Provincial ombudsman visits Red Deer in fight for fairness

The provincial ombudsman made a stop in Red Deer on Tuesday as part of his tour to talk face to face with Albertans about concerns of unfair treatment and increase awareness on how the ombudsman’s office works.

The provincial ombudsman made a stop in Red Deer on Tuesday as part of his tour to talk face to face with Albertans about concerns of unfair treatment and increase awareness on how the ombudsman’s office works.

“If someone feels they’ve been treated unfairly by provincial government authorities and exhausted all the avenues of appeal . . . they can then come to us if they are still not satisfied,” said Peter Hourihan, who was sworn in as Alberta’s eighth ombudsman in 2011.

Hourihan called attention to the fact that every Albertan has the right to be treated fairly in the provision of public services and that it is his job to uphold this right.

The ombudsman’s three investigators met with 14 individuals and self-advocate groups and agencies from Red Deer on Tuesday. There were no atypical concerns expressed at the meetings, Hourihan said, noting most are “benefit program driven” complaints and pertain to things like workers compensation.

He could not comment on specific complaints that were brought to the forefront but said that talking face to face makes a difference for people who are already feeling frustrated with the government.

There were 117 complaints from Central Alberta written up in the ombudsman’s office in 2010-2011, 140 in 2011-2012 and 84 in 2012-2013. Hourihan said the office receives about 4,500 calls a year but only 900 to 1,000 of those fall under the jurisdiction and are taken further.

The majority of complaints over the past three years in the Red Deer region involved the Workers Compensation Board, Child and Family Services, the patient concerns resolution process of Alberta Health Services, income and employment supports and the Appeals Commission for Alberta Workers’ Compensation.

“The volume of calls about AHS is pretty high across the province but I don’t have jurisdiction with AHS . . . If you have a complaint about them, you have to go to them. If you’re not happy with how you’re treated by them, then you can come to us and I can look at how they handled it; I can’t look at the entire thing.”

During his public presentation on Tuesday evening, Hourihan also noted the ombudsman’s office has no jurisdiction in the courts or the legislative assembly, and while it operates independently of the government, they cannot investigate MLAs or ministers nor crown solicitors or crown councils.

It also cannot investigate concerns that involve private organizations, such as private long-term care facilities for seniors.

“I have jurisdiction in the administrative side — the policy and processes and procedures that you have to go through when you’re looking to deal with the government, largely in terms of benefits, such as workers’ compensation, or if your land is being affected by things the province is doing for example.”

If an investigation reveals the complainant was treated unfairly, the ombudsman makes a number of recommendations. He said 98 per cent of the time these are accepted.

Hourihan said he can also look into a concern if a minister or government committee requests it.

“That’s something that’s not in use very often. It’s only been used 14 or 15 times in Alberta and the last time it was used was in 1995 so I’m also trying to increase awareness about these capabilities we have to the government as well as Albertans,” he said.

“I’m not an advocate. I can’t fight for you but I can fight for fairness . . . People ask me when is the right time to call us and I say call whenever you think you should. Irregardless if your concern is under our jurisdiction or not, we can point you in the right direction.”

Hourihan said the ombudsman’s office responds to all calls within four hours.

They will meet with more members of the public in Lacombe before heading to Calgary and then back to Edmonton.

The group has already visited Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and Grande Prairie and hopes to continue to visit about four Alberta communities per year, Hourihan said.

rfrancoeur@bprda.wpengine.com

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