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BernieBy BERNIE BELLAN

One of the functions of a newspaper is to serve as a sounding board for individuals who have a gripe they want to get off their chests.

In some cases letters to the editor provide a reasonable outlet, but in other cases we often get contacted by persons who want to speak about something to us in person.
Often when we do agree to meet with someone we find ourselves listening to a particular tale of woe. When that happens we have to decide how to counsel the particular individual or individuals who were seeking a sympathetic ear. It’s not easy to hear of cases where someone is so frustrated over something that has happened that they feel so stymied that they turn to a newspaper for help. We try to explain that it’s not our purpose to intercede on behalf of individuals when all other attempts at resolution of a problem have failed.
Yet, at the same time, we can be moved to actually attempt to intercede on behalf of someone in certain instances. We always try to do so diplomatically - by sending out queries to someone, always with the promise of confidentiality. We also try to avoid lobbying on behalf of an individual or group when we think we are being used to advance a cause.
Still, there are those occasions where, even after careful inquiries into a situation, we find that certain organizations may not be amenable to our attempts to serve as interlocutors.


As our Jewish community has developed over the years it has created a number of organizations that have immense power. One of those is Jewish Child & Family Service.
We don’t pretend to be conversant in family law, but there have been situations when we have been approached by individuals who have a particular grievance with the manner in which JCFS has handled a case. There has been one case in particular that has been brought to our attention for quite some time and which serves as a reminder how frustrating it can be for some families when they think they are being treated unfairly by a child and family service agency.
In our contact with the family that has sought our help we have always been mindful of the obligations of family service agencies not to disclose any confidential information about a client. But, at the same time, it is all too easy for an agency such as JCFS to hide behind that cloak of confidentiality to act in a manner which would seem to be arbitrary and unfair.


Added to the issue of what one might term bureaucratic obfuscation, in the past year and a half another issue has been brought to our attention and that is JCFS’s involvement with Operation Ezra. This paper has gone out of its way to heap praise on the manner in which Operation Ezra has been hugely successful in helping Yazidi refugee families come to Winnipeg, but there have been questions raised for quite some time about certain aspects of Operation Ezra that are deeply troubling.
Specifically, those questions have to do with which families have been brought here under the auspices of Operation Ezra. Very early on we heard murmurings that certain families were being given preference because of special connections they had to someone who was in a powerful position of being able to influence who was given priority treatment by Operation Ezra.
We made inquiries quite some time ago about those questions – and were assured by key principals involved with Operation Ezra that there was nothing to the criticisms that were being leveled about favouritism involved in bringing certain families here. We left it at that until we were approached by one member of the Yazidi community who asked to meet with us.
During that meeting we were shown a list of the families that have been brought here through Operation Ezra, along with what that individual claimed were the direct connections between each of those families and someone who has been deeply involved in deciding which families were brought here.
We put those allegations to various individuals closely involved with Operation Ezra – and in each case those allegations were summarily dismissed as nothing more than grudges held by some members of the Yazidi community against other members of the Yazidi community.


Again, as in the case of the family matter that has been brought to our attention, we are frustrated by the somewhat cavalier manner in which JCFS has been able to dismiss criticisms of its operation.
As a result, we think it is time that the Jewish Federation consider the appointment of an independent ombudsperson (which is a term that is now in increasing use, as opposed to the more gender-biased term “ombudsman”) to act in situations where aggrieved parties think they have been treated unfairly by JCFS – or any Jewish organization that receives funding from the Jewish Federation. Frankly, our Jewish Federation has grown so much over the years that it has become a quasi-government and, as with every provincial government in Canada, it is about time that it appointed an independent third party who can receive complaints about the operation of that quasi-government and its ancillary agencies.
In fact, as we saw several years ago with the horrendous case of elder abuse at the Simkin Centre, it is not just the JCFS that might be well served by having an ombudsperson in place. As noted at the outset, with the maturation of our community many organizations have developed powerful bureaucratic structures parallel to structures that exist within the community at large.
While some may argue that boards can serve as proper checks on the behaviours of our Jewish organizations, that argument is simply disingenuous. Boards are made up of volunteers who are almost always highly unlikely to level any substantive criticisms of the manner in which Jewish bureaucracies operate. The most glaring instance of that happening occurred with the Simkin Centre where the board insisted on renewing the contract of a CEO under whose watch terrible deficiencies in patient care were consistently overlooked.
Had there been an ombudsperson in place at that time, it is possible that what happened at the Simkin Centre might have been prevented or at least mitigated to some extent. One might argue that, even if the JCFS is also adhering to all the normative requirements that are imposed upon it by provincial government legislation, our Jewish community has long had a tradition of open self-criticism that requires a higher standard of self-examination than that under which the JCFS currently operates.
We don’t know whether this suggestion for the appointment of an ombudsperson will go anywhere. We wanted to show however, to those individuals who have approached us with their cases of deep frustration with the manner in which their complaints have been consistently dismissed by JCFS that we, at least, are not ignoring them. It is not our place to set ourselves up as judges as to whether a particular grievance has any merit. It is important though for an independent newspaper that is beholden to no one in the Jewish community to be able to level some hard questions about any organization that seems to be beyond reproach.