A new program introduced by B.C.'s ombudsperson aims to make filing a complaint with the office more accessible, comprehensive and culturally appropriate for Indigenous people.
B.C.'s Office of the Ombudsperson was established in 1970 to investigate complaints from the public about government services, including schools, health authorities, provincial government ministries, local governments and Crown corporations.
The office, which is independent from government, receives up to 8,000 complaints a year — few of which come from Indigenous people, according to Ombudsperson Jay Chalke.
Jolene Andrew, who is Gitksan Wet'suwet'en and the ombudsperson's Indigenous liaison officer, says past experiences with colonial government have created a mistrust of systems like the ombudsperson's office.
"Indigenous people are in constant response to ongoing colonial impacts like capitalism, COVID and climate change," she told On The Island host Gregor Craigie.
"The individual needs to also have the capacity to bring the complaint in, and all the risks are on them in terms of being retraumatized, fear of being treated badly, or the very real possibility they won't be able to get help from us."
Chalke says when he first took on the role in 2015, he expected to hear from Indigenous people regularly, but that was not the case.
"Government policies and processes have unfairly impacted Indigenous people for many, many generations, and so there's distrust — and that, combined with low awareness, has really been a barrier," he said.
Thus, the Pathfinders program was born.
A group of four Indigenous liaisons known as ombudsperson pathfinders, who have lived experience and knowledge of the discrimination and challenges Indigenous people face, are working with people to ensure they know the ombudsperson exists, break down the barriers and mistrust that prevents them from filing complaints, and help them file those complaints.
"We're ensuring that we're taking a culturally appropriate approach to the way that we're connecting to community, the way that we're speaking with individuals, the way that we're taking care of one another in the program," Andrew said.
"We're not rushing the process. We are trying to build trust through connection."
The group has been working quietly since May, during which time they've received concerns from individuals about family issues, corrections, housing and health, in particular. The office says that specifically, discrimination and racism in health care has been raised.
Chalke said the program is permanent, funded by the office's base budget, because the office wants this type of work to continue.
"We're intending to carry it forward knowing that this is all going to take some time," he said.