A great-grandmother who has lived in Canada almost all her life is being kept from a dream Hawaii vacation by government delays and bureaucracy.

"She really wants to go on this trip," said Alice McKay’s son Dan. "My mother has been in Canada for 82 of her 84 years…she just needs the paperwork to prove it."

McKay is among 270,000 people stuck in a backlog of citizenship applications that has grown by 100,000 in recent years. Without proof of citizenship, she can’t get the passport she needs to travel to the U.S.

"We’re already over two years since we applied

[for citizenship]," said her son. "The frustration is there is nobody you can talk to. There isn’t anybody that I can pick up the phone and say there is an injustice here."

McKay was born in the U.S., but came to Canada in 1929 — as a toddler — and spent most of her life in the Ottawa area. Her son said, until now, she never had any need for citizenship documents.

She married a member of the Canadian Air Force and has 11 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

'As Canadian as they come'

"She’s a huge hockey fan … as Canadian as they come," said Dan. "Never wanted anything for herself — always put other people first. This [trip] is an opportunity for us to give a little bit of that back to her."

si-bc-111203-citizenship-delay2

At the citizenship processing centre in Sydney, N.S. over 270,000 applications are piled up in a backlog. (CBC)

McKay’s children started planning two years ago for the whole family to go to Hawaii this February. Her son said they knew it would take time to get the paperwork she needed, so she sent in her application in October 2009.

At the time, the citizenship website pegged the processing time at 16 months, but it has been more than two years, with no end in sight. Meantime, the McKays bought thousands of dollars worth of tickets for the trip. 

"We’ve made plans. We’ve booked the hotel and the flights from Vancouver already," said McKay. "My mom lives on her own. It’s very unfortunate that this is another worry for her. She’s a worrier to start with, so it doesn’t help."

McKay figures he and his sister have spent at least 12 hours on the phone, on hold, trying to get through to the Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) centre in Sydney, N.S., where the applications are processed.

He said phoning is a useless exercise, though, because the person who eventually answers tells them what is already posted on his mom’s file on the website — that her application is "in process."

"When you are on the phone they recommend you go to the website and when you go to the website they recommend you go to the phone. And neither one of them will give you any information," said McKay.

Call back next year

He said the last time he called he said he was told to call back in May — three months after the planned trip.

si-bc-111203-citizenship-delay3

Dan McKay said repeated calls to the processing centre have brought no helpful answers. (CBC)

"When you are told in October to call back in May — they obviously don’t have any idea how long it will take. So they just pick numbers and dates out of the air," said McKay.

"It doesn’t make sense to me that a person would answer the phone and has absolutely no ability to do anything."

Figures from Citizenship and Immigration Canada show that while many more applications are coming in to the Sydney processing centre, fewer are being processed each year and the wait times are getting longer.

In 2006, 195,385 applications came in and 270,851 were processed.  By contrast, 290,854 came in last year and 153,825 were processed.

A department spokesperson said 86 temporary workers were hired last year, to help with the backlog, but "application intake continues to exceed operational capacity."

Submit your story ideas:

  • Go Public is an investigative news segment on CBC TV, radio and the web.
  • We tell your stories and hold the powers that be accountable.
  • We want to hear from people across the country with stories they want to make public.

Submit your story ideas to Kathy Tomlinson at Go Public

This summer, there were 270,848 applications on file, which will take an estimated 19 months to put through.

The increase in applications is attributed to the need for passports for U.S. travel, changes to dual citizenship requirements in some countries and increased immigration overall.

"It’s heartbreaking — it’s difficult to explain to clients," said Marina Sedai, a lawyer who is B.C. chair of the immigration section for the Canadian Bar Association.

She said it bothers her when some upstanding clients ask, "Does Canada want me?"

Sedai said another frustration is that the Sydney processing centre doesn’t use email and only accepts paperwork sent by courier or mail.

"We have been quoting our courier tracking number so that they can identify which application it is and add that information, because it’s sitting in a [mail] bin," she said.

Slowed down by Canada Post

"Even the visa offices outside of our country are sending notices by email, but [in Sydney] they are not."

Sedai said one of her clients waited over a year for his citizenship, then, when the letter was sent out telling him to come to take his oath, Canada Post failed to deliver it and no one told him.

si-bc-111203-citizenship-delay5

Immigration lawyer Marina Sedai told reporter Kathy Tomlinson that citizenship processing is painfully slow and needs updating. (CBC)

The government then told him his security checks had expired and had to be redone, which cost him another year.

"This poor gentleman had to wait roughly 15 more months before he got his next [date to take the oath], because of a Canada Post error which could have been easily fixed by an email or a telephone call," Sedai said.

She added that clients with gaps in residency face a wait of up to six years because on top of the two-year backlog at the processing centre, they now have to wait up to four years to see a citizenship judge.

MP Rick Dykstra, parliamentary secretary to the minister of immigration, is on a committee that just finished looking into delays throughout the immigration system.

"We’ve got a huge influx of new applications for citizenship. We are working through the backlog [in Sydney] as quickly as we can and wherever we have extra resources we are obviously investing that," Dykstra said, indicating an email system will be brought in — at some point.

Upgrades coming

"We are working towards it. I don’t have a date for you. I can tell you that the technology in terms of how we are trying to work through that process is there and it’s beginning to be implemented."

McKay said his family was told officials needed to search archives before they could grant her citizenship, but he said they were given no clue what that meant.

"We got a true copy — they call it — of her landed immigrant papers and that was forwarded with the citizenship application. They had all of that in front of them. So, that again was frustrating: what would be in the archive?"

si-bc-111203-citizenship-delay4

M.P. Rick Dykstra, parliamentary secretary to the immigration minister, said the government is working on a fix for the system. (CBC)

The department also told CBC News initially that archives had to be searched. However, after more questions were asked, that changed.

"After looking into this matter further, we understand that the officer is satisfied with the records provided by Ms. McKay and will not be searching the archives," a department spokesperson said by email.

"We understand that Ms. McKay is anxious to have an answer on her application and CIC regrets that processing is taking longer than the usual average."

McKay said his sister suddenly got a call from a CIC manager, asking about their mother’s application. A spokesman told CBC News she has now been invited to the Ottawa office to "discuss her case."

"This sounds great," said McKay. "Hopefully it will be nearing a conclusion."

McKay’s dad died two months ago — after his parents had been married for 60 years. He said the family now just wants to give their mom her dream trip.

"[Hawaii]

is just something that she’s always heard about and she believes that she would like to experience it at least once in her life."