Adjectives like ‘circumspect’ and ‘attentive’ describe Wolfville resident Dwight Bishop accurately. After all, he was the man in charge of shining a flashlight in the cupboards of government.
As Nova Scotia’s ombudsman for nearly a decade, serving from 2004 until Jan. 1, 2014, Bishop provided what he calls “quality assurance management.” He sees the office as a bridge between the Legislature and the public.
Trained as a lawyer, he quietly oversaw the investigation of whistleblower complaints, youth issues, seniors’ concerns, municipal problems and correctional allegations.
“Privacy is paramount,” he said. “You try to do it in confidence.”
Independent review, he said, is a healthy process.
On releasing his final report, Bishop put out a call for more staff and funding, saying vulnerable people would be better served if his office's services were broadened.
He said any public concerns over government impropriety highlight the need for a stronger and more proactive ombudsman’s office. More funds would be useful to bolster the office's overall budget of $1.7 million, he added.
According to Bishop, the role of the ombudsman and the independence of the office vary across Canada. For example, he said, the unit that examines youth issues in Nova Scotia has a budget of $400,000, while similar units in Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick have budgets as high as $1.6 million or more.
Staffing levels vary widely too. New Brunswick's youth unit has 15 workers, while Nova Scotia has just five out of a total complement of 17. Those five are currently involved in a province-wide review of residential childcare facilities.
Bishop said the need is greatest for more oversight of programs geared towards youth, First Nations people, those who are new to the province and individuals trying to navigate the health system.
One of his last duties on the job saw Bishop take the agriculture department to the Nova Scotia court of appeal to resolve a difference of opinion. He said the department claims the ombudsman has no jurisdiction over the enforcement of the Animal Protection Act. That kind of government resistance, he indicates, is why he wanted a clear ruling on who has authority.
Bishop believes in strong, independent oversight. The real secret to resolving issues, he said, “is by going out and meeting face to face. A warm voice when someone calls the office.”
That being said, Bishop believes there are complicated, systemic issues that call for a cultural shift in government. Bishop said many people need help steering their way through a bureaucratic system.
The province's Civil Service Disclosure of Wrongdoing regulations require the ombudsman’s office to delve into a couple of dozen government wrongdoing cases every year. The office typically receives about 2,000 complaints annually.
In retrospect, Bishop wonders how effective his office has been in effecting change. The new whistleblower regulations will allow the office to say more about the allegations in the future, he believes.
“It’s a work in progress,” he said about the provincial ombudsmen’s role. “If you can displace ego, I think you can solve a lot of stuff.”
A member of the RCMP for 34 years, the native of Cambridge, Kings County retired once already as assistant commissioner and commanding officer for Nova Scotia. It was Bishop who led the provincial police force through trying emergency situations like the Swissair disaster and 9/11.