André Marin: Address by André Marin for the 2008 FCO Annual General Meeting

“The Ombudsman Renaissance”

Address by André Marin
President, Forum of Canadian Ombudsman

FCO Annual General Meeting
Quebec City, Quebec
September 9, 2008

  • Welcome to the Forum of Canadian Ombudsman’s Annual General Meeting – bienvenue. First and foremost, I want to thank Quebec’s Protectrice du citoyen, my colleague and friend Raymonde St-Germain, for her hospitality.
  • It’s always wonderful to visit Quebec City, but especially in this milestone year. Here we are in a city that is celebrating its 400th anniversary – and we are just about to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the institution of the Ombudsman as we know it.
  • It’s quite amazing to think that when the world’s first truly independent ombudsman was created in Sweden in 1809, this beautiful city of Quebec was already more than 200 years old. It’s even more amazing to think that it took another 170 years or so before the ombudsman tradition really caught on in this country. But when that happened, there was no stopping it. Starting in the mid-1970s, ombudsmen sprung up in a couple of provinces and gradually started blossoming everywhere – until they spread through every level of government and all sorts of other institutions, both public and private.
  • There is no doubt today that the ombudsman is a necessary fact of modern life and modern democracy. The ombudsman is a voice for the people – or as they say here in Quebec, the “protecteur du citoyen,” the citizen’s protector – which is what the Swedish word “ombudsman” means. We are the voice for the average person and their best access to the corridors of power, be they the corridors of government, academia or the business world.
  • But it’s also amazing to consider that even with that blossoming of ombudsmen in the “flower power” era, it wasn’t until the 21st century that all of us came together under the umbrella of the FCO – joining the legislative and parliamentary ombudsmen, the public and the private sectors, the big offices and the small into one big organization where we can all benefit from one another’s strengths and expertise.
  • In my short time as president so far, I’ve been struck by the fact that we are now witnessing a whole new blossoming of the ombudsman concept across this country. You could call it a renaissance or a revolution, but it’s really more like an evolution – as all of us have learned how to grow and adapt dramatically in recent years.
  • Our evolution has brought us to what I think is, frankly, a golden age for ombudsmen in Canada. It’s a gratifying time to be an ombudsman, not to mention to be head of the FCO.
  • Just about anywhere you go in the country these days, you will hear about an ombudsman doing a special investigation, or releasing a special report. Governments and other institutions, like universities and corporations, have understood for some time now that appointing an ombudsman is an important component of their accountability and credibility.
  • In the past, they might have created an ombudsman because it was trendy or because they wanted to create the appearance of being open to public complaints. In that case, the ombudsman would be little more than a figurehead, and his or her function would be more about calming the waters and serving as a safety valve for the institution. But more and more, as the public becomes aware of our work and the kind of accountability we can achieve, those institutions understand that an ombudsman’s job isn’t to shield the officials of the institution he or she oversees, it’s to amplify the concerns of stakeholders and make sure they are heard.
  • As I’ve said for years, it’s about being a watchdog, not a lapdog. And the dogs are definitely out now.
  • In my world of the classical legislative ombudsman, there has been an astonishing blossoming of activity lately.
  • Starting in British Columbia, the Ombudsman is doing a special investigation into long-term care, just as we are doing in Ontario, and it’s hard to think of another single issue that is more important to people today. B.C.’s Ombudsman also did a special investigation into the quality of drinking water, and before that, she and her staff looked at the lotteries, as we also did in Ontario.
  • In Saskatchewan, the Ombudsman just completed a special review of a proposal to use Tasers in men’s jails. In Manitoba, the Ombudsman did a special report on water stewardship and damage that was being caused to rural properties because of irresponsible drainage. She also looked at problems with putting youths into holding cells. Similarly, in New Brunswick, the Ombudsman released a special report on a young person who died in jail, and exposed the systemic failings of correctional facilities to deal with young and disabled people.
  • In Quebec, the Protectrice touched on an issue that I wish I had the mandate to tackle in Ontario – C. difficile bacterial infections in hospitals. In Newfoundland, the Citizen’s Representative has gotten involved in problems with jails as well, and he also fired a shot across the bow of the Atlantic Lottery Corporation. Meanwhile, at the federal level, there are a number of new ombudsmen and they’re doing special investigations, too – the new veterans’ ombudsman jumped right into an investigation of the number of homeless veterans, while the new crime victims’ ombudsman is looking into systemic problems with the national parole system.
  • That is an impressive list, and it doesn’t begin to cover everyone – I didn’t even get to our colleagues in other types of ombudsman offices. But that proves my point – there is so much going on in the ombudsman world right now, it’s hard to even summarize it all. And that’s exactly the way it should be.
  • The point is that we have evolved into 21st-century ombudsmen and are making ourselves heard. We have grasped that in this world of 24-hour news cycles and blogs and YouTube and interactive everything, anyone who simply sits quietly and waits for the public to come to them is in danger of being completely lost. You can’t be the citizen’s protector if the citizens have never heard of you. In other words, it’s great that we have a lot of watchdogs, but they still have to bark!
  • The other reason this is a golden age for ombudsmen is that the public desire for accountability in their institutions has never been higher. Just look at the headlines from the past few weeks in Ontario alone – we’ve had problems with C. difficile in hospitals as I said; we had a massive propane explosion in the middle of a suburban neighbourhood, and now we have people dying from tainted cold cuts. There are similar concerns across the country. People understandably want to know what went wrong and who’s being held to account.
  • And with all due respect to all our politicians, I think most people are looking for solutions that transcend the partisan political world. They want to be able to trust in their institutions, no matter who’s in power. That’s where ombudsmen show their real value as protectors of the citizen, in more ways than one.
  • By being more active and doing more special investigations, we demonstrate our value to the public. We help taxpayers and consumers feel confident that they aren’t being ripped off, or at least that they have some recourse if they are. That’s important at a time when the economic news is not so good.
  • For me, this evolution began when something called the Special Ombudsman Response Team, or SORT for short, was created at the military ombudsman office, which we set up in the mid-1990s. The SORT concept, as most of you know, is now key to our work at the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman. SORT investigations involve high-profile, systemic issues that have the potential to affect large numbers of people – and they work. Our SORT investigations in Ontario have improved everything from newborn screening to the lottery system, affecting millions of people. What started as a way to put the unknown military ombudsman’s office on the map has turned out to be an excellent model for a time when the high demand for government accountability is tempered by an equally high demand for efficiency.
  • After all, the public loves watchdogs but hates wasting money on the proverbial “layers of bureaucracy.” So if you are going to deploy resources as someone who listens to the voice of the people – whether you are in the public or private sector – you had better deliver value.
  • What all of this means is that we’re seeing a ripple effect through ombudsman offices, big and small. These kinds of investigations have truly been infectious, catching on through all provinces, further raising the bar in our profession. We saw this first-hand at my Office last year, when the Canadian Council of Parliamentary Ombudsman asked us to conduct a training course on our SORT techniques. The first course was full, with 50 participants from across Canada and around the world, and later this month we’re doing it again, with 60 participants. That training is already bearing fruit in some of the investigations I just mentioned. I and my staff have also been invited elsewhere to demonstrate SORT’s techniques – in the past few months alone, we have been to Bermuda, Hong Kong and Minnesota, and next month we are going to South Africa. In each case, we were invited by other ombudsmen who are eager to emulate the SORT model in their work.
  • Sometimes I feel a bit like a travelling evangelist for special ombudsman investigations, spreading the good news around the country and the world. But it is good news. The FCO is part of that – we help each other by sharing our expertise, and we encourage one another to move outside our comfort zone and take on the tough, important issues.
  • I know all of you are dedicated to that vision of the FCO and have worked hard this past year on our events. Next year is going to be even more exciting, with the Super Conference back here in la belle province next spring. If you have any ideas for workshops and speakers to make that conference even more befitting of the 200-year renaissance of the ombudsman, now’s the time to speak up and get involved. Meanwhile, next week in Winnipeg, the next FCO training event gets underway for those who specialize in corrections issues – as I mentioned, a lot of excellent work has been done in several provinces this year involving our jails, so that should be a very enlightening workshop.
  • For now, it’s time to get down to the business of our AGM, but I hope I’ve given you something to think about as we move ahead to 2009. It really is a great time to be an ombudsman, and that means it’s a fantastic time to be an active member of the FCO.
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