Former Ontario watchdog warns N.W.T.'s first ombud of possible pushback

The previous Ontario government watchdog has some words of warning for the Northwest Territories' first ombud.

"People ... in government will be leery at first of her recommendations, and perhaps a little testy, just because they're not used to having someone look over their shoulder," said André Marin. He was a provincial ombudsman from 2005 to 2015, and Canada's first military ombudsman for before that.

Because the government may not be used to that kind of oversight, said Marin, it may be tough for the new ombud to wrangle cooperation.

Last week, the legislative assembly announced that Colette Langlois had been appointed the territory's first ombud. Her five-year term begins April 8.

Langlois' job will be to field complaints about the territorial government and conduct investigations into possible unfairness.

She will have the power to obtain government documents and summon for questioning under oath anyone she believes has pertinent information, whether or not that person works for the government.

However, any recommendations Langlois makes as ombud are non-binding.

Submitted by Colette Langlois

Marin said this is typical.

"An ombudsman's recommendations are never binding. You rely on moral suasion," he said.

One of the job's challenges, said Marin, is building a "very compelling case, so that you can convince the government to change their way of doing business."

Other N.W.T. overseers have expressed frustration with the government for shucking off their advice.

Earlier this month, the N.W.T. languages commissioner said she wants rules requiring MLAs to respond in writing to her recommendations. For about 20 years, the territory's information and privacy commissioner pushed the government to extend access to information and protection of privacy laws to municipalities. This may finally happen if recently proposed amendments are passed.

'If you work in obscurity, you will be ignored'

Marin said an effective way to urge the government to act on the ombud's recommendations is to be open with the media.

"The majority of issues that she tackles — subject to protecting the confidentiality of the complainant — they should be aired publicly so that they are scrutinized and so that she can apply public pressure to get the government to move," he said.

"The bottom line is if you work in obscurity, you will be ignored."

Langlois said she doesn't view her role as an "adversarial" one.

This is really about about solving problems in a way where there's no winners and losers. - Colette Langlois, N.W.T. ombud

"For me, this is really about about solving problems in a way where there's no winners and losers," she said.

"Ultimately, it's a way of building better relationships between citizens and government — and peace, really."

Though vested with broad investigative powers, Langlois doesn't expect to use them very often. She said likely, the majority of her work will involve informal dispute resolution.

Still, Langlois said the ombud can make a difference in holding the government accountable.

"In a lot of cases, people feel that they don't have have anywhere to go," she said.

They may go to their MLA, she said, but because the ombud has broad investigative powers, "an ombud but might be able to help in a way that an MLA couldn't."

Chantal Dubuc/CBC News

Two decades in the public service

Previously, Langlois spent two decades working for the N.W.T. government and the legislative assembly.

Langlois has a master of laws from the University of Toronto, and Marin said a legal background is an asset.

"Sometimes you get pushback over phony legal arguments and when you're a lawyer, well, you can spot those more easily than if you're not."

For nearly four years, Langlois has been away from the territory and "the whole government apparatus." She said this has helped create distance from the institution she will soon be watching over.

The territory's Ombudsperson Act passed on Nov. 1, 2018, but the ombud has the authority to investigate incidents dating back to Jan. 1, 2016.

The ombud can refuse to investigate complaints she deems "frivolous, vexatious, not made in good faith," or that concern a "trivial matter."

She can't, however, investigate decisions of elected officials or the courts.