The Office of the Ombud will be opening its doors in Hay River in early December.
“I’m expecting that it will be Dec. 9,” said Colette Langlois, the NWT’s first ombud. “It might be sooner, but Dec. 9 at the latest.”
Langlois said it had been hoped to open the doors to the public by the first of September, but that was delayed by the late delivery of some supplies and ongoing work at the office space.
Langlois moved to Hay River from Yellowknife at the end of August with the expectation that she would begin working in the new office space, but that did not happen until early October when she could set up a desk there.
“But before that I was working at a picnic table out at Twin Falls Park and sometimes I was working at a carrel in the library,” she said. “So if people saw me in my truck making phone calls, that’s what was going on. I just didn’t have a place to work.”
Currently, an office manager/intake officer is also working at the office, and an early resolution and investigations officer will start on Dec. 2.
Langlois said she is happy with the location, particularly because it is not in a government office building.
“Because we’re independent from government, I didn’t want to be in a building where there were a whole bunch of other government offices,” she said. “Then it would seem like we’re just another government office, and we’re not. We’re independent.”
The Office of the Ombud is located in space formerly occupied by the law firm MacDonald & Associates.
Langlois said she is very excited to see the office almost ready to open.
“I’ve had some enquires over the summer from people,” she said. “In some cases, I’ve been able to refer them somewhere else, and in some cases I wished I could have taken the complaint and done something to help them out. So to finally be able to do that is really good. And I’m really looking forward to advertising it so we start getting more calls coming in.”
The territorial legislation creating the Office of the Ombud came into force on Nov. 18.
“So that means that I now have the authority to take complaints and look into them,” said Langlois.
An ombud is an independent statutory officer of the Legislative Assembly, and free from political influence. The office promotes fairness in public administration and investigates complaints concerning GNWT departments, agencies, authorities, boards and councils.
Langlois was appointed the ombud in April.
Since then, along with working to get the office physically opened, she did a number of things to prepare for that day.
“I’ve been to Yellowknife a couple of times and met with the deputy ministers there to start explaining to them what our office does and building those working relationships that we’re going to need to make this a good process,” she said.
Langlois has found the deputy ministers receptive to her new role.
“The proof will come out when we actually have some situations to deal with that are difficult,” she said. “But I think there’s a lot of receptivity to this. I think it’s important to remind people that I’m not an advocate for complainants. I advocate for fairness. So it’s not an adversarial process. I’m not representing complainants and trying to take an adversarial approach with departments. It’s really collaborative.”
In addition, she met with ombuds in other parts of Canada.
All the provinces and territories have a legislative ombud, except for P.E.I. and Nunavut, and they have offered help and advice, she said. “From providing copies of their job descriptions so I had an idea of what I needed to do for our office to advice on policies and procedures. There’s a whole network of people that I can pick up the phone and call, and that feels really good to have that support.”
The ombud can make recommendations to various government departments and agencies, but cannot order them to do anything.
“I report to the Legislative Assembly,” Langlois explained. “So I will be doing annual reports to the speaker that go into the Legislative Assembly. But if I do an investigation and recommendations come out of it, there’s actually a process for me to make those recommendations directly to the department.”
The new office is located in Hay River at Langlois’ own recommendation, partly because it is a territorial office and partly because the location makes it easier to travel to many other communities by highway.
Langlois grew up in Yellowknife, and served nearly two decades with the GNWT and the Legislative Assembly, including as acting clerk for a year and as director of research services for over a decade.