December 12, 2014

Will the Ontario Ombudsman's New Powers Impact University Ombuds?

Earlier this week, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario passed Bill 8, the “Public Sector and MPP Accountability and​ Transparency Act, 2014, a package of new public-sector accountability measures.  Among other things, Bill 8 expands the Ontario Ombudsman’s powers to municipal entities previously off limits, including universities.  Although there is no current concern, the impact on existing university Ombuds in Ontario remains uncertain. 

The Ontario Ombudsman, André Marin lobbied unabashedly for the expanded oversight and some considered his approach unseemly and threatening.  The Globe and Mail reported:
An attempt to expand the powers of Ontario ombudsman André Marin has sparked a bizarre turf war between Mr. Marin and two other high-profile accountability officers. The row even led the outspoken ombudsman to troll the other watchdogs on Twitter – calling one “Chicken Little” – in a break from political decorum.
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That doesn’t sit well with Toronto ombudsman Fiona Crean, who told a legislative committee this week her city should be exempted from Mr. Marin’s scrutiny because she already has it covered. Provincial Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk told MPPs that Mr. Marin should focus more on investigating individual complaints, while leaving larger systemic issues to auditors.

Mr. Marin promptly fired back.

“Your apocalyptic, doomsday scenarios are big on fantasy & light on reality. #ChickenLittle,” he tweeted at Ms. Crean. Meanwhile, he decried Ms. Lysyk’s committee testimony as “astoundingly inept.”
* * *
In an interview, Mr. Marin said he has no intention of stepping on Ms. Crean’s toes should he receive oversight of municipalities.

Instead, he said, he would leave day-to-day investigations to her while focusing on bigger structural problems.

“We don’t want to be chasing potholes and street lights,” he said. “We would be looking at systemic issues.”
When the legislation passed, the Toronto Star observed, "A swaggering Ontario ombudsman André Marin is eager to flex his new legislative muscles.”

Aside from the dust-up with the Toronto Ombuds Crean, there has been little discussion of the Ombuds at twelve public universities in Ontario coming under Marin's purview -- universities that have robust Ombuds offices:
University Ombuds contacted about this story do not want to comment for attribution.  Nonetheless, they identified a few reasons why they do not believe Marin will intrude upon their existing practices. First of all, Bill 8 did not include funding for the additional oversight.  Unless the Ontario Ombudsman has the financial ability to expand its operations, it is unlikely to take on many university matters.  Secondly, the Ontario Ombudsman has not shown much interest in complaints about universities already under its jurisdiction. For now, at least, University Ombuds in Ontario expect little change. 

One possible outcome could be that more universities (and other organizations) adopt Ombuds programs to reduce the number of complaints that might be investigated by the Ontario Ombudsman.

(Bill 8, Public Sector and MPP Accountability and Transparency Act, 2014; Toronto Star; Globe and Mail.)


  1. Community Colleges in Ontario have fallen under the mandate of the provincial government since the inception of the office. Colleges were established differently than universities (each with their own founding legislation). I used to work as an Ombuds in a community college. It was my experience that the provincial ombudsman would refer cases to my office, and would only investigate a compliant if the complainant was unsuccessful in resolving the issue. This is consistent with the provincial Ombudsman being an office of last resort. Having the provincial Ombudsman able to deal with issues that occur in multiple institutions does open an interesting possibility of investigating larger systemic issues.

  2. Thanks for sharing the news about the historic passage of Bill 8 in Ontario with your readers. As you noted, it will extend the Ontario Ombudsman’s oversight to municipalities, universities and school boards once it comes into force. We’d be happy to answer any questions about it, including the title of your post, “how will it impact university ombuds?”

    In the interest of accuracy, we’d like to point out a few things. Various Ombudsmen of Ontario have called for oversight of universities and other parts of the broader public sector since the establishment of the office in 1975. Two other provincial ombudsmen (British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador) have had oversight of universities for years. In Ontario, we have helped hundreds of people with complaints about colleges of applied arts and science (formerly known as “community colleges”); we have never before had the mandate to deal with complaints about Ontario’s 22 public universities.

    As we have always done, we will work with existing accountability mechanisms and refer complaints to them for resolution where appropriate. We welcome the chance to work with existing university ombudsmen across the province, as well as the opportunity to assist university students and staff with broader systemic issues.

    Details about when the legislation will take effect have not been determined, but anyone with questions is welcome to contact our office or consult the information we have posted at
    -Linda Williamson, Director of Communications, Office of the Ombudsman of Ontario

    1. Linda-
      Thanks for your clarifying comments. Best wishes for the holidays.