Ontario ombudsman urges N.W.T. to set up watchdog agency

A standing committee of MLAs has been studying setting up an ombudsman's office for the N.W.T., and hopes a motion to introduce legislation will convince the government to establish an office to receive public complaints.

MLAs plan to introduce motion to set up ombudsman's office in the territory this week

There's a growing chorus of people calling for the N.W.T. to establish a territorial ombudsman's office, and a committee of MLAs that studied the issue says it's now up to the territorial government to make that happen. 

The chair of the Government Operations committee, Michael Nadli, says he'll introduce a motion this afternoon calling for that to happen. MLAs will debate the motion Thursday and it will be up to the government to decide whether to act on it. 

The N.W.T. is one of just three jurisdictions in Canada without such an office, alongside Nunavut and P.E.I.

About 40 people gathered at the legislative assembly Monday night to discuss the role an ombudsman could play in the territory. Ontario's Ombudsman André Marin was there to answer questions about the work his organization does.

"It's not about playing a gotcha game with the government. It's about improving governance by being to the side, helping citizens have a voice," Marin said. 

"I often say the role of the government is to humanize government. We're there to remind them of the human impact of administrative decisions and to say 'Hello, there's a problem here,' when we feel there is a problem."

Marin's office oversees 500 government departments and agencies with a budget of $12 million a year. 

His office processes about three quarters of the 27,000 annual complaints within two weeks, but it also conducts five or six systemic investigations a year. For instance, a review of Ontario's Hydro One's billing or illegal daycares in the province. He compared it to an appeal court, a place people can turn to after they've already complained directly to government. 

"We do get a lot of whistle blowing from internal government employees. It happens a lot especially in the high profile cases. A lot of brown envelopes and often they have a very good point and they're always protected."

About a dozen Yellowknife residents asked questions about the role a similar office could play here. The queries ranged from how the office's work would differ from that of the federal Auditor General, to whether members of the legislative assembly could conduct investigations themselves as part of their existing role. 

Former Dene National Chief Nolene Villebrun asked how the office would represent aboriginal people's concerns and whether it could investigate the federal government.  

Marin says it's not inconceivable that a territorial ombudsman could look into a federal department, such as Aboriginal Affairs. "Obviously you can't impose it on the federal government," Marin says, "but there's precedent for that and I think a good argument for that."

MLA Wendy Bisaro, who sits on the Government Operations committee, says the standing committee hasn't looked at the specific scope of what the Ombudsman Act would cover, since legislation hasn't been drafted yet. 

A territorial ombudsman could also investigate aboriginal governments. Bisaro says that's the case in Yukon, though the power has rarely been used. 

"Aboriginal governments tend to want to keep their own authority, that would be something we'd look into," she said. "It's an interesting option."

Yellowknife resident Lois Little asked how residents can show their support for establishing an office. She says with the territorial government taking on more responsibilities post-devolution, there will be growing pains. 

"I really am concerned about the new power dynamic in the North and how that's going to play out," she said. "We really do need an independent, impartial body that is going to give oversight to that new  dynamic."

This isn't the first time the legislative assembly has discussed establishing an office. Back in 2012, MLAs passed a motion calling for an ombudsman. That led to the referral to the standing committee to do research and analysis on the option.  

Marin advocated for clarity and simplicity in any future legislation. He says the beauty of an Ombudsman's Office is that unlike an Auditor General, which evaluates risk and looks at value for money, his office has the authority and flexibility to investigate issues it deems to be unfair. 

Marin says he met with Premier Bob McLeod and another cabinet minister Monday. 

"They genuinely appear to be interested. Especially when I talked about systemic issues," he said. "I can't speak for them, but I'm very optimistic as a result of those discussions.

"It's all a question of rapport and proportion. You don't have to look very far to find a very convincing argument."

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