TORONTO — Local public health units, which have been at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19, lack independent oversight, Ontario’s ombudsman said Tuesday, calling on the province address the issue as soon as possible.
Paul Dube released his annual report on Monday, outlining trends and investigations his office handled between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021.
Dube said Ontarians struggled to access public services during the pandemic and oversight bodies helped his office resolve many of their issues.
“With directives, plans, policies, and programs constantly evolving in response to the ever-changing state of public health, many turned to us to help them obtain services and information when they felt lost and overwhelmed,” Dube told reporters.
A gap stood out in the area of the province’s 34 public health units, the report noted.
The ombudsman’s office received 87 complaints about public health units on a range of issues including COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, amenity closures and access to vaccines. But Dube said those organizations have no independent oversight, either from his office or the patient ombudsman, and the complaints could not be directed anywhere.
“It’s very important for any administrative body to function effectively and optimally, there should be an oversight mechanism there,” he said.
Dube recommended the government establish independent oversight of the 34 public health units “as soon as is practicable.”
Transparency issues were also a common theme in complaints about closed municipal meetings. The ombudsman’s office received a “surge” in complaints about meetings — double that of the previous year — that were permitted to be held electronically for the first time during the pandemic to prevent spreading the virus.
The ombudsman’s office said it stepped in to help offer guidance and best practices for municipalities grappling with the “new reality” of virtual meetings, which led to issues like livestream links not being shared ahead of meetings and technical difficulties improperly barring the public from observing.
He also recommended, in a letter to the municipal affairs minister referenced in the report, that the word “present” be removed from the definition of a municipal meeting, so that open meeting rules would apply when a quorum of councillors interact in any forum and decisions can’t be made behind closed doors.
There were also several complaints to the French language services unit of the ombudsman’s office regarding communications about pandemic measures and shutdowns that were not always immediately available in French.
Overall, complaints to the ombudsman’s office were lower last year than in previous years, at just over 20,000 cases.
However, the ombudsman noted continuing trends in complaints from inmates in Ontario correctional facilities around health-care access that was limited during the pandemic, segregation and lockdowns.
The office noted a trend in cases among children and youth in care who saw aspects of their care “reduced or eliminated” during the pandemic, including family and social worker visits. The report noted delays in criminal record checks for caregivers as well. It also highlighted a “disturbing” trend of complaints involving children’s aid societies calling the police to deal with young people in care.
The ombudsman launched investigations this year into the sudden closure of two youth justice centres in northern Ontario and the decision to cut French-language programs at Laurentian University as part of a restructuring.
An investigation is continuing into health and long-term care ministry oversight of long-term care homes during the pandemic.
Dube also highlighted lack of progress on implementing legislation that would give the ombudsman jurisdiction over all police oversight bodies, and recommendations he made in 2016 about de-escalation training for police.
He said the lack of action on those 2016 recommendations is “regrettable” and called for action in light of the recent global push for police reform.
“My fear is that the glacial pace of reform, in the face of the tragedies that continue to occur, will further undermine public confidence in the police,” Dube wrote.