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Ombudsman lacks power to help veterans due to federal restrictions: report

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The veterans ombudsman’s office is hoping a new report flagging problems with the watchdog’s limited authority and lack of independence from the federal government will lead to improvements in its ability to help those who have served in uniform.

Commissioned by the ombudsman’s office, the report represents the first real review of the watchdog’s operations since it was created in 2007 as a place that disabled veterans could turn if they felt the federal government was treating them unfairly.

READ MORE: Government needs a plan for backlog of veterans’ aid applications, ombudsman says

Many veterans have since complained that the office has failed to live up to those expectations, an assessment that the watchdog itself has echoed.

“We strive to do our best, with the tools currently at our disposal, but we can and want to do more to address fairness issues veterans and their families are experiencing,” the ombudsman’s office said in a statement following the report’s release.

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“An expanded mandate would make that possible. We could investigate more veterans’ complaints, sooner, and more efficiently, which would enable us to have a greater ability to impact equitable outcomes for veterans and their families.”

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The analysis was conducted by Ottawa management firm Goss Gilroy Inc. and found the ombudsman has made a difference when it comes to some systemic issues affecting veterans such as inadequate financial support for large segments of the community.

Yet the analysis was frank in its assessment of the federally mandated limits on the office’s ability to investigate individual complaints, describing those restrictions as “key barriers” to the watchdog’s ability to help many veterans in need.

“The ombudsman should have the power to look at any complaint and not be restricted (with some specific exceptions like legal opinions), particularly when the department fails to respond to the complainant’s request for an internal review,” the report said.

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Read more: Injured veterans forced to wait months for support, disability benefits, government watchdog finds

It went on to note widespread and longstanding questions and concerns about the office’s perceived and real lack of independence given that it reports to the minister of veterans affairs and Veterans Affairs Canada rather than Parliament.

While staff in the ombudsman’s office and Veterans Affairs believed the watchdog has operated largely independently, the report said, “most external stakeholders questioned the independence of the OVO while being employed by and reporting to VAC.”

“Most veterans and other stakeholders interviewed believe that the OVO should be totally independent from VAC to avoid misperceptions, to safeguard against interference by the minister/department and to allow the office to use more than just ‘moral-suasion’ to achieve results.”

The report’s findings largely reflect concerns raised by the most recent ombudsman, Craig Dalton, before he resigned suddenly in May after only 18 months on the job to become city manager in Lethbridge, Alta.

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In response to the report, Veterans Affairs Canada says it plans to conduct its own assessment over the coming months to determine how the ombudsman’s office — which remains vacant following Dalton’s resignation — can be improved.

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While much of the report focused on the ombudsman’s limited ability to investigate certain cases and lack of independence, it also criticized the watchdog for taking a long time to respond to veterans’ complaints and concerns.

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“The veterans who raised concerns when interviewed noted that despite repeated calls or letters to the OVO, months could go by before they got an answer to their enquiry regarding their claim,” the report said.

The ombudsman’s office blamed a shortage of staff and constant turnover, but said it was working to address the problem.