February 19th, 2020

Alberta’s ombudsman keeps busy receiving about 5,000 calls a year

By Mabell, Dave on September 12, 2019.

Alberta Ombudsman Marianne Ryan speaks with a reporter in an interview during a stop in Lethbridge. Herald photo by Ian Martens @IMartensHerald

Dave Mabell

Lethbridge Herald


When she retired, Marianne Ryan was a deputy commissioner and commanding officer of K Division – Alberta – for the RCMP.

But now she’s seeing more of the province, under rather more pleasant circumstances.

Two years ago, Ryan was named Alberta’s ombudsman.

Instead of heading to major crime scenes, she has time to visit groups and communities, and remind Albertans they have the right to appeal decisions made by any municipal or provincial official.

“I wanted to stay in Alberta,” and to remain a public servant.

“I was looking for a new challenge,” she explained during an interview in Lethbridge, where she was also scheduled to visit the provincial jail.

Alberta was the first North American jurisdiction to create an ombudsman’s office, 52 years ago, and Ryan says it currently receives about 5,000 calls each year. Some complaints prove unsubstantiated, she says, while others are redirected to agencies like the Workers Compensation Board – which should have been the initial contact.

But about one-quarter of those complaints are actively investigated and Ryan says the arms-length public agency has been able to speed up that process considerably.

“About 84 per cent of our investigations are completed within three months,” she reports.

They can be triggered by a phone call or an online statement. Directions are offered on the agency’s website, http://www.ombudsman.ab.ca – which also explains how the process works.

“We have a pretty good website,” she says, and it provides case summaries so Albertans can see how the ombudsman staff deals with the issues they’re presented.

Many relate to the province’s justice system, Ryan says, including complaints from men and women in Alberta’s correctional centres. Health care and mental health concerns also prompt many calls.

The ombudsman’s jurisdiction includes provincially licensed professionals like physicians and surgeons, she points out, as well as agencies like Alberta Health Care and local planning commissions. Her office can’t compel an authority to reverse a decision, however.

“But we have been very successful in meeting with the authorities,” persuading them to consider changing how they deal with cases.

The ombudsman’s office issues an annual report each fall, and usually “By the time my report comes out, they’ve made a change.”

Situations that haven’t reached a satisfactory solution, on the other hand, may become the subject of a special report issued along with the annual presentation. As an arm of the legislature, Ryan points out, the ombudsman reports to an all-party committee – not to the party in power.

In addition, Ryan adds, she also serves as the province’s Public Interest Commissioner. One of that agency’s important functions is protecting “whistle-blowers” who work for cities, other Alberta agencies or the provincial government.

Every provincial government department has to have a system for responding to complaints of wrong-doing, she says. But many people could fear retribution – even loss of their job.

“You have to allow people to raise their voices” when they see something wrong, but to do so confidentially.

In an uncertain economic situation, Ryan expects to see the number of those issues increase.

“When times are tough, that’s when people will complain.”

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