Mills: Just another day in Canada’s passport purgatory

Useful account. Positive note – the patience of applicants and the “kind, helpful and patient the front-line passport officers”:

The sun was barely over the treetops when I drove into the parking lot of the Passport Canada office in the Rideauview Mall on Meadowlands Drive. It was 5:45 Monday morning and the line was already snaking along the side of the building facing Prince of Wales, and around the corner. I found my place in line, extracted a novel from my tote bag, and sat down cross-legged on the ground.

The office itself wouldn’t open until 8:30 a.m. There were already more than 30 people ahead of me.

I had known my visit to the passport office would be a lengthy one. For weeks, media outlets had chronicled the chaos: the long wait times, the desperate travellers who camped out overnight at passport offices in hopes of getting their documents quickly.

I had snacks, a bottle of water and a variety of reading material. As the chill of the morning seeped into my bones from the cold concrete, I wished I had thought to bring a folding chair, as many others had. But at least it wasn’t raining. I’d also been able to book an entire day off work to devote to my mission: getting our daughters’ passports in time for a weeklong holiday in Maine.

My family’s adventures with Passport Canada started in February when our passports expired. We got new photos taken, and filled out renewal applications for my husband and myself, as well as brand-new adult passport applications for our twin daughters, who were then 17. We dutifully mailed them off a full nine weeks before a planned trip to New York City in May.

April came and went with no passports. By the beginning of May, we were starting to worry. We had a flight booked to New York on May 21 — an early birthday gift for the girls, who would turn 18 the following week. I decided to phone Passport Canada.

The first time, I called six times just to get on the line and there were 187 people ahead of me on hold. The second time, I called 35 times to get on the line and there were more than 200 people ahead of me. When I finally got through, I learned that my daughters’ applications had been rejected because we had not provided sufficient proof of Canadian citizenship … even though we sent back their old child passports. I had failed to include their original birth certificates.

We didn’t make it to New York. There was no way, however, that we were going to miss out on Maine, our favourite summer destination since the girls were little, and which we hadn’t seen in two years. This is what had brought me to Rideauview Mall.

They let us into the building around 7:30 a.m. The line re-formed. It started at the Passport Canada office door, stretched to the Prince of Wales entrance, and curved around and along the opposite wall. A young woman in line who must have been a camp counsellor at some point took on the role of directing new people who came through the door (those poor folks who thought an hour early was sufficient!) towards the end of the line.

I overheard people saying they were travelling that week. Even the next day. Two young men came through the door just before 8 a.m. hauling enormous rolling suitcases. There were families with young children and others with elderly relatives. One young guy near the end of the line recorded a video for his social media followers. I caught the words: “No, this is not a third-world country. This is Canada.”

And yet, there was a sense of camaraderie. Everyone was in the same boat, chatting with their line-mates about where they were going and when and sometimes about what had gone wrong with their applications. Many were clearly anxious, but also very civilized. I couldn’t help feeling thankful to be living in Canada rather than, say, Florida.

Finally, the office opened. The line advanced. Immediately, Passport Canada staffers began shouting information in both official languages, triaging people based on their departure dates, separating those who were picking up completed passports or whose files had been transferred from the walk-ins, and confirming (repeatedly) that everyone had proof they were travelling within the next 45 business days.

Eight hours and 15 minutes later, I left the office clutching a receipt that would allow me to pick up my daughters’ passports in 14 days. I had exhausted my snack supply, read 200 pages of my novel, and was consistently impressed with how kind, helpful and patient the front-line passport officers managed to be in the face of so much stress. I also had a lot of time to ponder what might make the process more efficient:

• Hire and train passport officers to be on standby even if they typically work in other areas so they can be pulled in temporarily at times like this. That would allow for the extension of office hours, which would help clear the backlog.

• Allow Canadian citizens who hold child passports to upgrade to adult passports through a renewal process rather than having them fill out a brand-new adult passport application as though they’ve never held a Canadian passport before. I’m certain this is the cause of a lot of errors and delays, as it was with us.

• Allow Canadian citizens who hold a current adult passport that’s about to expire to renew online. This would force the government to come up with some acceptable process for the use and verification of digital photos, but isn’t it past time for that?

• Develop a new electronic passport form that flags obvious errors, like not including an address or postal code for your guarantors while you’re filling it out (rather than having the passport officers flag it for you when you get to the office).

Canadian passports are precious things and issuing them is a basic function of our federal government. We’ve got to get it right. The front-line officers are doing their job exceptionally well under these circumstances. Now it’s up to our elected representatives to ensure this situation never happens again.

Lara Mills is a professor in the public relations program at Algonquin College.

Source: Mills: Just another day in Canada’s passport purgatory

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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