Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promising to do more to fix what he calls an “unacceptable” state of affairs at the country’s passport offices that have been overwhelmed in recent days as thousands of Canadians scramble to get their hands on the necessary documents before travelling abroad.
Speaking to CBC Radio’s The House in an interview that will air Saturday, Trudeau said he understands there’s a lot of anxiety among would-be travellers right now.
“This situation is unacceptable,” he said. “There’s a real concern among families facing these things and we have to step up.”
Pressed by host Chris Hall to say why the situation is so tenuous when it was obvious to most observers that passport demand would spike with the lifting of COVID-related travel restrictions, Trudeau said the government did hire more than 600 passport workers in January and they’re prepared to hire even more to help chip away at the backlog.
“There’s a lot of disruptions as the world comes back from COVID. But that’s why we’re working night and day to make sure that people get their passports,” Trudeau said.
“We’re processing tens of thousands of them every week. We’re making sure we’re delivering as fast as possible what people need and expect from their government.”
With processing times slower than usual, many Canadians are opting to get a passport or replace an expired passport through an in-person visit to one of the 35 passport offices nationwide that accept applications.
The government has launched a new online tool to tell people just how long they can expect to wait to see an agent to process a standard passport application or an “urgent” or “express” application for people travelling in the near future.
As of Wednesday, the wait times exceeded five hours at many locations.
In Ottawa, the website advised applicants they can expect to wait nearly seven hours, which means some people in line won’t be seen by the time the office closes at 4 p.m.
The limited office hours and lengthy lines have forced some travellers to camp out overnight to score a time slot when these offices open at 8:30 a.m.
‘Just pure anarchy’
Frustrated travellers have taken to Google Maps to air their grievances via online reviews of passport offices.
“It was a horrible experience! We went to apply for the passport around 7 a.m. and the line up was already too long,” Taghrid Chahine said in a recent post about their experience with Ottawa’s only passport office.
“I felt bad for moms who were with their kids waiting for hours and then did not get served!”
“Shame upon every man, woman and child that created this monstrosity of a system,” said Luke McCutcheon, another Ottawa-area traveller. “No appointments, no tickets when you line up — just pure anarchy.”
“Wait times are ridiculous. You have to take the whole day off work to line up and wait and wait and wait,” said Eireann Aldrich.
“This government is a joke,” said Emma Ayetor, who said she waited all day only to be turned away when the office closed at 4 p.m.
In Montreal Tuesday, the situation at the Guy-Favreau complex passport office became so chaotic that police had to intervene to conduct crowd control as well over 750 people queued up to be seen by an agent.
‘The passport office can handle it,’ minister says
Families Minister Karina Gould, the minister responsible for passport services, said Wednesday that while there may be trouble at some passport offices, others are working just fine.
“What we’re seeing in other parts of the country are, yes, lines before the passport office opens, but those lines move throughout the day and people are being seen,” she told reporters.
“It’s a lot, but the passport office can handle it. They’re stressed, they’re strained, but they can,” she said.
Asked if the federal government has failed travelling Canadians by subjecting them to such long waits, Gould said Ottawa “predicted that there would be an increase in demand” but they didn’t expect so many passport applications would come in at one time.
“What we didn’t anticipate is that all the applications would come at the same time in March and April, and also that so many of the applications would be new applications and not renewals,” Gould said.
She noted that 85 per cent of applications are new ones, which take longer to process than renewals.
Passport training can take 15 weeks
She said they’re adding staff but noted that because passport processing is a sensitive issue with security considerations the training program for new workers can take up to 15 weeks.
In January, 1,500 employees worked for the passport program.
Since then, the government has hired 600 workers and redeployed another 600 former passport officers or other clerks, and it’s actively recruiting another 600 people, according to government data supplied to CBC News.
A spokesperson for Gould said the department has identified 200 federal employees working for Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) 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.