New Northwest Territories legislation should allow an ombudsperson jurisdiction over municipal governments, residents told MLAs on Monday.

Bill 20, which creates an ombudsperson’s office for the NWT, underwent a public hearing at the legislature on Monday evening.

An ombudsperson’s office independently receives and investigates complaints from members of the public who feel unfairly treated by government staff or agencies.

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Under the proposed legislation the ombudsperson cannot order the government to do anything, but can make recommendations which governments would ordinarily be expected to follow.

The proposed legislation caps decades of calls for a territorial ombudsperson, and will leave Nunavut and Prince Edward Island as the only Canadian jurisdictions without one.

However, there remain plenty of details in the legislation to be worked out – including what, exactly, the ombudsperson should do.

In full: Bill 20 – Ombudsperson Act

Deneen Everett, executive director of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, led calls for the ombudsperson to be given powers regarding municipalities. As written, the bill deals only with the territorial government and its boards and agencies.

“We are very, very excited to see this moving forward … but feel it is missing one key component,” declared Everett, requesting the ombudsperson be allowed to investigate municipal complaints.

‘Two large holes’

Creating such an office at municipal level forms a significant plank in the platform of Yellowknife mayoral candidate Jerald Sibbeston.

Colin Baile, a chartered arbitrator with more than two decades’ experience involving NWT administrative tribunals, backed up calls for the ombudsperson to also oversee municipal affairs.

“All of the jurisdictions I’ve reviewed include municipal and local governments within the jurisdiction of each ombudsperson,” Baile told the public hearing.

“The most frequent and impactful interactions most citizens have with government are often at the municipal level. It can be a source of conflict from which there is no means a resident can seek meaningful intervention.”

Baile said the omission of authority over municipal concerns was one of “two large holes” in legislation he otherwise recommended; the other being a section in which the ombudsperson is barred from investigating decisions or acts of the legislative assembly, including its members and staff.

Baile told MLAs the public could infer that politicians and assembly staff feel they are above investigation.

Sahtu MLA Danny McNeely, who represents residents of five municipalities, asked for examples of how the office would function at municipal level.

In response, Baile said that “could be anything from council conducting in-camera meetings when they shouldn’t be held in camera [to] someone goes in to pay their property tax and they are treated very poorly. They take that to council, the council dismisses it.

“This gives the individual an opportunity to further have that complaint dealt with. It provides another layer of oversight, as it does over all government activity.”

McNeely, questioning how busy an NWT ombudsperson’s office would find itself, said he felt territorial MLAs are already “to some extent … ombudsmen in our own jurisdiction” in that they field complaints from constituents and bring them forward.

He also inquired as to how a territorial ombudsperson would be affected by increasing levels of Indigenous self-government in the NWT – an issue not expressly considered by the legislation, though it was suggested during the hearing that the ombudsperson could be made available to partner governments for their use.

More complaints?

David Wasylciw, a territorial authority on open governance, appeared as a member of the public.

Discussing McNeely’s question of how busy the office would be, Wasylciw said: “Much like when you build a road, cars tend to show up and fill it up, if you add an avenue for complaints, I think you’ll receive more complaints.

“I can’t speak to what the value of that is. How many are valid, how many are just pieces that have come around? But it’s important to have that resource … and that it has the proper resources to be able to deal with those complaints.

“I imagine the first year, two years of that office would really be understanding volume.”

Wendy Bisaro, who spent eight years as Frame Lake’s MLA before stepping down in 2015, championed the concept of an ombudsperson throughout her political career and appeared at length in front of committee members on Monday.

“It’s long been a belief of mine that the NWT needs this,” she declared while running through two lists of proposed amendments.

Bisaro said she recalled references to creating an ombudsperson’s office dating back to 1992. Her contribution to the topic was recognized by Hay River North MLA RJ Simpson as he started the hearing.

Members of the public who didn’t have the chance to voice concerns at the public hearing have until October 8 to provide written feedback on the bill.