The city's top fairness enforcer discusses the nitty-gritty of her high-profile job.
I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.
Fiona Crean is no shrinking violet. As Toronto’s first Ombudsman (which, by the way, is a gender-neutral Swedish word), her job is to make sure the City is run fairly. As one might imagine, that can get messy. When Crean found herself in the mayor’s crosshairs last fall after reporting that his office had compromised the public-appointments process, she stood her ground, weathering accusations from Ford’s allies with grace and conviction. Ultimately, she won the whole of Council to her side.
Being a watchdog isn’t easy, but Crean’s compulsion to look out for the little guy runs deep.
“I grew up all over the world, and part of what brought me to this job was precisely growing up all over the place,” she says. “Every four years we would go to a new country and I would not understand the language, the culture, anything. I would be the outsider and have to live with a sense of discomfort until I made new friends. So that led me to an understanding of what it feels like to be an outsider.”
Our interview with Crean is below.
Torontoist: What set you on your path to the Ombudsman’s office?
Fiona Crean: Serendipity. I went to the University of Manchester, in the birthplace of the industrial revolution, at the exact time of the mine closures. I was watching just scads of people go into unemployment with no possibility of other kinds of work. It was a young social-justice awakening.
Though I’d always carried a Canadian passport, I didn’t know it. I’d never lived here; I was born here [in Ottawa], but left at around six months. So I decided at the age of 23 to come to Canada.
I started teaching because I didn’t know what to do, and immediately didn’t like Toronto. This was the old Hogtown, where you couldn’t have a drink on Sundays. So I went up to the Arctic, which was a phenomenal experience. I was in Tuktoyaktuk and then later lived in James Bay and taught in Attawapiskat. At that point in time, I became incensed by what was going on—this was the period of the White Paper and assimilation—so I wanted to go somewhere bigger than the classroom. I was interested in what the federal government was doing in terms of First Nations people. So one job led to another.
This job [of Ombudsman] quite frankly came up. I applied and was incredibly excited because I love to start new things and fail or succeed based on your own merits as opposed to assuming somebody else’s office and stamp on it. We have started with an impossibly silly amount of money to fulfill the mandate that we have, but it’s exciting. I think we’re doing some neat work, some important work.
Does the average person who needs the Ombudsman’s office know about it?
Those who tend to come into contact with government the most frequently are the people that know least about it, and are also often the people who are more marginalized. If they’re going to complain, it takes gobs of courage to be able to do that, because there’s no reason to trust this thing called the Ombudsman. People don’t know what it is.
Can you discuss any particular investigations of note?
One example is an insurance investigation we did on potholes. We reviewed 12,000 files because people were complaining about how they got automatically denied their insurance plan. They break their car axle because they hit a pothole, or a tree limb falls down and damages your baby’s stroller—all of those kinds of things that they call high-volume, low-liability because the damage is less than $10,000. The result of that is that we put a whole bunch of new systems in place. You can say, ‘ho-hum, who cares?’ but it really impacted people like hot dog vendors who drive their cart out every day. You get dinged by car damage and have to pay out-of-pocket, and that’s a lot of money for a person like that. So it did a kind of service to people across the board.
You have a background in international development work, too. Are there any parallels between the work you did in the developing world and the issues you encounter here in Toronto?
We don’t have the overt corruption that you might encounter in a developing democracy, but on the other hand, just because we’re more sophisticated doesn’t mean it doesn’t go on. I will always remember, I was doing some training of ombudsman investigators in South Africa and I was on the plane there feeling like such a fraud. I sat thinking to myself, “What is this woman of white-skinned privilege from North America doing going over to teach investigators from ombudsman offices anything?” By the time I had landed in Jo’berg, I had come up with three cases of corruption that came from real stories in Canada—and that was before the Gomery Inquiry.
In terms of maladministration, we all deal with the same stuff. I deal with delay all the time. The Peru ombudsman deals with delay all the time. Those are the same kinds of things.
It’s all about trying to understand people. We have an extraordinarily complicated city. We have 140 languages, people from all walks of life. So doing work in those countries has assisted me in understanding culture by what’s going on. It’s been invaluable, actually.