Mason: The gong show at our passport offices is inexcusable

Yet another backlog at IRCC, the department responsible for Passport Canada.

When multiculturalism moved from Canadian Heritage to IRCC in 2008, the then hope within the Citizenship Branch was that the addition of Multiculturalism would rebalance to some extent the IRCC focus on immigration.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen, and citizenship remained the “poor cousin” compared to other IRCC programs and then of course the program moved back to Canadian Heritage and the Liberal government increased its funding.

It appears that the move of passport to IRCC more than 10 years ago has similarly resulted in relative program neglect, an even “poorer cousin.” Telling, as I have noted before, that IRCC does not include current passport statistics on open data:

As COVID-19 vaccines began to do their work last year, more Canadians began to venture out and allow themselves to imagine vacations to exotic locales – or even just to the United States.

Surely, the federal government was aware of this. It must have known that the demand for travel after two years of being cooped up at home would be unprecedented. Airlines began preparing for this eventuality months ago, when it was evident COVID-related travel restrictions were being lifted around the world. You would assume the federal government would have brainstormed as well: What should we be prepared for, when the travel surge occurs?

If anyone in government had been thinking, they would have foreseen the mad march to Service Canada’s passport offices we have recently witnessed – of Canadians seeking to apply for and renew their passports – and come up with a strategy to respond to it. After all, these applications were way down during the pandemic – in no small part because many Service Canada offices were temporarily closed at points during the pandemic – and many of these documents have expired in the interim. It should have been plainly evident there would be overwhelming demand.

The numbers now bear it out: Service Canada issued 363,000 passports from April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021, a number that jumped to more than 1.27 million in the following fiscal year. (It’s also been reported that the number of passports processed is up 350 per cent over last year). Before the pandemic, Service Canada was getting about 5,000 calls a day related to passport renewals; today, that number has shot up to more than 200,000.

But it’s clear now that whatever plan there was to deal with an inevitable avalanche of applicants was wholly inadequate. Maybe “inept” is a better word. Perhaps “complete disaster” more aptly fits the bill.

Of course, we have seen government incompetence before. But if there was a government-incompetence Hall of Fame, Service Canada’s response to this surge of passport demand would have to rank right up there.

The stories: wow.

Citizens have been lining up for days outside some passport offices. To no one’s surprise, this has led to tensions at some locations. When some of those who had been camped out for days outside an office in Surrey, B.C., noticed little to no movement in the line, they attempted to go inside to see what the issue was. They were met by security, and things escalated to the point police were called – surprise, surprise.

Women with babies in strollers have had to stand in line for hours, with no place to sit down. Pleasant, elderly commissionaires haven’t really been able to give people reliable information about how long if might be before they get processed, or even if they will. There have even been reports of people paying homeless people to hold their place in line.

The government agency has reported that it has hired more than 600 additional staff to handle the extra volume, and yet it does not seem to have alleviated the lineups at many of the most popular centres. People report going inside and seeing only a fraction of the kiosks open, because COVID-19 protocols and social distancing guidelines have kept many stations closed. Strangely, everyone in those same passport centres, including staff, can meet at a bar or restaurant afterward, maskless, and raise a toast to the incompetence and irrationality of all those involved in this utter shemozzle.

The government says you can still get a passport in five days if you apply in person at one of the centres. What it doesn’t say is that you might need to take a week off work so you can sit outside in the rain waiting for your chance to get inside one.

For many, new passports can take up to 12 weeks to get, according to the Travel Industry Council of Ontario.

I realize that having to wait in line to renew a passport seems like the mother of all first-world problems. There may not be a lot of sympathy for people who might not be able to go on their Caribbean cruise because they didn’t anticipate a three-month delay in getting their passports renewed.

That’s not the point.

The point is there are all sorts of legitimate reasons for wanting and needing a passport beyond luxury travel. And people who need those passports shouldn’t have to compete in a real-life version of Survivor to get them from our own government.

Ottawa was completely drunk at the wheel here. And it still hasn’t been able to figure out how to design a system that can eliminate these unconscionable wait times and delays.

The country deserves better.

Source: The gong show at our passport offices is inexcusable

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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