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Ontario ombudsman report highlights ‘appalling’ jail conditions, COVID-19 complaints

Thursday, July 02, 2020 @ 12:15 PM | By John Schofield

Hailing the past 12 months as a “year like no other,” the Ontario ombudsman has released a fiscal 2019-20 report that highlights, among other things, his office’s handling of more than 800 COVID-19-related complaints and inquiries, about 600 Landlord and Tenant Board complaints and a record number of complaints about Ontario correctional facilities — more than 6,000.

In a June 30 Zoom news conference to release the annual report, Ombudsman Paul Dubé said he was “shaken” after witnessing the conditions at the Thunder Bay jail.

Ombudsman Paul Dubé

“I quite often get asked every year what’s the most egregious complaint you got or what’s the most troubling situation you dealt with,” he told reporters. “I have to say that maybe in the four years I’ve been ombudsman, the most disturbing thing I’ve seen and the most appalling conditions I’ve observed are the Thunder Bay jail. It’s heart-wrenching to see the conditions in which those inmates are living.”

Dubé said that the provincial government is working on building a new jail in Thunder Bay, but “we remind them that time is of the essence.”

Pandemic-related complaints have run the entire gamut of the ombudsman’s jurisdiction, he said — including lack of support for remote learning in schools, to the closure of Service Ontario locations, to poor conditions in long-term care homes.

The “profound shock” of the pandemic to Ontario’s public infrastructure and systems “will provide countless lessons, as well as opportunities to strengthen them in future,” Dubé writes in the report. “We stand ready, as always, to help.”

On June 1, Dubé launched an investigation into the adequacy of the provincial government’s oversight of long-term care homes during the pandemic.

In total, the ombudsman’s office handled 26,423 complaints and inquiries related to the broader public service in Ontario in fiscal 2019-20.

A news release announcing the report notes that the year was exceptional not only due to COVID-19, but because the Ontario ombudsman’s office on May 1, 2019, assumed the responsibilities of the French Language Services Commissioner and the investigative function of the former Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth. The two new units are largely staffed by former employees of those once-independent offices.

Combining the expertise of the three offices has resulted in a “more dynamic” ombudsman’s office, Dubé observes in the report. 

During the course of the year, the ombudsman’s office also launched a systemic investigation into delays at the Landlord and Tenant Board (generating some 600 complaints) and issued investigative reports on a municipality and a school board that revealed “a disturbing lack of transparency that undermined public trust,” the report noted. It adds that all of Dubé’s recommendations were accepted.

According to the report, the new Children and Youth Unit handled more than 1,775 cases between May 1, 2019, and March 31, 2020, including 1,458 about children’s aid societies. The report details several cases where ombudsman staff helped young people with concerns about their rights, their placements and their treatment in care. In addition, ombudsman staff raised concerns with the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services about gaps in policies and procedures in youth justice centres.

The new French Language Services Unit, headed since January by French Language Services Commissioner and Deputy Ombudsman Kelly Burke, handled 321 complaints and inquiries in the same 11-month period, noted the annual report. Changes spurred by the unit included Premier Doug Ford acknowledging that public health information about COVID-19 must be provided in French, as well as English. Burke plans to issue a separate annual report later this fiscal year.

The Ontario ombudsman is an independent, impartial officer of the Ontario legislature who resolves and investigates public complaints about provincial government bodies, as well as French language services, child protection services, municipalities, universities and school boards, states the release. The ombudsman does not overturn decisions of elected officials or set public policy, but makes recommendations to ensure administrative fairness, transparency and accountability.

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