Passport? What passport?

Frustrated and anxious travellers cope with endless lineups at Service Canada Laval

Officers from the Laval Police Dept. were called in to maintain order outside the Service Canada outlet at the Mega Centre Notre-Dame on Autoroute 13 last week, as federal government workers tried to deal with a huge backlog of passport applications resulting from a surge of interest in global travel following the two-year-long Covid pandemic.

The line starts here

A long line of passport applicants snaked all the way around to the far side of the Service Canada building. The queue included mothers, fathers, children, and sometimes even grandparents. All were seeking to complete and file the proper paperwork for passports.

As well, there was a much younger crowd, including students hoping to travel to foreign destinations this summer, before returning to classes in the fall. Most had brought portable camping chairs to be comfortable during the long wait.

The lineup at the the Laval Service Canada outlet snaked all the way around the building. (Photo: Martin C. Barry, Newsfirst Multimedia)

Rita, a Laval resident who didn’t want to be identified by her last name, said her husband had started standing in line at 5 am last Wednesday morning. She replaced him around 10 o’clock.

Passport needed in 24 hours

Not long before noon, she reached the halfway mark to the Service Canada front door. Like certain other people in line, she was waiting on behalf of a family member – in her case, a teenage son, who was scheduled to fly to Europe, although departure was scheduled in a few days time. However, for others the departure was scheduled in less than 24 hours.

“We need to get this done either today or tomorrow, because he’s leaving on Saturday with his grandmother,” said Rita. Asked what would they do if they couldn’t reach the front door by the time the office closed for the day, she replied, “We stay here tomorrow.

‘Waiting and not knowing’

Although not angry with the federal government over the long lineups, she acknowledged she was “shocked and frustrated, but this is where we’re at. There’s a lack of information, us just sitting here, just waiting and not knowing.”

She said her son’s passport application had been sent to Service Canada as long as three months ago, yet there had been no response. “So, we don’t know if we’re doing this for nothing. We have no idea. Because we called the number we were supposed to call and they never got back to us.”

At another spot in the line, Gabriel Gauthier, a 20-something Mascouche resident, was waiting patiently to file documents on behalf of his younger brother who hoped to travel to South America to visit with members of their family who live there.

A three year wait … then this

“It’s been three years we couldn’t go because of the pandemic,” said Gabriel. Next to them in line, Léonie Clark, a woman also in her 20s from Montreal, decided to come to the Laval Service Canada office after seeing that the lineups at the Montreal office were far worse.

From the left, a clearly frustrated Nicholas Gauthier, his brother Gabriel, and Léonie Clark, are seen here waiting for their turn at Service Canada Laval on June 22 at the Mega Centre Notre-Dame mall. (Photo: Martin C. Barry, Newsfirst Multimedia)

As her plane departure was scheduled for the next day at 5 pm, she was uncertain whether she’d get to clear up her passport issues on time. “With the number of applications they had to deal with, I don’t understand why they didn’t implement a 24/7 service to get this cleared up,” she said.

Much further to the rear of the line, the Jannille family from the Hochelega district of Montreal were hoping to get clearance to travel to France where their parents reside. Mom, dad and their infant child had been waiting since around 8 am in line.

‘Who’s to blame?’

While Quentin Jannille, the father of the family, took into consideration that the post-pandemic rush to travel was partly to blame for the situation, he felt the federal government had fallen down on the job. “It was clear this was going to happen,” he said, while adding that the government failed to prepare, and Service Canada employees were being overworked largely as a result.

Last week, federal Families Minister Karina Gould, who is responsible for passport services, said the government was adding more staff to help triage the long lineups at the 35 passport offices across the country, as tens of thousands of people tried to get their hands on travel documents.

‘What’s the deal,’ says Poilièvre

The change in strategy came as Conservative Party of Canada opposition critics took aim, saying the situation should never have been allowed to reach this point, when it was obvious to many that there’d be a strong interest in travel as the pandemic ended.

CPC leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre said last week, in a video posted to his social media channels, that the Canadian public deserved better than what transpired at the passport offices. “What’s the deal folks?” Poilièvre said in the video posting, in which he’s shown meeting passport applicants waiting in line.

‘It was clear this was going to happen,’ said one frustrated traveler, adding that the federal government failed to prepare

“Well, this is a waiting nation. We are asked to wait for everything as sleepy bureaucrats and government gatekeepers stand in the way of you getting the basic services to which you are entitled — one of them is a passport. You see what’s happening here? The government is doing a lot of things poorly rather than a few things well.”

Chaos at Montreal offices

After initial reports of chaos at passport offices in the Montreal area last week, Minister Gould said Service Canada was deploying managers to speak to would-be travellers about their applications before they reached a customer service agent. Hopefully, the system would identify people who were most in need of a passport.

Those who were in need of a passport to travel in the next 12, 24 or 36 hours would receive priority, while others would be told to come back at another time, said Minister Gould. As that went on, a government website that tracks wait times was warning people to expect delays of at least six hours at some of the busiest sites, such as the Service Canada office at Place Guy-Favreau in Montreal.

Ex-bureaucrat critical of gov’t

Andrew Griffith, a former director general with Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and a former top official at Service Canada, said in an interview with CBC News last week that the government should never have allowed the situation to deteriorate to this point.

He said that in Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s 2022-23 department plan, managers advised the government that there would almost certainly be a surge in passport applications as COVID-related travel restrictions were relaxed, and that the demand for passports would continue to increase for three more years.