The position of Canada’s Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime has stood vacant for six months. How Justice Canada and the Privy Council Office could allow this to happen is anyone’s guess. Walking you through my own experience in applying for the position reveals that it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Interior of the Privy Council Office
It’s been exactly one year since Justice Canada first advertised for the Ombudsman position. The former Ombudsman, Sue O’Sullivan had announced she would be retiring in August 2017 (a negotiation resulted in her staying on for an additional 3 months). This seemed like a great opportunity to correct the appointment from the Harper era. O’Sullivan was a former police chief: can you imagine a more appalling representative for victims of violence? (her Twitter feed quickly revealed she preferred to network with other LEOs). And BTW the OFOVC’s Tweeter feed is lost in the stone-age: pushing out information, with no effort to engage people.
Some associates in victims advocacy suggested I should apply. I thought they were joking and basically responded “they’d never let me run the office they way I want to”. Their response was quick and universal: “that’s why you should apply.” I reviewed the application criteria and realized I was well qualified for the job:
- I have a Masters of Public Administration with a concentration in justice administration. Prior to being promoted to the position of Assistant Director of Budget & Management Services for the City of Durham, North Carolina, I was working on my PhD in Criminology.
- I have experience working in finance and budgeting. I was the former Treasurer for the City of Durham. I have implemented or co-implemented the following government best practices in my career: strategic planning, performance measurement and management, priority / program based budgeting, multi-year financial planning.
- At the operational level I run an office similar in size and scope as that of the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime / OFOVC; Durham’s Office of Budget & Management Services is an office of 12 employees with an annual operating budget of approximately $1.3M, the OFOVC has 9 employees with an annual budget also of $1.3M.
- Significant experience in Canadian victim advocacy: I was a founding member of the now dissolved Canadian Association of Victim Advocates (CAVA) and Quebec’s Association des Familles de Personnes Assassinées ou Disparues (AFPAD). I was one of many who lobbied for the creation of the office of a victims’ ombudsman. I am currently Board Vice-Chair for Long-Term Inmates Now in the Community (LINC) of Mission, British Columbia, whose project, Emma’s Acres helps former offenders and victims re-integrate into the community. Currently I act as a liaison between Quebec crime victims and the Surete du Quebec’s cold-case unit to ensure better communication between police and victims of crime.
- Experience in the management of a complaints function, a review function or an investigative function: The City of Durham is nationally known for its engagement process with the community in annual budgeting. I work as an intermediary between the City and residents to ensure that their priorities are heard and addressed through a variety of mediums including public hearings, community meetings, annual digital townhall meetings, surveying, and social media platforms.
- Our Budgeting office in Durham recently established an Innovation Division and was awarded a Bloomberg Philanthropies grant to foster and promote productive partnerships with community stakeholders with a focus of behavioral economics.
Finally I had good representational support in my letters of recommendation from victims from British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. All of this I considered a good foundation to start the application process. True, I was a little rusty on some of the policy issues, but Justice provided good guidance on their website of the areas I needed to bone up on (The Criminal Code, Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadian Victims Bill of Rights, Corrections and Conditional Release Act, etc…)
I began my process with a couple of softball pitches to the OFOVC, and the results spelled trouble. The first question I asked, “Does you office have a strategic plan” was met with “no we do not have a strategic plan”.
Wrong answer. The OFOVC does have a strategic plan, it is embedded in Justice Canada’s strategic plan. Furthermore, it is a carryover from the early Peter MacKay era. First issue: if you’re not aware of your strategic plan, what are you doing? How do you know where you’re going? How will you know you’ve arrived when you get there? Second issue: a strategic plan is a living, dynamic process, it is not a binder of paper that sits on a shelf. It should be updated every two years, with the goals and priorities coming from the victim community and its stakeholders.
The second matter is a little trickier to explain, and involved the matter of the 1977 Montreal murder of Katherine Hawkes. Murder cases are usually matters for the provinces and local law enforcement, but Hawkes’ murder was unique. She was murdered at a CN railway station, which is on Federal land, so the cold case was initially assigned to the RCMP. This meant that the OFOVC did have jurisdiction and authority over assisting in the victims inquiry of the Hawkes murder. Representing Hawkes’ cousin I made my inquiry to the OFOVC. Here’s the response I received:
“Thank you for communicating once again with the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime (OFOVC). Any matters or issues pertaining to the RCMP… I would encourage you to communicate with (them) given that they would be in a better position to answer your questions and or direct you to the best resources….
Wishing you well Mr. Allore in finding resolution.”
Never mind that I had already informed the OFOVC that I had previously communicated with the RCMP and found them unresponsive, the OFOVC kicked-the-can right back to the RCMP.
Things were not looking good for a continued relationship the the Office of the Ombudsman, but I submitted my application anyway, and began to do my research, never believing I’d ever get an interview anyway.
Things Get Worse
In reviewing the OFOVC’s materials one thing became immediately apparent: their annual report was really bad. The format hadn’t been updated since the Steve Sullivan era (the first victims ombudsman). Too many glossy photos paying lip service to diversity. A series of recommendations, but an office without any clout to see them implemented. Their performance measures were the worst: all workload, a lot of counting: Number of calls received. Number of email responses. Nothing that told you the Office was moving the needle substantively on any victim policy issue.
Further, the Ombudsman was a contract employee with options for renewal every three years. Who could possibly advance policy under these conditions? With a three year mandate?
The first thing I would be doing on day one of employment? Looking for my next job.
Even further, everyone the Ombudsman supervised in that 9 person office was a career Federal employee. If they didn’t like you or the direction you were moving they could simply wait you out. They weren’t working for you, you were working for them.
My suspicions and hesitancy were confirmed when in mid-June 2017 I was contacted by the Office of Privy Council and asked to travel to Ottawa for a formal interview. My interest in the position at this point was still sincere, I thought I at least owed them a chance to explain some of my perceived issues and challenges. From this you can see my approach to the whole process: They weren’t only interviewing me, I was interviewing them.
The interview took place in July 2017 at the Privy Council Office on Wellington. I met with a panel of five (all women) from Justice, Privy and OFOVC. The process was a fairly canned, stiff affair. Round robin questions, with the panel taking time to scribble and score you – yes this a familiar process, it’s the one we use in Durham when we interview candidates – but no one allowed room to open things up, and delve into specifics. In Durham, if a candidate brings something up that you feel might need more mining, you have the freedom to go off-script and probe. There was none of that with the OFOVC process. The hour was so rigid I assumed at the time that they had already chosen someone and they had made up their mind to go-through-the-motions with me (we now that not to be true!).
80 Wellington Street
The worst was the french question. This had been telegraphed and prompted beyond believe. All candidates were told prior to the interview that there would be one question in french. Before the interview commenced one of the panel – again – told me that a french question was coming (you were an idiot not to know it was coming from the one panel member with the heavy french accent). When it came, it was lobbed at me at slow-motion speed, as if I were in elementary school. And then – again – I was reassured I could respond in English.
Why the hell would I want to respond in English? If I wasn’t capable of communicating in french I had no business representing all victims as the Ombudsman of Canada.
In the course of the interview I did manage to communicate to them what I thought I was capable of accomplishing in three years. Traveling around the country and meeting stakeholders was important, but I had no intention of being a pamphlet pusher and glad-handler. The OFOVC needed to first conduct a survey of victims and representatives not simply to determine who the victims were (the current focus of most victim surveys), but more importantly, what do victims need and want. From that, develop a strategic plan that is independent of Justice Canada, establish metrics that are measurable, then work toward achieving some goals and making some decisions that are data-driven. If the expectation was for the Ombudsman to become fully involved in the #MMIWG process it would need complete support and transparency from Justice. Advancing policy along the lines of victim representation in the court process would need more time, a 5 or 7 year mandate / contract.
When the interview ended I was allowed time for one question of my own, and it was made clear they wouldn’t address salary and benefits at this point. I was briskly escorted out of the building.
Maybe we weren’t such a good fit. Maybe they didn’t share my vision, or I theirs. Maybe they just didn’t like me?
What happened next forced me to burn a bridge. I don’t mind writing all this because I made up my mind last November that I would never take the position of Federal Victims Ombudsman of Canada.
First, had we arrived at a salary and benefits discussion I was pretty firm that I was going to ask that the Ombudsman be reclassified 2 steps up in the Federal pay grade ladder, and that I be given – at least – a 5 year contract. They never would have agreed to this, so the thing was never going to happen anyway.
Second, in the room I said something to the effect of, “you couldn’t pay me enough to do this job!” This woke them up, then I clarified: You do this work out of passion, money can never truly compensate for the efforts required.
Then there was the whole reimbursement thing.
I traveled to Ottawa on my own dime with the promise of being reimbursed on submission of all my receipts. All receipts were submitted electronically in July. I was told they need the original receipts, they would need to be mailed. I mailed them. I waited.
August, I waited. I emailed. I called. I waited.
September, more calling, more emails, more waiting.
I was told the matter was held up in the Federal central accounting office. I had submitted a reimbursement request for a $3.50 bus ride from the airport, but no receipt (I lost the receipt).
Now at this point I have to stop and go into this. I had been extremely responsible with all my expenses. I could have taken a $60 limousine to and from the airport. I could have stayed at the Laurier, I stayed at the Elgin (they were having a sale). I could have charged them for three nights instead of two, I didn’t think tax payers should pay for my extra day of museums and sightseeing… And now my money was tied up in process over a $3.50 cent bus ride.
And here’s the punchline. In November – 4 months after my interview – they mailed me a cheque for my expenses. Well for some of my expenses. I was on the hook for approximately $1,200 American (net of anything like the third day of lodgings, etc…). I received a cheque for approximately $800 Canadian, roughly half of what I went out of pocket for with the whole ordeal.
And I couldn’t even cash it. I had to wait until the end of November when I was in Kingston to get the Canadian funds from RBC… cross the street to the bank exchange to covert it back to American, in which process I lose EVEN MORE MONEY.
I did receive a rather perfunctory email from the Privy Council that basically said that if I had any complaints I could take them up with the Prime Minister.
That’s it people. That is you Federal Justice process at work.
Canada does deserve a good victims ombudsman. The position should not be standing vacant for 6 months, the need is too important. But it won’t be me.