Sometimes you can fight town hall.
But it certainly helps if you have someone like Kim Carter in your corner.
Carter, the province's ombudsperson, is the fairness watchdog for most of B.C.'s public agencies. She's who people go to when they've run up against the brick wall of bureaucracy or been told too many times, "That's just how it is."
Carter can be a formidable advocate. In about half of the approximately 2,000 cases her office takes on each year, Carter tells "town hall" to make changes.
Last Wednesday, Carter spent the day in North and West Vancouver, part of her office's efforts to inform people across the province about what an ombudsperson does - which is largely to investigate and provide independent oversight when citizens feel they've got a bad deal from "the system."
A total of 137 complaints received by the ombudsperson's office last year were from North and West Vancouver.
Province-wide, the ministries of social development, children and families, health and justice are among the most likely targets of complaints, along agencies like WorkSafe B.C., B.C. Hydro, ICBC and local governments.
For many of those who go to Carter as a last resort, the help offered through her office is intensely personal.
Cases where the ombudsperson has stepped in include a refugee who was denied a request for financial help after her prosthetic leg broke, a 17 year-old girl who was denied social assistance, and a family with five children who faced eviction after their welfare cheques were cut off.
Much of the ombudsperson's work involves helping those who have few other options.
"We are very much a route for people who are vulnerable in some way or another," says Carter. "If you have lots of money, you can afford a lawyer to represent your interests... ."
But many people aren't in that position.
Carter says she tries not to be "shocked and appalled" by situations that come before her. "We're impartial. If you get too engaged in the emotion of the situation, you lose impartiality," she says.
But she concedes, "It's often surprising" how many people don't get treated fairly.
In assessing fairness, Carter looks at whether people have been treated respectfully, whether all the "rules" were followed, and perhaps most importantly, whether the rules are fair.
In a number of cases, Carter finds they aren't.
That has led, oftentimes, to larger, systemic investigations - such as the examination of how the office of the public trustee determines people are not capable of managing their own affairs. In another case, Carter examined how home support and residential care services are provided to seniors.
Even in cases when Carter decides situations have been adequately dealt with, "it doesn't mean there was no point in coming to us," she says. Often the ombudsperson is able to provide a better explanation of what happened and why.
A lawyer and former military chief judge who's overseen war crimes investigations for the United Nations in the former Yugoslavia, Carter has seen first hand some of the most extreme examples of what can happen when trust between a government and its citizens falls apart.
"I've been places where governments are unwilling, unable - or both - to provide services to the people they are supposed to be representing," she says. "What our office says to people is that government cares that people are treated fairly. We're persistent in the pursuit of fairness."
At times, that has led to what Carter describes as "terse conversations" or "frank exchange of views" with provincial bureaucrats.
Although the larger investigations have likely resulted in bigger changes, Carter says she often finds solving some of the smaller and more personal problems the most satisfying - particularly in cases where people have had nowhere else to turn. "It may not seem like a big deal, but for that person it's significant."
Of the almost 2,000 cases the ombudsperson's office takes on, most are resolved in six months.
"We've had issues resolved in four hours," says Carter. "We've had others that have taken three and a half years."
Carter only has the power to recommend changes - not to order them.
It can be "reasonably frustrating" when her recommendations aren't accepted, she says, "especially if there's no reason given."
Sometimes change also takes time.
Carter's office tracks her recommendations for five years, to see what action is taken.
That's important, she says, both to acknowledge when the bureaucracy responds to suggestions and to remind people in some cases that "there's still work to be done."
"We can shine a light on a problem and we can speak out publicly about it," she says. "After that, if it's not addressed, the resolution rests with the public."
© Copyright 2013