Universality and Diversity of the Institution of Ombudsman | Protecteur du Citoyen
May 28, 2007

Universality and Diversity of the Institution of Ombudsman


The Universality and Diversity of the Institution of Ombudsman

Speaking Notes for a keynote Address
to the Biennal Conference of the
Forum of Canadian Ombudsmen

Ms. Raymonde Saint-Germain

(The Ombudsperson used this text as a starting point to which she added comments from her own experience over the last year.)

Hôtel Holiday Inn - Palais des congrès, Montréal

Monday, May 28, 2007 

The Universality and Diversity of the Institute of Ombudsman


I was delighted to accept the invitation from my colleague and Forum president Bernard Richard of New Brunswick to speak at this biennial conference of the Forum of Canadian Ombudsmen. The Forum provides a unique opportunity for us to discuss topics of shared interest and concern.

In our daily work, we all intercede between individuals and organizations. As ombudsmen, we must provide an attentive ear, be thoroughgoing in our approach, and remain very open-minded. You should therefore be the perfect audience so early in the morning, and on a Monday to boot! I shall attempt to make it worth your while.

“Unique Solutions to Universal Problems” Depending on how you approach it, this is a theme that can invite opposition or garner approval. I wish to approve. Some aspects of situations that ombudsmen handle are universal whereas the solutions we suggest are unique in that they are reflective of our respective realities.

Although we intervene at different levels and with different means, we have a common goal. We all strive to ensure that the rights of those who call on us are respected and that their legitimate expectations of quality services are met.

The Québec Ombudsman will soon have existed for forty years. One year ago, Québec legislators bestowed an important new responsibility on it with regard to Québec’s health and social services network. The Forum’s invitation led me to reflect back on my first year in the position, a position that is a mix of service and advice and that must strike a balance between compassion and precision.

The theme the Forum chose this year may seem theoretical at first glance. However, it has inspired reflections in me based on my hands-on experience and personal observations over this first year, as well as the accumulated experience and learnings of the institution I oversee, that is to say, my delegates—a remarkable team I should add—and my predecessors.

Looking back, the institution of the Québec Ombudsman that I embody here today has been the collective work of its successive office holders and their staff—little surprising considering its mission to stand in defense of democracy, which itself has always been a collective work.

I thus took up the flame in April 2006, and I intend to carry it as far as I can by drawing on the full powers of the institution.

Part I – The Evolution of the Québec Ombudsman: Portrait of a legislative institution

Like Canada’s other provinces, Québec took broad inspiration for its Ombudsman from New Zealand’s, which was instituted in 1962 in a constitutional context of British parliamentarism and common law1. In Québec, as in the eight other provinces that have set up parliamentary ombudsmen, the Ombudsman’s effectiveness comes from its powers of persuasion and its moral force, together with the flexibility of its approach. In that, we have a similar basis of comparison as to what is needed for all ombudsmen to achieve success.

From 1968 until 2006, the Québec Ombudsman’s jurisdiction extended for all essential purposes to departments and agencies of the Québec government. The primary criterion was and still remains that the personnel of the public agency—and that includes ministries—were subject to the Civil Service Act2. Decentralized organizations such as schools, municipalities, or hospitals did not fall under its jurisdiction as they were not directly managed by government departments. Universities were also excluded. This criterion had to evolve as the public service evolved, and be increasingly tied to the use of public funds in the provision of a service.

Since April 1, 2006, however, the Québec Ombudsman has had jurisdiction over Québec’s health and social services network. With this new mandate recently enacted by Québec’s legislators3, the role of ombudsman in the province is now twofold in nature, deriving on the one hand from legislation instituting a classic ombudsman to act on behalf of all citizens and on the other hand from a special law for the users of health and social services. These users now have specific legal rights.

Not only does this new role inherited from the former Health and Social Services Ombudsman benefit from the independence the Québec Ombudsman brings to it, but the institution itself has also been enriched through what we could call intersectoral strength. This strengthening of expertise and methods through the combining of missions benefits the public and provides enhanced guidance to parliamentarians.

These changes to the Québec Ombudsman can be traced to changes in how it has gone about its work over the years. Its initial focus on investigation and intervention on behalf of individuals gradually shifted to became more collective and systemic in nature. These three types of intervention are, of course, all set out in the Public Protector Act. What is significant, however, is the heightened focus on systemic intervention, notably parliamentary watch activities, including study of draft bills and draft regulations and participation in public consultations4.

Through this approach, the Québec Ombudsman can suggest certain changes to a minister or the National Assembly that will improve proposed legislation and avoid later harm to citizens, with a view to defending the Ombudsman’s values of justice, equity, reasonableness, and transparency. A systemic approach to problems also has a preventive dimension and is the concrete expression of the mission of standing watch over government and the civil service5.

Experience has revealed three complementary facets to our mission of parliamentary ombudsman: we intervene to address cases of maladministration, to defend citizens’ rights, and to prevent harmful situations.

The first facet was the genesis of the institution, the second a natural outcome of its actions. The third has created new challenges by changing the Ombudsman’s role from that of critic to that of actor—if not a direct actor, at least a significant and influential one.

Part II – The Universality of Ombudsmen

The basic principles and values that underpin our institution and guide our actions

These principles and values constitute the primary universality of the institution. You know them well: independence, impartiality, equity, confidentiality, and accessibility, which together guarantee the credibility of everything that ombudsmen do. These founding principles and values are unique in that they reinforce each other and determine how effective we are. Our impact therefore depends greatly on the conditions in which we operate. Formal guarantees of the ombudsman’s status are the cornerstone of our independence and ensure our ability to intervene. Such guarantees are vital to the complete fulfillment of our mission.

Not all ombudsmen work in optimal conditions, if only because of their varying statuses and the varying independence of the office holder.

The fact nevertheless remains that the principles and values embodied in the classic model of legislative ombudsman represent an ideal that can inspire and guide the actions of all ombudsmen.

Ombudsmen exercise moral authority. They represent a “judiciary of persuasion.” They must go beyond the strict letter of the law and embrace reasonableness, a “higher standard.” Their interventions can in fact be founded as much in equity as in law. Combined, reasonableness and equity transcend mere legality to ensure that standards do not become obstacles to fulfilling the purpose of a rule or respecting the values that underpin it. This change in perspective also shifts attention to the consequences on actual people of the actions in dispute, as measured against the values that government must uphold.

Another aspect of our universality is how we concretely apply basic principles and values in determining grounds for action. I will spare you the complete list of reasons why people complain, the nature of their complaints, the reasons we intervene, and the bureaucratic dysfunctionality we encounter. I would, however, note that among the difficulties we observe and our grounds for action are familiar notions like abuse of power, unjustified delays, failure to explain decisions, errors of fact, and unreasonable and unfair decisions. Grounds for action are numerous, but how action is taken often depends on the enacting legislation of the organization.

In this regard, the Public Protector Act confers very broad general jurisdiction on our office, which increases our range of possible action. The Québec Ombudsman intervenes whenever it has reasonable cause to believe that an individual has suffered or may very likely suffer prejudice as the result of an act or omission of a public body (Section 13). However, the Act also spells out (Section 26.1) the reasons the Ombudsman can invoke in calling a public body to account. It can claim that the public body “has not complied with the law,” that it “has acted in an unreasonable, unjust, arbitrary, or discriminatory manner,” that it “has failed in its duty or has been guilty of misconduct or negligence,” that it “has committed an error of law or of fact,” or that “in the exercise of a discretionary power, it has acted for an unjust purpose, has been actuated by irrelevant motives, or has failed to give reasons for its discretionary act when it should have done so6.” Many of you will see your own selves in these grounds for intervention.

The jurisdiction of the British Ombudsman derives from a single notion, that of maladministration. The European Ombudsman also uses the term maladministration. It is not my intention today to discuss whether defining jurisdiction according to this single word or concept is more problematic than when grounds are spelled out, restrictively or not, but we must be on our guard, because it is not possible to narrowly define what constitutes grounds to intervene, and maladministration, breach of duty, injustice, and arbitrary conduct can take multiple forms.

The notion of “harm” or “prejudice”—the very basis of the Québec Ombudsman’s action—must be interpreted in light of “the legislator’s clear intent to provide redress for grievances not recognized under the law” and so as to include “any form of prejudice causing harm” to a person’s interests, “whether a right guaranteed under the law is at stake or not.” 7

Other instruments can also direct our actions. In Québec, for example, the values set out in the Public Administration Act8 have been a guiding light for citizens’ rights since 1998. The Act, “affirms the priority given by the Administration, in developing and implementing the rules of public administration, to the quality of the services provided to the public.” It thus establishes “a results-based management framework centered on transparency.” Under this law, government departments or bodies that directly serve the public must publish a service statement setting out their objectives with regard to the level and quality of the services provided. This Service Statement must specify a timeframe within which the services are to be provided and give clear information on their nature and accessibility. As you may well guess, these service statements, although unequal in scope, are something we frequently raise when broaching the quality of services.

Part III – Recognition of Diversity

I spoke earlier about certain universal characteristics that ombudsmen share. These characteristics must not, however, obscure the important ways in which ombudsmen differ. Whether in describing the matters we handle, the context of our mission, the nature of the relationships involved, the types of services or actions we investigate, or the types of individuals or groups who solicit our help, we quickly see how diverse and unique each of our positions is. This diversity or uniqueness can stem from who we help, what we help them with, the problems they face, our institutional context, how we intervene, and even why we intervene.

Already thirty years ago when ombudsmen’s offices first began to proliferate, a writer observed their diversity of makeup: “The current ombudsman vogue reflects a desire to better protect citizens’ rights in the face of constantly growing and generalized state intervention. But the desire is acted on differently in different countries9.”

And so, despite the seeming universality of the questions we deal with and the values we uphold, we must consider the environments in which we operate, given the diversity of our political, economic, social, legal, organizational, and cultural contexts. The prevalence of the rule of law, the political and administrative culture, and the state’s degree of “modernization” are all decisive. The nature and functioning of the existing legal system are also factors that affect our status as ombudsmen and our action and influence.

In many governments, including Québec’s, modernization and development of the state and the government apparatus have led to growing managerial and interventional complexity. Government is made up of multiple bodies and entities whose varied fields of jurisdiction are often distinct and specialized, but sometimes overlap. In Québec we have seen the emergence of complementary roles among public bodies. For instance, human rights are not the exclusive purview of any one body or court10.

Maladministration surveillance in Québec is the responsibility of both the Ombudsman and the Auditor General, who approach it in distinct but complementary ways, backed by parliamentary and even judicial control.

These organizations intervene in their own—and thus diverse—ways, with specific methods and processes, but often on common questions or phenomena. The Québec Ombudsman must therefore ensure it wields its powers fully, but while also taking into account the powers of other actors with whom it may occasionally coordinate its actions.

Situating the various types of ombudsmen within their broader context serves to highlight the notable differences between them, as much with regard to their respective statuses, jurisdictions, and powers as their modes of operation. From the profiles of member institutions of the Forum of Canadian Ombudsmen, we can note two types of model: legislative (or classical) ombudsmen and administrative ombudsmen, which some call “organizational”11.

Diversity also stems from the types of questions we handle and the characteristics or identities of the people we serve. This aspect may relate to the nature of the applicable legal framework, whereby some ombudsmen enforce laws that create rights for certain categories of people, such as children or healthcare patients. In such cases, ombudsmen are a form of “redress” in the legal sense of the term, even though they do not render decisions in the usual sense of the word. The types and modes of intervention thus depend on the nature of the questions we handle, the characteristics of those on whose behalf we intervene, the legal framework setting out our powers, and the possible forms of redress. The different types of clienteles and their different expectations can create distinctions between types of ombudsman; they also illustrate why we must adjust our understanding of an ombudsman’s role and action according to its specific clientele.

This in fact has been one of my main observations since being named Québec Ombudsperson. From the general role it once had, the office of ombudsman has evolved, and can still evolve more, toward a multidisciplinary role. The Québec Ombudsman plays the role of several ombudsmen at once. Given its field of jurisdiction, it is as much the protector of workplace or road accident victims as it the advocate of healthcare or social service network users, including in their dealings with youth or rehabilitation centers. It is also the correctional services ombudsman, or protector of incarcerated persons, watching out for the rights of inmates. It is also the protector of those applying for a license or authorization from any government body or department, as well as those living on social aid, or any of many, many others.


As diverse or universal as the office of ombudsman may be, I believe it boils down to one main and essential institutional feature that each office holder, whoever he or she may be, must enjoy—independence.

Independence is the fundamental principle on which Canadian ombudsman legislation resides. All legislative ombudsmen, whether we label them classical or traditional, jealously protect it, and rightly so. Obviously, ombudsmen working within a public or private organization, office, or corporation do not enjoy the privilege of a law of Parliament that protects their status, and thus cannot lay claim to this independence with the same legal force. However, they can, by putting certain minimum conditions in place, exercise their powers in a truly legitimate way that gives complainants confidence in the recourse they provide.

For despite our differences in legal status and environment, whether we are legislative ombudsmen or act within an organization, we must consider our role in a similar way. Howard Gadlin explains it in a way I would like to share with you:

“All ombudsmen give voice to people who might otherwise be disadvantaged in their dealings with the management and bureaucracy of the institution within which the ombudsman functions. In the state, the ombudsman serves citizens; in corporations, employees; in the academic world, students, staff, and faculty; in newspapers, the readers; in health care, the patients; in prisons, the inmates.”12

The legislative ombudsman’s independence confers a hard-to-dispute legitimacy. But the legitimacy of ombudsmen in private businesses or public organizations does not have as strong a legal underpinning and must be acquired and even fought for, and it must always and constantly be demonstrated with determination and courage. For each and every one of us, that is our first and greatest challenge.

I wish you an excellent Forum.




  1. Like the New Zealand model, the Québec Ombudsman is significantly different from the original Swedish model. [back to text]
  2. Section 14 of the Public Protector Act states, “For the purposes of this Act, a public body is 1) a department; 2) any body, other than the Conseil exécutif and the Conseil du trésor, whose staff is appointed in accordance with the Public Service Act (chapter F-3.1.1)”; also see Section 15, which identifies certain persons and organizations as public bodies, and Section 16, which states that any body or person performing by delegation the duties of a body under its jurisdiction is held to be part of that body or person for the purposes of the Act. [back to text]
  3. By adoption of Bill 83, An Act to amend the Act respecting health and social services and amending various legislation, R.Q. 2005, c. 32; see sections 249 to 268 of the Act respecting the health and social services ombudsman as well as sections 269 to 286 amending the Public Protector Act and sections 328 to 338, transitional and final provisions concerning the Québec Ombudsman and the two acts it is responsible for enforcing; sections 249 to 286 entered into force on April 1, 2006 by virtue of subparagraph 4 of section 341 of chapter 32. [back to text]
  4. Québec Ombudsman, Annual Report, 2005–2006, pp. 55–67. [back to text]
  5. In 2002, this goal of prevention notably led to the distribution of a complaint management guide to government departments and agencies. Québec Ombudsman, Un bureau des plaintes légitime et crédible – Le traitement des plaintes dans les organisations gouvernementales, 2001. [back to text]
  6. Public Protector Act, R.S.Q., Chapter P-32; it is interesting to note that the annual reports of other ombudsmen report similar grounds of complaint. In the 2006 report by the European Ombudsman, we note under “types of alleged maladministration” the following reasons: “failure to ensure fulfillment of obligations, “legal error,” “negligence,” “discrimination,” “avoidable delay,” “unsatisfactory procedures,” “unfairness, abuse of power,” and “lack of transparency, including refusal of information.” In Ontario, the most common types of complaint investigated by the Ombudsman in 2005–2006 were the following: “wrong or unreasonable interpretation of criteria, standards, guidelines, regulations, laws, information, or evidence,” “unreasonable delay,” “failure to provide sufficient or proper notice,” “failure of governmental organization to adhere to its own processes, guidelines, or policies, or to apply them in a consistent manner,” “insufficient reasons for a decision, or no reasons given,” “failure to keep a proper record,” “denial of service,” “adverse impact or discriminatory consequence of a decision or policy for an individual or group,” and “failure to adequately or appropriately monitor or manage an agency for which the governmental organization is responsible.” [back to text]
  7. British Columbia Development Corporation v. Friedmann (Ombudsman), [1984] 2 S.C.R. 447, subsections65 to 67. [back to text]
  8. R.S.Q., chapter 6.01, sections 1 and 6. [back to text]
  9. Joël Rideau, “Le système de l'Ombudsman,” Revue des droits de l'homme, No. 3, December 1969. [back to text]
  10. The primary mission of Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse is to ensure, by all means appropriate, the promotion and respect of the principles enshrined in the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms (Section 71, Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms). The Québec Ombudsman also has jurisdiction over human rights. However, section 75 of the Charter calls for it to transmit any complaint it receives to the Commission if the complaint falls under the latter’s jurisdiction and the complainant is not opposed. [back to text]
  11. The American Bar Association identifies four: classical, executive, organizational, and advocate, the latter acting as counsel for the individuals protected (Advocate Ombuds). [back to text]
  12. GADLIN, Howard, The Ombudsman, What’s in a Name, (2000) 16 (1) Negotiation Journal 37. [back to text]