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New MP, Ombudsman idea « Douglas Fisher



Reflections: New MP, idea for Ombudsman
Transcripts of interviews with Douglas

When I got here as a green MP in 1957, my prime interest was in transport policy, which was the largest single element of the federal government that influenced my riding. That was because of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the harbour at the Lakehead. Grain from the Prairies and potash from Saskatchewan were stored there. There was also the iron ore from Steep Rock, Ontario. This meant that we had freight sheds for dry land shipping, but not the bulk commodity shipping – stuff coming up the St. Lawrence from overseas and being unloaded at the Lakehead. Then there were the questions about the railway track in and out of the Lakehead and how quickly ships could be turned over. There was also the real question of how good the rails were between the Lakehead and Winnipeg. We had three different lines: The Fort William-Sioux Lookout-Winnipeg line on the CN, the CN to Fort Francis, through the United States and into Winnipeg. Then we had the CPR, which always kept the best track. The others had to be brought up to standard and were updated during the war when there was so much traffic. It began to mount in 1940 and soon got really heavy. By1952, Canada reached its high point of rail traffic, including both passengers and freight. That is when the aftermath of the war began to slip away and more shipping companies were turning to long-distance trucking.

When I came down to Ottawa in1957, the public servants were very welcoming. The deputy minister of Transport went out of his way to speak with all the new MPs who were interested in the policy. So, in a way it was remarkably open. Then, in the following ten or twelve years things really did begin to tighten up in terms of information. I do not know what it was, but I can think of various reasons for it. The growing tendency to reveal less information increased significantly when the Liberals went back into power in 1963. It was almost as though the Tories were just learning to be secretive toward the end. Then the Liberals came in and carried things on.

Although it has now been formalized, in the late fifties and early sixties you could make a personal intervention with the minister if you were not happy with the information the deputy minister had passed on to you. But there was a quid pro quo in it. I used to get a lot of information I needed for my region from minister Jack Pickersgill and his chief aide Alistair Fraser. There was a price I had to pay for that. I had to play ball with them too. You cannot kick the shit out of somebody in the House of Commons and then go behind the curtain and ask the same person for favours. Today, access is now much more complicated.

The first trip I took overseas after I got elected was to Denmark for an oddball meeting of the Socialists International. It included the Labor parties from the U.K., France, West Germany, Denmark, etc…I was in Copenhagen for two days. The very first man I met was the number two man of the British Labor Party: George Brown. He was a true working man who could talk. He was tough. I sort of attached myself to him and watched him operate. It became clear that they were much more ideological in Europe than we were. I do not mean so much as spewing the party line. It was a question of ‘knowing what socialism meant’ and how far socialism could go. There were Marxists, but they were not pro-Russian communists. George Brown was a pretty radical guy. But one of the things that was being debated at this time was something called an Ombudsman. The Danes had one. The Swedes had just created one and they were talking of creating another for a different field than the legislatures. I spent a couple of hours talking to the Danish Ombudsman and I decided it was a great idea to have an independent individual in an office so that people who have a grievance against the government – including information that was being denied to them – could go to the Ombudsman and make a presentation. The Ombudsman then had the responsibility to investigate and try to get the information. If he could not, he had to provide an explanation to both the person who wanted it and to the legislature in Denmark. So, when I came back in 1958, I put a motion on the Order Paper, advocating the creation of an Ombudsman. That was the first real mention of it in Canada. Right away there were newspaper stories because I had brought back all of the bumph from Sweden, Finland and Denmark. I was a young CCFer who was going to open up government.

When I left the House, the issue had been debated a number of times. There were people working actively for it. One committee dealt at length with its examination of the idea and brought over people from Europe. Bob Thompson, who was then leader of the Social Credit and a Tory MP from Calgary, was there, along with a man by the name of Art Smith. When I did not put the motion on the Order Paper during my last session, ‘64-‘65, both Art and Thompson put a motion in about it. After 1965, the new Minister of Justice John Turner had a session with the Justice Committee that dealt completely with the idea of an Ombudsman. And, of course, he gave a stock answer by saying that it is really unnecessary in our system because of the close relationship of the MPs with the executive Cabinet. The other thing that was a bit different is that our courts were often presented with motions and cases that took them into questions of what has gone on inside the bureaucracy – particularly on tax cases.

I have never really had it out with Turner on that matter, but the idea was there. Then, in about 1966, Alberta decided that it would have a provincial Ombudsman. This was partly due to Thompson’s influence on the provincial Socreds, who were in power at the time. The first Ombudsman named was a retired head of the Mounties. Some people thought ‘what a guy to put in!’ But he turned out to be on top of things. Then a couple of the other provinces got an ‘information Ombudsman’ and a trend really began to grow. It took almost twenty-some years before we finally got around to a formal federal information Ombudsman (Information Commissioner). In the meantime, there had been pressures for the creation of other Ombudsman posts and they were started with the goals of protecting privacy and the security of citizens.

When you add it all up, since 1957 there has been enormous increase in the apparatus for seeing what goes on in the government. There is a lot more interest being shown by lobby groups. Most of them were very self-interested outfits like the grocery manufacturers or the Dominion Shipping Association. Almost any large industry or business group now has a permanent lobby of a kind here in Ottawa. They are the people who stand around a department or agency as its wards and customers and critics. Often that is one of the problems. Very quickly, the long-established interests get their influence on a new administration. So, the new broom does not last very long. Most organizations prefer the status quo to something that may bring changes. I discovered fairly early on in the transport business that the shipyard up at the Lakehead was competing with several other shipyards on the Great Lakes, including one at Collingwood and one at Port Weller – near Niagara Falls. There was also a group of fairly big yards in Quebec. All of them were looking for ships to build. At the time, one could also make a ship for half the price over in Europe. I very quickly realized that there was a game being played all the time. It was a kind of rationing. Every once in a while they would throw a sop to one of the shipyards. At the Lakehead, we twice got icebreakers. Another time we got a contract to build a minesweeping-trawler. It was supposed to be the start of something that never really came.