Frustrated by passport wait ‘chaos,’ would-be travellers in Montreal take matters into their own hands

Marie Soulier has spent four straight days standing in line outside the passport office at Montreal’s Guy-Favreau complex, waiting to collect her passport. She arrives at 5:30 each morning and leaves when the office closes. She is still waiting, and her flight leaves for France tonight.

She is just one of hundreds of travellers clamouring for their passports.

This morning, frustrated, Soulier and some others in the same boat started handing out pieces of paper for people to put their names on, in the vain hope of organizing lines that appeared to go nowhere — some snaking through the vast lobby and even out of the building. Police were finally called in to take over crowd control.

“We had to fight with the gestionnaire so that they followed our list because otherwise, it was chaos,” Soulier said. “We were making sure that everyone went to their place because nobody was doing it.”

“These people have no idea what they’re doing. They don’t care about us. We’re treated like less than animals,” she said.

“It’s absolutely infuriating, and it has to stop.”

Geneviève Guilbault, Quebec’s public security minister, called on the federal government to “take their responsibility” for the delays.

“Half of our taxes go to the federal government so they have to be able to put in place services – quality in their services to the population,” she said. 

The arduous wait for passports isn’t unique to Montreal. Since commercial travel resumed, passport offices across the country have had to contend with an “extremely high demand” for travel documents, said Elaine Chatigny, Service Canada’s executive director for the Quebec region.

In an interview Monday with CBC Montreal’s Let’s Go, Chatigny said before the pandemic, only five per cent of all passport applications were urgent requests, such as travel related to death or work, which needed a response within 24 to 48 hours.

Although there’s been a “sharp increase” of urgent travel in the past few weeks, she said that’s not the only factor responsible for the backlog.

Marie Soulier has been arriving at the Guy-Favreau complex in Montreal at 5 a.m., for four days straight. She is supposed to fly out to Europe Tuesday evening. (Jennifer Yoon/CBC)

“Now, we’re seeing citizens who really did the right thing” by mailing in their passport applications well in advance, she said. However, the sheer volume of requests has overwhelmed passport offices.

“It’s difficult to see clients and travellers who legitimately want a passport to have to wait like that,” she said. “It’s distressing for them, and it’s distressing for our staff.”

Actively recruiting

An official from the office of Karina Gould, the minister of families, children and social development, told CBC News that the department has identified 200 federal employees working for Employment and Social Development Canada who may be reassigned to help process passports, and Canada Revenue Agency is also determining if any of its employees can be seconded to the task.

That’s in addition to more staff the government has already hired this year to process files over extended work hours.

In January, 1,500 employees worked for the passport program. Since then, Chatigny said, the government has hired 600 workers and redeployed another 600 former passport officers or other clerks, and it’s actively recruiting another 600 people.

“Becoming a passport officer is not something that happens with a two-hour training, it demands expertise,” she said.

But Kevin King, president of the Union of National Employees, which represents employees at passport offices, said the additional workers aren’t able to authenticate passports because they didn’t go through the 12-week training program. The work that the transferred employees do has to be validated by a passport officer, he said.

“Pulling people from other government departments to assist with things like traffic flow and stuff like that, with queues at offices, does not solve the problem,” he said.

King said he’s worried about the lack of civility from some people waiting for their passports.

“There have been examples in Montreal where employees have been jostled, verbally harassed,” he said, adding that some of that harassment has taken place as workers are leaving their offices.

As their constituents’ frustration mounts, Liberal cabinet ministers are saying Ottawa is doing everything it can to address the demand for passports. Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos called the delays “totally unacceptable.”

After seeing images of the crowds outside the Guy-Favreau complex, Gould told reporters Tuesday her department had to employ a “new strategy” to address the formidable volume of requests.

“I know Canadians are frustrated. I am also frustrated seeing those images,” she said.

Gould told Radio-Canada late Tuesday the Montreal passport office, which she described as the most difficult situation in the country, will have a new system in place Wednesday morning. People will be given a number and an appointment in order to reduce the chaos and long lines. 

Soulier said she has contacted her local MP, Soraya Martinez Ferrada, but there is no guarantee that she’ll receive her passport in time to visit her grandfather, whom she hasn’t seen in more than two years.

“I haven’t been able to speak to an agent from Passport Canada for all this time,” she said. “I’m feeling exhausted.”

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