Cannabis, condominiums and coffins.
In her annual report to the legislature, auditor general Bonnie Lysyk argued that Ontario needs better oversight of the marijuana trade, the financial implications of condo fees, and funeral costs and sales tactics.
The watchdog also expressed concern about blood and treasure.
Lysyk, who delivered her mammoth yearly review Monday, argued the province needs improvements on everything from the blood management system to how art treasures are stored at museums.
The auditor found consumers can face challenges until the end of their days thanks to inadequate monitoring by the Bereavement Authority of Ontario, which the government pledged to fix.
Her office dispatched secret shoppers to 100 licensed funeral homes, transfer services, cemeteries and crematoriums across Ontario.
At half the operators, Lysyk’s agents “experienced sales pressure and/or were given misleading information,” with the worst examples involving homes where staff working on commission tried to upsell grieving customers into spending more.
“It’s pretty sad,” the auditor told a news conference.
Prices also varied widely, with a basic cremation costing $512 in Windsor while the same service cost $8,000 in Toronto.
“Families often make bereavement-related purchases during vulnerable and emotional times,” she said.
“They may not be in the best state of mind to educate themselves on the full details of certain products or services offered by funeral homes, transfer services, cemeteries and crematoriums, or which products and services are optional or required by law.”
The Bereavement Authority, an arms-length provincial agency, will be directed to outline “specific steps” to address the auditor’s concerns, said Treasury Board president Peter Bethlenfalvy.
“Clearly they need to do better, and we need to do better,” he added. “Consumer protections are very important. We take those very seriously.”
NDP deputy leader Sara Singh said it’s a shame that there have not been clearer guidelines for the funeral industry to prevent grieving families from being exploited.
“They need to be protected,” Singh said.
Lysyk pointed out that some of the other most pressing challenges faced by Ontarians are literally right at their own doorsteps.
“The existing legislative model for the condo sector does not address the risks that exist for condo owners and buyers,” the auditor warned in her multi-volume 1,444-page report.
“For example, in our survey of condo owners, we found developer-set condo fees increased as much as 30 per cent in the first two years after the condo’s registration, and as much as 50 per in the five years prior to (last) August,” she said.
Indeed, Lysyk found problems with the Condominium Authority of Ontario, noting “it lacks the ability to inspect or investigate potential abuses or misconduct by condo boards, or investigate non-compliance and enforce compliance with the relevant legislation and regulations.”
Another headache for homeowners is that the Electrical Safety Authority, which oversees licenced electricians, “needs to do better in preventing illegal electrical work.”
At the same time, the authority was found to conduct “many unnecessary inspections that do not improve public safety.”
The auditor also criticized the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, which regulates booze, private cannabis retailers and gambling.
“Most recreational cannabis sold in the province continues to be sold illegally,” she said.
“Despite the legalization of cannabis in October 2018, the illegal sale of recreational cannabis accounted for about 80 per cent of cannabis sales in the province in 2019-20.”
Lysyk found the regulator only followed up on two-thirds of complaints from cannabis stores in the first two years of legal sales.
“The AGCO does not have strong processes and systems in place to effectively carry out its regulated activities,” she said, pointing to concerns about “inventory controls over recreational cannabis sold in retail stores” and a failure by the regulator to watch for money laundering at casinos.
Furthermore, there were questions about how the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection purchase and store their treasures.
Lysyk contended the provincial museums “could not always show that the acquisitions they made were needed to meet the objectives they had established for their collections.
“They also need plans to promptly display more of their newly acquired works so that Ontarians have the opportunity to enjoy them,” she said.
At the AGO, some 70 per cent of artworks “had not been displayed since they were acquired,” while about half of the McMichael collection of Canadian art hadn’t been shown for more than 20 years.
The ROM had 20 per cent of its art in storage for the past two decades
Although the auditor found the museums were good at storing the works, there was little in the way of regular inventory checks.
Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lysyk said the Retirement Homes Regulatory Authority must do more to protect residents of seniors’ homes.
Finally, she said the Ministry of Health needs to better co-ordinate with Canadian Blood Services on the supplies used by hospitals.
“Information about supply and demand is important, as short-term shortages have occurred twice in the past five years.”
Lysyk’s annual report comes less than two weeks after her review of Ontario’s COVID-19 response that blasted how the Progressive Conservative government has tackled a pandemic that has killed 3,800 Ontarians since March.
Premier Doug Ford, who angrily complained her earlier review was riddled with inaccuracies, questioned the wisdom of having scores of public health officials spending an estimated 2,744 person-hours answering the auditor’s questions during the pandemic.
In contrast, Ford applauded her annual report because it gives him “ammunition” to sit down with cabinet ministers and push for improvements.
“This is a great report,” he said Monday. “There’s some great stuff in there.”
Correction – Dec. 8, 2020: This article was edited from a previous version to update an incorrect headline.
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie
Originally posted at: https://www.thestar.com/politics/provincial/2020/12/07/ontario-needs-better-consumer-oversight-on-everything-from-condos-and-coffins-to-cannabis-auditor-general-says.html