April 8, 2019 was a historic day: Colette Langlois stepped into her role as the Northwest Territories’ first ombud. Now, year one of her five-year term is complete.
The ombud is an independent watchdog that takes and investigates complaints from people who feel unfairly treated by the territorial government or its agencies.
Langlois has the power to get answers from government departments and recommend changes to the way things work.
“It’s been a really exciting year getting this started up,” Langlois said this week. “The staff are really dedicated and I’m really pleased we were able to keep our office open during the pandemic.”
Since Langlois and her two employees began taking complaints in mid-November 2019, they have received more than 60 inquiries, the bulk of them over the past three months or so.
Last week, 11 of those were still open and under investigation. Langlois said the numbers change every day: for example, the office received five new complaints on Monday.
At the root of many, she said, are communication issues.
“The more that we can do to improve lines of communication, whether that’s using plain language or just making things clearer for people, that seems to be at the core of a lot of difficulties people have with government,” said Langlois.
“There are certainly other issues, but there’s often a communication piece I would say to just-about every complaint.”
As with ombuds in many other jurisdictions, Langlois said corrections account for a large chunk of complaints – about 25 to 30 percent – followed by housing and health.
In corrections facilities, Langlois noted that a lot of decisions are made about people’s lives: temporary absences, disciplinary proceedings, and health care are examples. Other inquiries are about the internal corrections complaint process.
Langlois said about a third of all complaints are formally investigated or go to the relevant department or agency to be resolved informally.
The others are complaints about an agency or department the ombud isn’t able to investigate, or the person hasn’t first raised the issue with the right department or agency, or gone through the required appeal process.
In those cases, Langlois said the ombud will refer people to other resources and help them strategize how to approach a situation, like questions to ask or how to explain their concerns. For example, she said, the office recently received a complaint about airlines, and they passed on information about where airline customers can make complaints.
“I really want this office to be approachable for people and I encourage people to call us even if they don’t think it’s an agency that we can look into,” she said.
“Most people, we’ve been able to provide some assistance to. In some cases, I think what I’m sensing is that people just really value having somebody listen to their story from beginning to end.”
Langlois noted that in complex situations, files can be three or four inches thick and involve multiple government agencies, which can be challenging for people to navigate. She said in other cases, people may not feel comfortable speaking with a government office directly.
“I think it’s been really valuable as a first point of contact for a lot of people.”
Langlois said one of the biggest challenges over the past year was getting the word out about the new office. She had plans to visit several NWT communities to answer questions and speak with people informally but, due to the pandemic, those trips are now on hold.
Langlois hopes to make those visits before her mandate is over. She also wants to create formal training for the public service on administrative fairness.
Langlois plans to submit her office’s first annual report to the legislature this summer, which means it will likely be made public in the fall sitting. There are, however, no plans to publish outcomes of individual investigations online.
During the pandemic, the ombud office in Hay River is closed to the public. People can still reach the office using contact information on its website.