Speech of the Ombudsperson - Tabling of the 2019-2020 Annual Report
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Thank you for joining me for the presentation of the Québec Ombudsman’s 2019-2020 Annual Report. Here with me are Attorney Hélène Vallières, the Deputy Ombudsperson for Institutional Affairs and Prevention, and Claude Dussault, the Deputy Ombudsman for Citizen and User Services.
First, I want to underline the generous and effective contribution of every member of the Québec Ombudsman’s staff to the results I am presenting today. After three years in office, I continue to appreciate the fact that I am surrounded by a solid team aware of the importance of furthering the institution’s values—justice, fairness, respect, impartiality and transparency. Sincere thanks to my staff.
The period covered by the Annual Report ends on March 31, 2020. On this date, we had been grappling with the health crisis triggered by COVID-19 for almost three weeks. In this unprecedented context, I was able to rely on the agility and creativity of my staff in reinventing how we worked and in adapting to it in record time. For this move successfully executed at warp speed, I extend heartfelt thanks to each and every one of them.
Before going any further, I want to say that our investigations often confirm that Québec’s public services meet the client population’s needs. When this is not the case and we recommend corrective measures, as a rule we can count on those within the organization concerned to cooperate. As I see it, this is a clear demonstration of the genuine will of officials and staff to provide people-centered services, because people are the very reason for the services.
Now on to our findings for 2019-2020.
It is important to bear in mind that the Québec Ombudsman has jurisdiction regarding all Québec government departments and most agencies, as well as correctional facilities and the health and social services network. In the area of public integrity, our purview is even broader. For example, it includes government corporations, subsidized childcare, and the public education system.
In other words, the failings brought to light by our investigations are very diverse, as are the underlying causes. However, in many cases, there is common denominator: the shortcomings stem from long-known problems that have stagnated despite the authorities’ commitments to analyze the facts and make any required corrections. What I would like for you to take away from this Annual Report is that when it comes to improving public services, all too often action is postponed.
I want to be perfectly clear. Whether they concern reforms or adjustments to public programs, decisions must be based on in-depth analysis. But what about the rigorous conclusions by internal committees, groups of experts, interdepartmental panels or even public inquiry commissions that take months or sometimes years to deliver change? Some conclusions never lead to the advances that are needed.
In the meantime, people, sometimes among our most vulnerable, bear the brunt of delays, and, worse yet, of projects left by the wayside. In such cases, the flaws are known, described, decried. Solutions are identified, approved and planned. The authorities are poised to act.
Then time goes by… and nothing happens.
Allow me to give you a few examples.
Québec’s education system has a procedure for handling complaints. However, the procedure is cumbersome, has too many steps and is not transparent enough. In 2017, the Québec Ombudsman published a special report on the subject. Subsequently, the Department made it known that work was underway to, no later than December 2019, table a bill to facilitate complaint processing and to spell out the legal framework for the office of the Student Ombudsman in Québec. So far, no bill has been introduced. And yet, many improvements could have already been made to the handling of complaints simply through administrative means.
On to other sectors.
In 2018, after temporarily suspending the intake of applications for the collective sponsorship of refugees, the department of francization, immigration and integration announced that on September 17, 2018, it would accept applications delivered by courier services, as before. Because of the heavy influx and poor planning, the operation resulted in total chaos in the waiting line. This bungling meant that many people who had waited their turn were unable to file their application. As a result, the Québec Ombudsman recommended that the Department change its procedure. Eighteen months later, on January 20, 2020, even though the previous experience was abysmal, the Department made no changes. Not surprisingly, similar overspills ensued.
In correctional facilities, responsibility for healthcare has been transferred from the public security department to the health and social services department almost everywhere in Québec. This was one of our recommendations in 2011. Since then, in the facilities where transfer occurred, there is better delivery of care. However, the government is slow to carry out transfer in two facilities—those in Québec City and in Montréal. They alone account for 40% of the detention population. When can we expect concrete action on this front?
Preschoolers with language impairments receive specialized services from health and social services until they start school; then the education system is supposed to take over. But this does not really happen because at that point, services are drastically reduced or stop altogether due to a shortage of resources. During the year, the health and social services department agreed to analyze the situation. Since then, no progress.
Access to a family doctor is another problem that has yet to be solved. People are worried that they will remain on waiting lists for more than a year and maybe even two years.
These are but a few examples among many.
And now some good news. I applaud the passage of Bill 55 last June 12. This law abolishes any time limits for civil actions in cases of sexual assault, childhood violence and spousal violence.
The Québec Ombudsman had recommended eliminating prescriptive periods, mainly because it may take a long time before victims of violence become aware of the lingering physical or psychological aftereffects. Furthermore, the prospect of confronting their assailant in court may be a deterrent for decades.
In this case, moving into action mode means that, thanks to this new law, victims of violence who were hampered by the time that had elapsed can see justice served.
I would like to return briefly to the events that continue to affect every one of us, namely, COVID-19. As I said a few minutes ago, this Annual Report covers its outset last March.
Among other tragic consequences, the coronavirus spread like wildfire in residential resources for the elderly, especially in CHSLDs in and around Montréal. We blamed this on understaffing, employee burnout, lack of qualified workers, and dilapidated premises.
These problems were more severe than usual but had existed pre-COVID-19 and had often been reported in preceding decades. After on-site investigations, we published several reports about violation of the dignity of residents with reduced autonomy in these resources.
The fact of the matter is that the alarm had been sounded for high-ranking government officials and the health and social services network many times. Unfortunately, the solutions that would have provided the elderly with living environments and care that respond to their needs were postponed.
In summary, after all the analyses and findings, at some point we must admit that there is nothing more to say. That all the information is in. That everything is poised for action to occur.
So, as a responsible government, it is time for your intentions to give way to action.
In closing, I could not in all conscience express such expectations without striving for this code of conduct within the Québec Ombudsman itself. I hope that the Annual Report and the Management Report I am tabling today reflect our efforts in this regard.
Thank you for your attention. Now I’ll take your questions.
Marie Rinfret, Ombudsperson