Despite Ottawa’s assurances that passport offices are revolutionizing to solve wait times, passport workers’ unions say working conditions to dig out of the backlog are unsustainable.
Plus, Open Jaw is the first media outlet to connect the dots – that the first decade-long passports expire in 2023. According to sources, those renewals are starting already, ballooning demand on a system in crisis.
Long lineups for Canadians applying for or renewing passports – as well as lengthy processing delays – have made headlines as travel continues its recovery.
Like the extraordinary lineups and delays in Canada’s major airports, it appears that the federal government was caught flat-footed and unprepared for the resurgence of travel, with the passport office admitting in MAY that there was a half-million passport backlog.
Despite assurances for weeks that it was taking measures to improve application and processing wait times, the situation has gone from bad to worse. Open Jaw has reported about residents in major cities where the lineups are longest hiring people to wait overnight outside passport offices, about police having to be called to a passport office lineup in Montreal, and even about some desperate people flying to cities where there’s less demand for passport services – just to get into the office to apply in person.
The minister responsible for passport services was forced to address her ministry’s shortcomings late last week. In a statement, Karina Gould promised that the federal government is on top of the delays at Service Canada, and is fixing the problem, especially for those in the busiest urban centres.
“Triage” and Other Creative Solutions
Gould announced that Service Canada had started using a new “triage system” designed to help people who are in most urgent need of a passport based on their flight time. Those flying in the next 12, 24, 36 and 48 hours will get priority service, according to Gould.
The triage system debuted in Montreal before being extended to Toronto on 23JUN and Vancouver on 27JUN. Service Canada is deploying managers to speak with customers in line before they reach a customer service agent, to provide a more “intensive, client-specific” approach.
“In the early morning, increased numbers of managers and executives are assisting and speaking directly with clients in order to triage lineups at specialized passport sites,” explained Gould in her statement.
While Gould said passport lines in Montreal had made “much better progress” by 23JUN, the government web site that tracks wait times at the 35 specialized passport offices was still warning of delays of at least six hours at Montreal’s Guy-Favreau complex, which is experiencing “the worst delays in the country.”
In addition, according to the minister, the government is adding even more additional staff to help ease delays, and pulling federal employees from other offices to help.
Staff from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, Statistics Canada, the Canada Revenue Agency are also assisting with passport processing and printing, said Gould. The new measures are on top of the 600 additional Service Canada staff who have already been hired to meet demand, as well as an estimated 600 more the department plans to recruit.
“Public servants from across numerous departments are working overtime, evenings, holidays and weekends to help address the situation and deliver service,” Gould’s statement reads.
“I want to reassure Canadians that no option to improve service will be left on the table, and solutions are being implemented as rapidly as possible when they are identified.”
Gould added that more passports will be printed in bulk at the Gatineau, Que., processing centre and sent to other locations to ease the burden on smaller passport offices that don’t have larger industrial printers.
Union Sounding the Alarm
Kevin King, national president of the Union of National Employees, which represents employees at Canada’s passport offices, says delays for passports will get worse before they get better.
King reportedly warned the federal government of potential backlogs for passport services “for a good chunk” of 2021, but to no avail.
He also added that employees are being harassed as tensions mount due to passport delays.
“If our employees are continuing to be harassed and swarmed…the issue is not a strike. But federal legislation allows for employees to participate with the Canada Labour Code, meaning they have the right to refuse dangerous work. And that’s what it’s becoming,” he warned.
But Wait, There’s More: First Cohort of 10-Year Passports Set to Expire
Open Jaw has also been doing the math. Canada first introduced 10-year passports in 2013. Part of the rationale behind those extended-length passports was for Canadians to avoid having to renew their passports more frequently, a benefit to Canadian passport holders – and reducing the workload for Canada’s passport offices.
But now, those first 10-year passports are set to expire in 2023. And according to Open Jaw’s sources, savvy 10-year passport holders are already queuing up for renewals.
That’s on top of the other factors contributing to the crisis in Canada’s passport offices, and appears to support union warnings that the passport office crisis is only going to get worse – and is likely to last well into 2023.