If you feel you’ve been treated unfairly by the provincial or local government, the BC Ombudsperson’s office is there to help. You can talk to them in person when they visit the West Kootenay next week.
Appointments may be booked by calling 1-800-567-3247 for meetings in Nelson, Castlegar, Trail, Creston, Salmo and Kaslo from July 18 to 22.
“We’re here to help people ensure the right to fair treatment is protected,” B.C.’s Ombudsperson Jay Chalke told the Nelson Star in an interview. “If they believe that they have not been treated fairly, they have a right to make a complaint to my office.”
Chalke, who oversees 70 staff at the Ombudsperson’s office in Victoria, gave the example of a woman in Penticton who had trouble paying her property taxes and felt that she had been treated unfairly because of her disability.
Her home was assessed at $420,000 but the City of Penticton sold it in a tax sale auction for $150,000.
After investigating the matter, the Ombudsman’s office agreed that she had been treated unfairly and made a recommendation to the province for legislative change, which the government is now working on. The City of Penticton has also agreed to compensate her for the value of lost equity in her home.
“It’s government’s responsibility to figure out a way to serve all of us,” Chalke said. “Not everybody can be served in a cookie-cutter kind of way. Some people need a little bit of extra help.”
Chalke said although the $10-million program is funded by government, it is independent.
“We’re independent, impartial, neutral. Investigators are like a baseball umpire. Our job is to call balls and strikes. So we’re not on one side of the other. We’re not advocates for complainants, and we’re not apologists for government.”
The Ombudsperson’s office has the authority to handle complaints about some agencies but not others.
It will take complaints about Crown corporations, hospitals and health authorities, regional and municipal governments, provincial government ministries and programs, professional organizations, schools and universities.
But it does not deal with banks, credit unions, doctors, health professionals, disputes between individuals, disputes with employers, the federal government, insurance (except ICBC), lawyers, police, Indigenous governments, court decisions, or conduct of judges.
In 2021, the Ombudsperson’s office received 7,714 complaints about government decisions or procedures. The office ultimately decided to investigate 1,181 of those.
The office has the power to compel disclosure of records and to compel people to speak to them under oath. But it can not order governments to change anything. It can only make recommendations.
When deciding whether to investigate a complaint, the office asks some basic questions such as: Was there undue delay? Was there an unfair procedure? Was there a mistake of fact or a mistake of law made when considering somebody’s case?
Chalke said his office recently carried out an investigation for an income assistance recipient who thought the earnings exemption had been incorrectly calculated by the Ministry of Social Development. The Ombudsman investigator decided the complaint was valid.
“We pursued it with the ministry and determined that the same mistake had happened to some 3,000 other people over five years,” Chalke said. “And so one complaint with respect to $500 turned into nearly a million dollars actually of unpaid support systems over five years.”
As a result of the Ombudsperson’s decision, the ministry paid those 3,000 people the money it owed them.
Sometimes Chalke’s office will decide not to investigate a case if the complainant has not first exhausted all their options with the agency involved. For example, many government services such as WorkSafeBC and income assistance have internal appeal processes. People should use those first, and use the Ombudsperson as a last resort, Chalke said.
Two years ago the Ombudsperson looked into whether people’s basic rights were being protected when they were involuntarily committed to a hospital under the Mental Health Act.
“There’s about a half a dozen things that are supposed to occur,” Chalke said, “and so we looked at that, we took a month, and looked at every psychiatric institution in the province and looked at every admission, and tried to figure out whether those half dozen things occurred. And we came to the conclusion that they only occurred about a quarter of the time.”
So the Ombudsperson recommended a rights advisory service – an advocate for people being committed under the Act. Chalke says a bill has been introduced in the legislature to provide this service.
The Ombudsperson’s office does not just investigate governments, it also helps them by providing a consulting service that advises them on how to make their services fairer.
The office also works with whistleblowers. If government employees want to disclose unfairness in their own agencies, the Ombudsperson can assist them while ensuring there is no retaliation from the employer.
For West Kootenay appointments, the BC Ombudsperson’s office is not publicizing the location of the appointments or which day in which town, “to protect the privacy of our complainants.” People will be given this information when they phone for their appointment.