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‘People need an opportunity to tell their story’

Ombuds Office celebrates 35 years of promoting fairness at Concordia
December 3, 2014
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By Tom Peacock

The staff of Concordia’s new Ombuds Office in 1978. From left: Suzanne Belson, Daniel Reicher, Beatrice Pearson and Frances Bauer. The staff of Concordia’s new Ombuds Office in 1978. From left: Suzanne Belson, Daniel Reicher, Beatrice Pearson and Frances Bauer.


Kristen Robillard keeps a magic wand in her office on the 10th floor of the Guy-Metro Building (GM). Her predecessor, Suzanne Belson, gave it to her when she took over as Concordia’s ombudsperson in 2000.

While it signifies the passing of the baton, it’s also a wry comment on the nature of the job.

“Complaints are a difficult business,” Belson said at a recent event marking the 35th anniversary of Concordia’s Ombuds Office. “It’s hard for the people who make them… and it’s hard for ombudspeople, who have to try as diplomatically as possible to make sure an organization’s rules and regulations and policies and procedures treat everyone fairly.”

A little magic could certainly come in handy, but in many cases, a short discussion with Robillard or Julie Boncompain, the university’s new associate ombudsperson, is enough to make seemingly insurmountable problems disappear.

“When people think they haven’t been treated fairly, they need an opportunity to tell their story to someone who can listen to them. That's what we're here for,” says Robillard.

Concordia ombudsperson Kristen Robillard (right) with her predecessor, Suzanne Belson, at a reception marking the 35th anniversary of the Ombuds Office. | Photo by Michael Sendbuehler Concordia ombudsperson Kristen Robillard (right) with her predecessor, Suzanne Belson, at a reception marking the 35th anniversary of the Ombuds Office. | Photo by Michael Sendbuehler

More often than not, people end up at the Ombuds Office because they don’t know where else to go. “The university is a big place with a lot of moving parts and people," Robillard points out. “Providing information and advice is a huge part of what we do.”

Bram Freedman, Concordia’s vice-president, Development and External Relations, and Secretary-General, told the assembled guests at the commemorative reception, held in the John Molson School of Business (MB), that the Ombuds Office has performed a vital function at the university since it first opened. “It reflects very well on Concordia, our history, and our tradition that we've played such a leadership role in the ombuds area.”

Members of the Concordia community were joined at the event by several current and former ombudspeople from local organizations, including Rosemary Steinberg from the Jewish General Hospital, Lynne Casgrain from the MUHC, Pascale Descary from the Université de Montréal, Muriel Binette from l’UQÀM, Carmela Parzanese and Spencer Boudreau from McGill University, Hélène Letellier from l’École Polytechnique de Montréal, Frances Bauer from Western University and Justine Sentenne, who was the first ombudsperson for employees at Hydro Québec.

“Because of the kind of work that we do, and the fact that it’s confidential, we really rely a lot on our network,” Robillard told the crowd.

The guests and former colleagues had a chance to catch up over food and drinks, before Robillard shared a short presentation of the history of the Ombuds Office.

Both Concordia’s founding institutions, Sir George Williams University and Loyola College, created individual ombuds offices in 1971. The former was a direct response to the Computer Centre Riot of 1969. “The community felt that it needed to have access to an independent resource to discuss concerns and complaints,” Robillard says.

The two offices merged to form the Concordia Ombuds Office in 1978. Its purpose, as laid out in its Terms of Reference, is to “provide an impartial and confidential service to members who have been unable to resolve their concerns about the application of any policy, rule or procedure.”

During her speech at the commemorative event, Belson pointed out that Concordia was among the first universities in Canada to have an ombudsperson. “Our Terms of Reference became a model for many other universities. Concordia set the stage for the office to be a leader and an innovator in the field, not only in Canada, but in North America and overseas.”

Robillard came to the job with a master’s degree in Social Service and another in Law and Social Policy. She says dealing with the hundreds of cases brought to her office every year is a rewarding challenge that draws on her entire skill set.

“Some people say to me, ‘Don’t you get bored? Don’t you get the same problems coming back all the time?’ Well, the times change, people change and the institution changes and evolves… Everybody has their way of doing things and their own ideas about why they think there’s a problem and how they’re going to solve it. So it’s never dull.”

During the 2012-13 academic year, 547 cases were brought to the Ombuds Office. Of the 442 student cases — the lion’s share having to do with academic concerns — 67 per cent were resolved by providing information, advice or a referral to a third party. Forty-eight of the 60 employee cases were resolved in the same way. At other times, recommendations were made to resolve individual cases and to make changes to policies, rules or procedures.

“We give people information and coaching — whatever we can do to let them make their own decisions,” Robillard says. “We provide them with tools to advocate for themselves.”


Learn more about Concordia’s 
Ombuds Office in its Annual Report.
 



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