Ontario’s overzealous G20 policing law still on books: ombudsman

Matthew Coutts
Ontario’s overzealous G20 policing law still on books: ombudsman

Ontario Ombudsman André Marin is disappointed, let down by a government that has promised changes, but has not delivered.

The independent oversight office is tasked with keeping the government and services in line, with protecting the little guy. But even when it gets results, changes are slow coming.

A report from the Ombudsman’s Office released on Tuesday outlines the issues Marin and his staff have faced this year. One key piece of frustration is his lack of jurisdiction, primarily in the healthcare sector.

More on that later. There is something else in the report that could make hair stand on end.

Marin confirmed on Tuesday that a questionable law enacted to give Ontario police additional powers during Toronto's G20 Summit in 2010 is still on the books.

The Public Works Protection Act, an ancient law resurrected (and more than a few would add, abused) by the province before the summit and its corresponding protests hit downtown Toronto, was supposed to come off the books. Alas, not yet.

The issue was the focus of a previous report from Marin, in which he revealed the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services had quietly granted police extra authority regarding spot searches and arrests. His report, Caught in the Act, concluded that the law "suspended normal civil rights, resulting in more than 1,000 people being searched and/or detained by security forces."

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The Ministry agreed to repeal the law in February 2012, but an amendment died when legislature was prorogued later that year.

So, three years after the government's role in approving these inappropriately heavy-handed powers was identified, and after the government promised to make changes, we still wait.

Marin said he was comfortable that making changes the Public Works Protection Act is still on the government's radar.

"There is no doubt about it, there have been difficult political times these last couple of years," Marin said during a press conference on Tuesday.

"I would still like to see it fixed, because we have an unconstitutional law that is in effect in Ontario right now."

But that's not the only way the Liberal government has let Marin down over the past year.

The key gripe the ombudsman had was the lack of progress made in expanding his purview into the health sector.

Former premier Dalton McGuinty had hinted last year that the Ombudsman's Office would be given jurisdiction over the MUSH sector (municipalities, universities, school boards and hospitals). But, a year later, he is no closer to being given the expanded mandate.

The Ombudsman's Office dealt with 19,726 cases over the previous year, ending in March 2013. But it was also forced to turn away 2,541 complaints related to MUSH sector because they were out of its jurisdiction.

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Earlier this year, Premier Kathleen Wynne rejected a request from the NDP to extend such authority to the ombudsman. It was one of the few demands, issued by the NDP in exchange for supporting the Liberal budget, which was rejected.

Marin writes:

Political wrangling aside, there is simply no well-articulated, rational justification for barring Ombudsman oversight in the MUSH sector. Sadly, it seems that “anybody but the Ombudsman” is the rallying cry for some government insiders.

Among those areas that remain out of reach of Marin's office is long-term care homes, where 76,000 Ontario residents live without external oversight, and the Ornge air ambulance service – the focus of intense scrutiny regarding safety and efficiency. Marin said Ornge's Patient Advocate – a position created to handle compliments and complaints – is still a staff position and incapable of operating entirely independently.

Marin says the Ontario Ombudsman's Office ranks last among its provincial peers in the authority it has over municipalities, universities, school boards and hospitals.

All he's asking is for the government to lean on his office for a little more independent oversight.

And then following his recommendations in a timely manner would help out as well.