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Ombudsman says 2023 was a year of growth

As I begin this message, it is mid-December and I am having a hard time believing that another year has come and gone – I’m sure many of you are feeling the same way. But as I look at all that we have accomplished this past year, I am simultaneously amazed by the immense growth that my office and team achieved in such a short period of time – all in pursuit of a City of Toronto government that serves people fairly.

A human rights approach to housing

One of the biggest areas of growth for the office in 2023 was the creation of a new housing unit, led by Toronto’s first Deputy Ombudsman (Housing) Reema Patel. Launched in August, the unit has already made great strides in its oversight of the City of Toronto’s housing policies and programs. Not only has the unit been fully staffed with a team of seasoned investigators and policy staff, but we’ve also launched the unit’s first systemic investigation into the City’s decision to deny refugee claimants access to space in its shelter system. That investigation is well underway – we will share our findings and any recommendations for the City in the new year.

The housing crisis was one of the most pressing issues facing the City of Toronto this year and I have no doubt that will continue well into 2024. I am proud of the work that Reema and her team in the housing unit are doing to improve housing outcomes for everyone in this city.

Our first investigation into Toronto Police

Continuing the momentum from the new housing unit, we launched our first investigation into the Toronto Police Service (TPS) and Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB). As a part of this investigation – which falls under our Memorandum of Understanding with the TPS and TPSB – we will examine the adequacy and fairness of the TPS’s communication about its Vulnerable Persons Registry (VPR), a voluntary database that aims to provide Toronto police with the information and strategies needed to de-escalate encounters with people facing emotional distress.

In 2022, Toronto Police officers responded to more than 30,000 calls involving individuals experiencing mental health challenges and emotional distress. Given the voluntary nature of the VPR, it is critical that TPS’s communication about the registry is clear and meaningful, ensuring people have the information needed and feel safe to provide TPS with the tools to respond with the care, knowledge, and de-escalation skills required. Our investigation will aim to ensure TPS is doing just that.

Creating systemic change within the City of Toronto

We also released the findings of two investigations into unfairness at the City of Toronto. The first investigation report, released in March, examined the City’s clearing of encampments in the summer of 2021. It found that the City chose expediency over the needs of the individuals living in parks, causing undue confusion and harm. The City owes a particularly high duty of fairness to those facing housing precarity and living outside and we will continue monitoring its implementation of our 31 recommendations in that report to ensure it follows through on that duty.

In June, we released the findings of our second investigation report into the Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s (TCHC) human rights complaints process, which found several fairness issues. Notably, we found that TCHC’s human rights policies were wildly out of date and that it did not properly train or resource its staff responsible for dealing with tenants’ human rights. We made 14 recommendations, which we are monitoring to ensure that TCHC maintains a housing environment where tenants’ human rights are respected and protected.

Responding directly to people’s needs

In addition to our systemic investigations, the team worked diligently to address the concerns raised by individual members of the public. As the issues in Toronto have become more complex – including a lack of affordable housing, rising costs of living, and gaps in our healthcare systems – so too have the complaints to our office. In fact, over the past five years, the number of cases handled by our office has increased by 53%. This is a telling number a true testament to the importance of a strong and reliable accountability system that makes sure the City of Toronto is responsible to the people it serves – you.

If you feel you’ve been treated unfairly by the City of Toronto and you aren’t sure where to go, know that you aren’t alone. My office is here to listen and we will do our best to help. If you’d like more information about the types of complaints you can bring to our office, you can read about some of the cases we’ve handled on our website (all names are changed for privacy).

Looking ahead to continued growth for the people of Toronto

As one of my investigators so perfectly said, the work above is the result of countless hours and many, many months of hard work and dedication by Ombudsman Toronto staff, a group of individuals who believe in the mission of our office and ensuring people in our city – especially those facing precarious situations and additional barriers to support – are treated fairly.

It is both an honour and a privilege to do the work we do at Ombudsman Toronto – and it’s a responsibility that none of us take lightly. As we look ahead to 2024, rest assured, our commitment to a fair City government is stronger than ever before.

Ombudsman Kwame Addo