalities of Ontario’s annual conference in Hearst on September 22. Our staff also spoke at the Rural Mayors’ Forum of Eastern Ontario in McNab, Ontario and we’ll be meeting with the Municipal Integrity Commissioners of Ontario at the end of the month. Deputy Ombudsman Barbara Finlay met with representatives from 23 municipalities in the Parry Sound area on September 30, and General Counsel Laura Pettigrew presented at the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario’s Municipal Information, Access and Privacy Forum on October 14.
Ms. Pettigrew also spoke to the ARCH Disability Law Centre and People First about our recent report on services for adults with developmental disabilities who are in crisis, "Nowhere to Turn". They were happy to hear more about the report and recommendations and we encouraged them to reach out to us with any additional complaints.
I have recently had opportunities to share expertise with colleagues in the oversight field, as well. I visited Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I made a presentation to police oversight officials from across North America at the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement’s Annual Conference< about the report on police de-escalation techniques, which was very well received. I also discussed de-escalation with civilian heads of oversight of law enforcement in Ottawa during a meeting organized by the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP. And, I attended the United States Ombudsman Association annual conference in Arlington, Virginia, in mid-October - a valuable opportunity to share knowledge and expertise with ombudsmen from across North America.
Here at home, I met with my fellow Officers of the Legislature at the new offices of my colleague François Boileau, the French Language Services Commissioner. It was an excellent opportunity to discuss best practices and how we serve Ontarians. And I met with the City of Toronto’s accountability officers - the Ombudsman, Auditor General, Lobbyist Registrar and Integrity Commissioner - and discussed some of our common challenges.
And finally, it was my pleasure to join our Office’s Run for the Cure team, the Ombudsman Watchdogs on October 2 – the team’s ninth year participating in the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation’s fundraising event.
There are many ways to stay informed about the goings-on at our office. Subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, and check our website for regular updates.
With the start of the new school year, school board issues are top of mind in our office.
Our office recently marked the one-year anniversary of our oversight of the province’s 82 school boards, which came into effect on September 1, 2015. We received more than 700 complaints about school boards in the first year of our expanded mandate, most of which were resolved through early resolution or referral. Topics ranged from special education, to bullying, to busing, to school staff. We have not yet launched a single formal investigation into a school board issue.
Last week, we also announced that our office is assessing problems with the busing of students in the Toronto District School Board and the Toronto Catholic District School Board to determine whether or not a systemic investigation is warranted. This comes after media reports and complaints from parents who experienced significant delays waiting for their children to be picked up or dropped off, or had no bus show up at all. Our staff will look into what happened, what plans the school boards had in place, and what was done to inform parents prior to deciding if we want to conduct a formal investigation.
Our latest report, "Nowhere to Turn", was released on August 24th. The report covers our investigation of more than 1,400 complaints from families of adults with developmental disabilities who are in crisis situations, including being abandoned, abused, unnecessarily hospitalized and jailed. In "Nowhere to Turn", I made 60 recommendations highlighting an urgent need for greater supports, services, and more rigorous monitoring, all of which were accepted by the Minister of Community and Social Services. You can watch my press conference and the Minister’s response on our website. The Minister has agreed to report back to my Office at six-month intervals.
Our report highlighted 18 individual cases that were especially egregious. One woman was moved more than 20 times in 34 days because there were no residential placements available. Another man spent 12 years in a psychiatric hospital before a placement was created for him.
Since the report was released, the Ministry of Community and Social Services has implified the application process for young people with developmental disabilities and their families applying for the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and Special Services at Home (SSAH) funding.
We continue to publish regular reports on closed municipal meetings. All Ontario municipal councils, boards and committees are required by law to hold open meetings, with a few exceptions, and the public can complain to our Office or another appointed investigator if they feel a meeting has been improperly closed. Our Open Meeting Law Enforcement Team (OMLET) investigates such complaints in all municipalities except those that have appointed their own closed meeting investigators.
In the Township of Woolwich, OMLET found no evidence that a closed meeting on an upcoming delegation had a quorum of the committee behind closed doors, or laid the groundwork for a decision on the delegation.
We investigated two complaints about the Township of Leeds and the Thousand Islands. We found that council violated the opening meeting requirements of the Municipal Act when it discussed a zoning by-law application over email, and recommended that council cease its practice of discussing council business using emails or any other electronic format. As I noted in my report, this is the third time our Office has cautioned the township that they shouldn’t hold meetings over email. While I understand council’s desire to be open and transparent in its public communications and to embrace modern technology, council must do so within the current legislated requirements of the Municipal Act.
In another case in the same township, we found an April 18, 2016 meeting to discuss reassignment of the Chief Administrative Officer’s duties fit within the exception for personal matters about an identifiable individual, but advised that council’s resolution to proceed in camera should provide more information about the subjects to be discussed in closed session.
My staff and I have also attended outreach events like the Ontario Municipal Tax and Revenue Association’s fall conference in Minett and the Ontario East Municipal Conference in Kingston. As always, it is a pleasure to meet with municipal stakeholders from across the province and answer questions about our expanded oversight of municipalities. I also hosted the Ontario Legislature Internship Programme interns at our office and explained our mandate and oversight role.
Of course, to continue our work on provincial oversight and fulfill our new mandates with respect to municipalities, school boards, and universities, we need to grow our team. We are committed to maintaining the standards of excellence for which we are recognized and are continuing to recruit exceptional new team members. As a sign of gratitude for the great work being done across the office, the Executive Management Team recently picked up the tab for a social evening for staff, which was well attended and enjoyed by all.
Looking ahead to the coming months, we’ll be releasing our 2015-2016 Annual Report, and hosting our annual advanced investigative training, Sharpening Your Teeth, in late October.
My staff and I will continue to attend various outreach events across the province, including attending both the Association française des municipalités de l'Ontario in Hearst and the Municipal Finance Officer’s Association of Ontario conference in Niagara Falls next week.
Enjoy the start of the fall season!
The upcoming school year brings with it an important milestone: September 1 marks one year since our office first began taking complaints about school boards.
And it’s been a busy year. Under our new mandate, we’ve helped resolve issues about school bullying, suspensions and expulsions, special education, safety and security, and bussing, among many other things – more than 700 complaints since September 1, 2015. The majority of those complaints were resolved through early resolution or referral.
In one situation, we intervened when things reached a standstill between the mother of a boy on the autism spectrum and his school board. The boy refused to return to school after an incident when police were called. The mother suggested home schooling, but the board insisted the boy stay in school. We helped the school board work with the mother to develop a home schooling plan.
We share case resolutions from our various areas of jurisdiction every month in our newsletter – sign up for The Watchdog newsletter. We’ll also be providing an update on our oversight of school boards (as well as of municipalities and universities, which began in January 2016) in our Annual Report, to be published this fall.
As I noted last month, we’re releasing a much-anticipated report in late August. The report on our investigation into the province’s services for adults with developmental disabilities in crisis will be released on August 24, 2016. We’ve had more than 1,400 complaints about this issue, and our staff have resolved scores of these urgent individual cases, while reviewing and assessing numerous significant changes in government policy, funding and services in this area. You can watch the press conference live on our website at 11 a.m. on August 24.
Our recently released report, "A Matter of Life and Death", recommended government overhaul the police training program to ensure police are better trained on de-escalation techniques. The government committed to implementing my 22 recommendations on the day the report was released in late June. However, since then, a tragic case has unfolded in Ottawa – the case of Adbirahman Abdi, who died after being arrested by Ottawa police. This event, and others like it, underscore the need for significant reform in police training. The use of force model needs to be rethought, and police need more non-lethal options for dealing with people in crisis. I spoke to several media outlets about my call for improved training. Watch and read CBC’s The National, Global News, CBC Ottawa, and the Globe and Mail.
We continue to publish regular reports on closed municipal meetings. Our Open Meeting Law Enforcement Team (OMLET) investigates such complaints in all municipalities except those that have appointed their own investigators.
OMLET determined a March 7, 2016 meeting of the City of Brockville's OPP Contact Adhoc Committee to discuss the OPP costing process fit within the "education and training" exception to the Municipal Act's open meeting requirements, but a vote to direct staff to approach an audit firm to assess the proposal violated the Act because it advanced committee business.
In Hamilton, we found a closed meeting by the city's Election Compliance Audit Committee on July 15, 2015 was illegal, because the committee falls within the Municipal Act’s definition of a “local board” and is subject to the Act’s open meeting requirements. Notice of the meeting was not provided, no procedure was followed to close the meeting to the public, and the topic of discussion did not fall within any of the Act’s exceptions to the open meeting rules.
We found that Oshawa city council violated the Municipal Act when it met in camera with the Oshawa Power and Utilities Corporation to obtain information about a proposed merger of utility companies. Noting that the meeting did not fall within the “education and training” exception, or any exception, to the Act’s open meeting requirements, I made recommendations to improve the city's open meeting practices.
Finally, we received a complaint that the board of directors for the Walkerton Business Improvement Area discussed matters that did not fall within the exceptions in the Municipal Act, 2001 during a meeting on June 8, 2016. We found that the discussion fit within the exception for litigation or potential litigationand the meeting was closed properly.
My staff and I have also been busy attending outreach events – like the Canadian Bar Association conference in Ottawa and at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference in Windsor in mid-August. Our Office had a booth at both events, and our staff met with and answered questions from dozens of attendees. As I noted on Twitter, the AMO conference was especially productive and engaging. It was a pleasure to meet many municipal stakeholders, and I plan to attend the annual conference in the future to stay informed of issues faced by municipalities.
Next, I’ll be in Ottawa on August 18 to speak to the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (watch our website for my speech!), as well as meet with stakeholders.
We’re ramping up for a busy fall. Our 2015-2016 Annual Report is in progress, and we’ll be at various outreach events across the province (including at the Ontario East Municipal Conference in Kingston and the Association française des municipalités de l'Ontario in Hearst). Come say hi and grab an Ombudsman pen, a pin or a pocket Ombudsman Act if you’re in the area!
Enjoy the rest of your summer!
Despite the heat of July in Toronto, things haven’t slowed down at the Ombudsman’s Office.
On June 29, we released our report “A Matter of Life and Death”, an investigation into the direction the province provides to police for de-escalating conflict situations. I made 22 recommendations calling on the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services to save lives by requiring police across the province to use de-escalation techniques in conflict situations before resorting to lethal force – all of which were immediately accepted.
This investigation was launched in the wake of the streetcar shooting death of Sammy Yatim by a police officer in Toronto in 2013. Since then, my Special Ombudsman Response Team received 176 complaints and submissions, conducted 95 interviews and reviewed thousands of pages of documentation to put together this comprehensive report.
What we found was shocking, but hardly surprising. We learned about crisis after crisis, tragedy after tragedy; innocent people armed with scissors, small hammers, or even table legs, who were shot and killed by police. Just during the course of our investigation, 19 more people were shot dead by police. In many cases, these were vulnerable people in crisis.
We have expressed very clearly that this report is not critical of police in Ontario. It is, however, critical of the inadequate training they receive on how to de-escalate conflict situations involving people in crisis. The report recognizes that front-line police officers regularly have to deal with such difficult and potentially dangerous situations. The point of the report is that they need better de-escalation skills and more non-lethal tactics to draw upon to reduce the likelihood of a deadly outcome.
As I said in my report, “Ontario officers have plenty of training on how to use their guns, but not enough on how to use their mouths.”
In the report, I recommended updating the legislation, guidelines and model for training police in the use of force, bolstering de-escalation training at all levels, and ensuring consistent and updated training across the province. I gave the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services a timeline – one year – to implement my 22 urgent recommendations.
After my press conference on June 29, the Minister immediately announced he had accepted all of my recommendations and my one-year timeline. I was encouraged to see this commitment to improving police training and will be monitoring the Ministry’s progress over the next year. This is truly a matter of life and death.
We have another systemic investigation report nearing completion – the report about our investigation into services for adults with developmental disabilities in crisis. I sent my findings to the Ministry of Community and Social Services on May 24. The report is in its final stages and we plan to release it on August 24. (You'll be able to watch it live on our website at 11 a.m.) In this case, changes to government policies and programs during the course of the investigation required our investigators to review and assess their impact on the issues at hand. We updated our findings to reflect these developments, and pursued dialogue and consultation with the Ministry to give it a chance to respond to our updated findings and conclusions.
Earlier this month, I attended the annual meeting of the Canadian Council of Parliamentary Ombudsman, this year hosted in Whitehorse by the Yukon Ombudsman and Information and Privacy Commissioner, Diane McLeod-McKay. It was an important opportunity to meet with my fellow provincial and territorial ombudsmen and discuss common issues and challenges. These meetings are an excellent way to share best practices, learn from the experience and work of other Ombuds, and promote consistency in our approaches. It was also valuable to consult with my colleagues about oversight of the broader public sector – namely, municipalities, universities, and school boards. Several provincial ombuds already have oversight of municipalities, although it is a new role for my Office and for my colleague in Saskatchewan, and it may be introduced as part of the Alberta Ombudsman’s jurisdiction in the coming months.
Participants at stakeholder conference organized by Canada's Public Policy Forum, February 25, 2016. From left to right: Rick O’Connor, City Clerk and Solicitor, City of Ottawa; Darren Gilmour, Vice-President, Public Policy Forum; Charles Murray, Ombudsman of New Brunswick; Laura Pettigrew, Ombudsman General Counsel; Wendy Ray, Ombudsman General Counsel; Raymonde Saint-Germain, La protectrice du citoyen du Québec; Steve Orsini, Secretary of the Cabinet, Head of the Ontario Public Service; Barbara Finlay, then-Acting Ombudsman of Ontario; and, Tony Brown General Counsel (retired), Toronto District School Board.
Also this month, Canada's Public Policy Forum released its final report on its work with our office in consulting with stakeholders for the historic expansion of our mandate to municipalities, universities and school boards. The Forum hosted roundtables for representatives of these sectors across the province, as well as a one-day conference in Toronto this past February. These meetings provided us with valuable feedback and an opportunity to address stakeholders' concerns about what to expect and how we work. We have already implemented many of their suggestions (like webinars and videos) in response.
I was also honoured to be featured in the Law Times recently. As many of you know, I’m a lawyer by trade and read the Law Times regularly.
We continue to share stories about our individual case resolutions, OMLET reports, and outreach activities in our monthly newsletter. Join more than 7,500 other people who receive it at the end of every month. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, join us on LinkedIn to watch for job postings, and check out our YouTube channel for all the latest. (For those of you who are new to our social media channels, we’ve developed some information about how we use these accounts and what you can expect.)
I hope you all continue to enjoy this beautiful summer!
It has been an eventful 10 weeks since I became Ombudsman on April 1. In just the past month since my last message, we have moved two major provincial investigations to their final stages, reported on three closed meeting investigations and announced our first systemic investigation involving a municipality. We also resolved hundreds of complaints in our new areas of jurisdiction – municipalities, universities and school boards – and continued our efforts to expand our team to handle our expanding caseload (more than 2,000 complaints received in recent months).
As both our team and our jurisdiction grow, I felt it was important to establish a roadmap for the next five years – not only to guide our work, but to give complainants and stakeholders a clear picture of how we work and what they can expect from us.
Communicating with stakeholders and fostering an understanding of our role and processes is more important than ever as we expand our Office and execute our mandates. I meet almost every week with special interest groups requesting that we undertake a systemic investigation into an issue of importance to them, as well as with heads of public bodies that hope that we don’t. As we cannot fulfill every request for a systemic investigation, we must be guided by a clear and appropriate set of values and guiding principles when deciding how and where to direct our resources.
To that end, in early May, we developed Values, Mission and Vision statements that articulate our fundamental principles and our aspirations for our Office. You’ll hear more about these important guiding principles in the coming months and years, as they focus and inform our work to improve government and broader public sector services. We have shared them on our website and will incorporate them into future communications – ensuring everyone knows what we stand for and how we operate.
As I noted last month, we have moved forward on our two pending systemic cases: 1) Our investigation into the direction provided by the province to police services in de-escalating conflict situations; and 2) our investigation into services for adults with developmental disabilities who are in crisis. Our findings in both cases have been provided to the relevant ministries for their input – as required under the Ombudsman Act – and I plan to release the final reports in late June and July, respectively.
We also announced our first systemic investigation related to our new municipal jurisdiction – into the City of Brampton’s procurement practices. Our Special Ombudsman Response Team is gathering evidence now and will determine timelines for the investigation once they assess the first phase. In other municipal news, I signed off on investigations by our Open Meeting Law Enforcement Team into complaints about closed meetings in Sudbury, Norfolk County and Midland. In the first, we found no issues, but the two others were found to have violated the Municipal Act, and we recommended best practices to help both municipalities improve in future.
Meanwhile, I had the honour of speaking to a variety of stakeholder groups, including the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities in Timmins on May 12, and the Ontario College of Teachers in Toronto on June 2. At both events, I discussed the importance of independent oversight and robust accountability processes at the local level. My colleagues have kept up our active outreach campaign as well, presenting at events around the province, including the Ontario Municipal Administrators’ Association conference in Alliston; the Ontario Association of School Business Officials in Windsor; a Q&A session with the University of Windsor’s student ombudsman; the Halton District Catholic School Board Council of Chairs; the Municipal Law Departments of Ontario meeting in Markham; the French edition of the Federation of Canadian Ombudsman’s Ombudsman Essentials course in Quebec; and the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers (AMCTO) annual conference in Niagara Falls, as well as at various AMCTO zone meetings and workshops.
In between these events, I attended the Council of Canadian Administrative Tribunals’ annual symposium in Ottawa at the end of May – an excellent opportunity to share expertise and learn from authorities on administrative justice from across Canada and around the world. As my Office oversees many administrative tribunals, I found the conference’s speakers on such themes as access to justice and procedural fairness to be informative and even inspirational.
The summer ahead promises to be busy, as we release our next two reports, attend such major events as the Association of Municipalities of Ontario annual conference in Windsor in August, and plan for our Annual Report release this fall. We are also planning our next Sharpening Your Teeth training course for ombudsmen and administrative investigators, set for October 24-26 – registration is now open. Keep in touch and we will continue to keep you posted – in our e-newsletter, on social media, and in this space.
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.
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.
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 municipal and school 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.
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.