On the 50th Anniversary of the establishment of the Alberta Ombudsman’s office, the province may boast that it established the first such office in North America when the Ombudsman Act took effect on September 1, 1967. Every province except Prince Edward Island has followed suit.
Over the years the mandate of the office has expanded. At present it investigates complaints about the decisions and actions of provincial government departments, boards, agencies and commissions, designated professional organizations and the Patient Concerns Resolution Process of Alberta Health Services. In the near future, it will also investigate complaints about municipalities; the Alberta Legislature has passed the new Municipal Government Act which amends the Ombudsman Act to include jurisdiction over municipalities. These sections have not yet been proclaimed into force.
In 1965, Carlton W. Clement, Q.C., chaired an independent committee which concluded Alberta needed a provincially-legislated Commissioner to respond to complaints by citizens who were dissatisfied with the service they received from provincial government departments and agencies. The Legislative Assembly agreed and appointed the first Alberta Ombudsman, George B. McClellan, on September 1, 1967. As a result, Canada became the fourth Commonwealth country – after New Zealand, Guyana and the United Kingdom – to establish an ombudsman’s office.
Alberta is currently served by the ninth Ombudsman, Marianne Ryan.
The goal of the Ombudsman is to create fair administration for all Albertans. The investigation of a specific complaint may raise examples of isolated unfairness, but it may also shine a spotlight on systemic issues which, when rectified, create better government experiences for all citizens.
The following specific examples highlight how, in recent years, the Ombudsman has prompted positive systemic change.
- The Alberta Ombudsman investigated the transparency of the Student Aid Review process. The investigation found insufficient information on the Student Aid Alberta website of the available avenues of review regarding a student loan decision. Template letters and review decision template letters provided inadequate information about next steps in the review process and what is required to access the process. The Department accepted recommendations for improvement.
- An investigation found appellants were often disadvantaged because the then-Department of Human Services (now Community and Social Services), failed to fairly share information with appellants in order for them to prepare for hearings under the Income Support and Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped programs. The information was often provided late, sometimes not until the hearing, and did not always describe the Department’s position or reasons. The investigation resulted in changes to policy, standard forms and Department practice.
- The Alberta Dental Association and College (the College) agreed it should give consideration based on financial need to waiving the fee it charges patients who ask the College’s complaint review committee to review a decision resulting from their complaint a dentist treated them unprofessionally.
- An investigation focused on whether the Department of Health (the Department) met the needs of Albertans in accessing out-of-country health services because they are not available in Canada. The investigation reviewed the administrative fairness of the process, including: how Albertans are informed of the availability of funding for out-of-country services; how medical practitioners are informed about the requirements of the program; how out-of-country funding requests are reviewed; how decisions are made by the Out-of-Country Health Services Committee (the Committee) and the Out-of-Country Health Services Appeal Panel (the Appeal Panel). Fifty-three recommendations resulted, directed at not only the Committee and the Appeal Panel, but also the Department. All were accepted in whole or in part. One of the recommendations resulted in amendments to the legislation to require that applications for funding be submitted by the medical practitioner on behalf of the patient.
- Several complaints were received that the Alberta Human Rights Commission prematurely dismissed complaints. As a result the normal review process was not available to them. The Ombudsman made recommendations to the Commission and it changed its practices.
- Registered members of the College of Dental Technologists of Alberta (the College) complained about the internal governance of the College. The Ombudsman’s review included the College’s bylaws, internal elections and finances. Forty-six recommendations were made to the College and 13 to the Department of Health which has oversight responsibility for all the health professions.
- Recommendations were made to enhance communications when inmates in correctional centres wish to access the Patient Concerns Resolution Process for complaints about health care.
The everyday efforts of the Alberta Ombudsman’s office have also facilitated the fairness of appeal panels, policies and investigative practices within government department, agencies, boards and commissions, and regulated professions. The office has successfully prompted numerous apologies for complainants over the years for unfair treatment they received and pressed for significant policy and legislative changes. The oversight of the Ombudsman has augmented processes by creating identifiable and effective appeals, improving standards for timeliness and politeness in response to citizen’s complaints and promoting clearly written, plain language documents and correspondence to complainants. The office has promoted the right for citizens to be heard and to know the case against them. Beyond process issues, many citizens have received benefits and services they would otherwise have been denied.
The office has helped provincial civil servants increase their understanding of the concepts of administrative fairness, thereby encouraging better government administration for all citizens. A pamphlet called Administrative Fairness Guidelines was created and is available on paper or on our website. Ombudsman staff have developed training modules that are delivered to administrators on request.
Maintaining a high profile among Albertans remains a top priority. Citizens must know about the Alberta Ombudsman if they are concerned about fairness. There is significant outreach efforts to cities and towns outside Edmonton and Calgary and in its present format, six communities are visited each year to increase awareness of the Alberta Ombudsman’s office.