Plugging The Gap in Nova Scotia & Elsewhere

Canada has unquestionably no shortage of ombudsperson-type institutions. While not NPMs in the truest sense of the word, their annual reports can offer some important insights into the scope of deprivation of liberty in the country and the challenges often encountered in such contexts.

As highlighted on this website just a few short weeks ago, conditions of detention in Québec’s provincial prisons once again formed a core focus of the Québec Ombudsperson’s Annual Report 2018-2019, launched in late September 2019.

The Annual Reports of the Office of the Correctional Investigator always make for highly interesting reading, offering multiple deep insights into the treatment of prisoners in the federal prison estate.

The Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman is another very recent case in point. Tabled before the province’s House of Assembly in October 2019, its 2018-2019 Annual Report outlines the various roles and oversight mandates of the office, based on some 2,800 complaints, inquiries, and youth contacts in the 2018-2019 fiscal year. It also includes an illuminating focus on different forms of deprivation of liberty in the province.

Almost all provinces (bar Prince Edward Island) and one of the three territories, namely Yukon, have broad mandate ombudsperson-type institutions. The primary functions of these bodies are to receive and process grievances against public maladministration and to initiate investigations into wider systematic concerns. Consequently, all have some form of oversight of places of detention by dint of such functions.

The recently published Annual Report of the Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman is an illuminating example of an entity which is striving to exercise this oversight function over several detention domains. These include adult and youth correctional detention facilities as well as youth and senior care facilities.

On the basis of numbers alone, in 2018-2019 some 238 new complaints were handled by the Ombudsman from the province’s four main adult prison facilities, notwithstanding the additional 38 complaints which were filed concerning healthcare provision. It was noted that the four facilities were visited on at least a quarterly basis with other visits undertaken as required.

The Nova Scotia institution also exercises an oversight function over youth detention facilities, a responsibility which arose out of a key recommendation from the 1995 Stratton Report into alleged abuse in youth facilities in the province.

The most recent Annual Report goes into some detail concerning both its handling of complaints and outreach activities in relation to youth detention, noting the numbers of complaints handled by the mechanism (201 in the current reporting period) and the frequency of such visits to the different types of youth custodial facilities, some on a monthly basis, resulting in visit reports being prepared irrespective of whether a complaint is filed.

It is also notable that, in addition to youth detention, the institution also exercises a key oversight function over the provision of senior services in Nova Scotia, undertaking on-site visits to different social care facilities for older members of society. In the Annual Report the following crucial point is highlighted:

While youth and seniors may be at the opposite ends of the age spectrum, they share some things in common. For instance, youth and seniors, including those in care and custody, are some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

While Ombudsman Representatives encourage those in care and custody to address basic concerns with staff first and to take advantage of internal complaint resolution processes, Representatives do not hesitate to investigate allegations of mistreatment or abuse.” (36)

The above emphasis on elderly persons in care is even more resonant in the light of the latest report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, which was presented to the UN General Assembly Third Committee in late October 2019. In her report the UN Special Rapporteur states:

Older persons with disabilities face significant risks of violence, abuse and neglect. Several studies have shown that physical, cognitive and mental impairments are a strong risk factor for elder abuse … These abuses occur both in the community and in institutionalized settings, including hospitals, nursing homes and other residential settings, and include physical, psychological and sexual abuse, caregiver neglect and financial exploitation.” (§36)

In the report the UN Special Rapporteur recommends that NPMs, NHRIs and other mechanisms should be expressly mandated to carry out regular monitoring of facilities, as undertaken by the Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman.

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Catalina Aguilar Devandas, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities – UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré.

If the reader harbours any doubts whether care homes for the elderly would fall within the scope of OPCAT Article 4 then this question was robustly addressed in a recent academic article by Australian academic Laura Grenfell titled Aged care, detention and OPCAT, which was published in the Australian Journal of Human Rights earlier this summer. The author advances compelling reasons why such an all-encompassing approach to the notion of deprivation of liberty is required by NPMs.

Even though the Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman remains in essence a complaints-handling body (as opposed to an NPM), its broader approach to the concept of deprivation of liberty can only be welcomed. In view of the reality that OPCAT ratification appears a long way off in Canada, institutions like the Nova Scotia mechanism and its Quebec counter-part continue to fill an important gap in ensuring that at least some degree of independent oversight of places of detention is exercised at the provincial level.


Read the 2018-2019 Annual Report of the Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman in English and French.

Explore more about the activities of the institution in English and French.

See the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities on the rights of older persons with disabilities or read the related press release.

See the UN Special Rapporteur’s 2019 report on the right to security and liberty of person.

Download Laura Grenfell’s excellent journal article, Aged care, detention and OPCAT, in 25(2) Australian Journal of Human Rights (2019).