Q+A | Yukon's ombudsman on why he needs more leeway to launch investigations

Yukon ombudsman Jason Pedlar in his Whitehorse office in February. This week, he delivered a report to the Legislative Assembly, outlining a number of ways to update the territory's Ombudsman Act. (Jackie Hong/CBC - image credit)
Yukon ombudsman Jason Pedlar in his Whitehorse office in February. This week, he delivered a report to the Legislative Assembly, outlining a number of ways to update the territory's Ombudsman Act. (Jackie Hong/CBC - image credit)

Yukon's ombudsman says it's time his office had more leeway to investigate unfairness in government services.

Jason Pedlar delivered a report this week to the Legislative Assembly, outlining a number of ways he thinks the territory should update its legislation. The Ombudsman Act allows for a grievance procedure, independent of government, to ensure citizens are treated fairly under the law. 

"The Yukon Ombudsman Act was first passed in 1996 and there's been very few amendments since then," Pedlar said.

"My special report ... is in response to that, and just my recommendations on what I think are needed improvements to the act."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

1996 — that's a long time ago. Are there particular things that you're concerned about?

The Ombudsman Act, as you are aware, speaks to administrative fairness for programs and services delivered by authorities. Typically that is the departments of the Yukon government.

So there are a couple large pieces or recommendations that I think are important and that I'm hoping lawmakers consider implementing.

One is the ability to conduct "own motion" investigations. That is pretty much standard in all jurisdictions across Canada and even across the world for that matter. We haven't found a jurisdiction anywhere that doesn't have own motion authority. And what own motion authority is, is the ability for me to launch an investigation of unfairness without a complaint actually walking through my door.

It's important because sometimes there's concerns about bringing complaints to our office, sometimes there's not awareness that someone can complain to our office — but internally we may become aware of something, an issue that is concerning and that we want to investigate. Without having someone come through the door, we don't have the authority to launch an investigation.

A good example of that is the Hidden Valley [school] sexualized abuse complaint that we did two reports on. I wouldn't have been able to do that investigation if a complainant hadn't walked through the door.

The Yukon ombudsman's office in Whitehorse.
The Yukon ombudsman's office in Whitehorse.

The Yukon ombudsman's office on Third Avenue in Whitehorse. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

So I think it's of public interest that that barrier be removed, and if there's a complaint that we want to investigate that we're not limited to only those that we receive.

How much of a barrier is that for you?

Well, one of the other barriers that we see is that we often will receive phone calls or inquiries from the public. So they're aware of our office, they know that we may be able to deal with the particular matter, but they are somewhat concerned about actually submitting a complaint formally to us. So we might hear about a complaint, but until they actually fill out a form and tell us the details, we're not able to launch an investigation.

So there's sometimes a reluctance to submit a complaint as well.

That is another recommendation that we are making: an amendment to the act that there are explicit reprisal protections included so that if someone submits a complaint to us, they don't have to fear reprisal from their employer, if they happen to be someone that works for the Yukon government.

And that's very similar to our PIDWA [Public Interest Disclosure of Wrongdoing Act] legislation, our whistleblower legislation. There is reprisal protections built into that act. We think that is just another addition to the Ombudsman Act that would strengthen it.

Growing up in a First Nations community, I know there's a general distrust of government and its organization. So I imagine that that would open up areas of examination from your office as well?

Sure. The own motion authority is something that's listed in the Venice Principles, a standard paper that was commissioned and that speaks to the preservation of the ombudsman institution. So it's just a best practice, and it just provides the authority if required.

In practical terms, it doesn't mean we're going to be launching a whole bunch of investigations now. It just provides that flexibility.

Another example is, sometimes the media will hear about a fairness complaint before we do. But just hearing in the media and hearing the story, we're unable to do anything about it.

You're also looking for municipalities to be included under your jurisdiction. Tell me why that's important.

Municipalities provide services on a day-to-day basis to Yukoners, and there's just really not a good reason not to be included under the jurisdiction of the ombudsman.

Once the municipality has attempted to resolve a complaint on behalf of a citizen, and that citizen remains dissatisfied, [the citizen] would have another avenue of recourse to have an independent review of the matter, and hopefully a resolution from that.

Whitehorse city hall, April 2024.
Whitehorse city hall, April 2024.

Whitehorse city hall. Yukon's ombudsman says it's time his office is better able to investigate unfairness in government services, including municipal governments. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

Currently, if someone remains dissatisfied with the municipality and a response to something that they think is unfair, [their only option] would be to commence a court action. And I don't think that that is the appropriate solution.

The vast majority, 92 per cent, of our complaints we deal with in an informal manner. I think that opening that mechanism, opening that service to all Yukoners regardless of the level of government, is an important addition.

Governments of the past have been reluctant to accept these recommendations or changes from your office. Do you think that there's a chance that they may accept these proposals?

I can only hope.

I know that some of these recommendations have been provided in the past, and I think that we're making additional recommendations that might not have been mentioned.

The ombudsman practice has evolved over the years, where you know most levels of government have some form of office oversight. So I think now is the right time, and I think that these are really fundamentally important improvements to the act. So I'm hoping that lawmakers consider these recommendations.

We've also provided a line-by-line review with some suggested wordings, again taken from legislation from outside the Yukon, some best practices, and hoping that we provide the rationale, the reasons why the act should be amended.