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The concept of ombudsman (a Swedish word meaning “legal representative”) was formally established in Sweden in 1809, adopted in Finland in 1919, and rapidly expanded to Europe, Asia, Australia, and North America over the last fifty years. This dramatic spread of the institution was related to the post-World War II development of the welfare state and its increasing involvement in the lives of ordinary citizens, and to an increased need for neutral ways to limit arbitrary government decisions. In 1972, the newly elected New Democratic Party government of Allan Blakeney, with the support of the Opposition Liberal Party, enacted legislation to establish a Saskatchewan Ombudsman. There have been four ombudsman appointments to date, and each appointment has been unanimously supported by all the political parties in the Legislature.

A statutory ombudsman must meet a number of internationally recognized tests. In addition to being an independent officer of the Legislature and not the government, the ombudsman must be accessible to the public, possess broad powers of investigation, and have when necessary the authority to criticize government in public ways. The ombudsman’s role must also be that of independent assessor of facts, and not of automatic advocate for the citizen. This role is somewhat paradoxical in that it is both “powerless” and “powerful”: “powerless” in the sense that the role is one of recommending rather than enforcement; “powerful” in the sense that recommendations are almost invariably acted upon by governments to avoid public debate about their failings.

The Saskatchewan Ombudsman has always been a very active office, and has a long list of individual and system successes involving among others child protection, Corrections, Social Assistance, and worker’s compensation issues. This office has also developed some innovative organizational approaches by incorporating a mediation function in its processes, and a variety of outreach activities to connect with Aboriginal and northern persons as well as others in more remote parts of the province. In 1994, the Office of the Children’s Advocate was established by a legislation which combined this Office with that of the Ombudsman.

Dave Tickell

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