The Northwest Territories’ first ombud expects to finally begin taking cases later this month, more than half a year after being appointed to the post.
The ombud ensures territorial government departments and agencies act fairly when dealing with residents, and has powers to investigate complaints from people who feel mistreated.
While such offices have existed in many other jurisdictions for decades, Colette Langlois is the first to hold the position in the NWT. However, she has yet to take a case.
“I’ve been dealing with all the setup and preparations, writing procedures and getting staff hired,” Langlois told Cabin Radio from her Hay River office last week, where renovations remain ongoing – furniture had still to arrive at the time of the call. One staff member has now been appointed and another is expected to join by the end of the year.
Langlois anticipates formally opening the doors to complaints on November 18, when all sections of the act creating her position finally come into force.
“It’s a role that’s been needed for a long time in the territory,” she said, “looking into individual complaints but also making changes on a systemic level and doing some education with the public service, to help them do a better job as well.
“I know a lot of people have been waiting for this for a long time. I have had a handful of people get in touch with me. In some cases I’ve suggested other courses of action they might be able to take, but I’ve been glad to hear from them and if they still have concerns when the office opens, they should get in touch again.”
At the moment, contacting the ombud takes a little effort – Cabin Radio could not find any publicly listed contact details last week. However, a website is being built and a toll-free number has been established.
“The website probably won’t launch until December, we’re a little bit behind on that. But we do have a toll-free number, 1-844-NTOMBUD, or people can email us,” Langlois said. “[From November 18] they just need to call or email us and if they want to make a complaint, we can help them with that.”
Langlois grew up in Yellowknife. She spent two decades working for the territorial government and the legislature before taking the role.
Ombuds in other parts of Canada have gained some notoriety for the swashbuckling nature of their approach to government accountability. André Marin, the former Ontario ombud, was described as “effective but controversial” during his 10-year tenure – his work prompting a range of government reforms, but he was equally well-known for his social media tirades against politicians, bureaucrats, and reporters.
Langlois, by contrast, said her office would do well to start with a collaborative approach “to help the public service understand what this is all about and why it’s important.” She added: “If there is a need to stand up to government and be firm, I’m certainly prepared to do that.”
Basing the ombud in Hay River, Langlois said, was in part a demonstration of her office’s independence.
“I think it’s really important,” she said. “There are a lot of advantages to Hay River: it’s right in the middle of the highway system so it’s easy to visit some of the communities in the southern NWT, and I do intend to travel up to the north of the NWT as well.
“I think it’s really good to separate from the headquarters of the government – we are independent of government, and I think this helps make a statement about that.”