New Brunswick

Sussex grandmother sues Ottawa over passport denial

Shelley Baker is suing the federal government for violating her constitutional rights because she couldn't get her passport renewed and therefore, couldn't travel to Texas to help care for her family.  

Shelley Baker is part of a lawsuit with two other Canadian women

Shelley Baker says she wanted to go to Texas to help her stepson take care of her grandson when schools and daycares were closed because of COVID-19. (Submitted by Shelley Baker)

Shelley Baker says she is suing the federal government for violating her constitutional rights because she couldn't get her passport renewed and therefore, couldn't travel to Texas to help care for her family.  

Baker, 61, along with two other Canadian applicants, are hoping to make the case that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects their right to leave the country for any reason, and that Ottawa's decision to withhold or restrict passport services after March 19, is unreasonable and unlawful.

Baker says she had wanted to spend the summer near Belton, about an hour's drive north of Austin, where her stepson, Brian Postell, is raising his six-year-old son.

"My stepson is a military veteran and he has medical conditions and when the COVID hit, he just needed more help at home," she said.  

However, Baker's passport expired in March and by March 19, Ottawa had closed its Service Canada and passport offices in response to the pandemic.

Program restricted

Most Service Canada offices remain closed to the public. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

The federal government then restricted its passport program, only processing applications deemed necessary for valid urgent travel reasons.

According to the government web site Monday, Canadians with urgent travel needs may obtain passport services if they:

  • have a serious illness, or must tend to the serious illness or death of another individual they have had a relationship with;
  • suffer from economic hardships due to loss of job or business (the cost of an airline, bus or train ticket does not constitute economic hardship);
  • or must travel for humanitarian grounds, supported by the requesting organization.

When Baker realized there was no way to renew her passport in person, she contacted the passport program by phone.

Plea denied

Shelley Baker said she wanted to spend the summer in Texas helping her step-son, Brian Postell take care of grandson, Landon Postell but could not renew her passport. (Submitted by Shelley Baker)

She tried to explain that her grandson had cochlear implants and her family had some other medical stresses and could have used her help caring for six-year-old Landon while school and daycares were closed for summer.

Baker said her plea was denied.

"The criteria was either the person travelling, or your family on the other end, had to be critical, like a near-death situation," she said.  

"I didn't fall into that category. So from there, I had to tell my family that I wasn't able to [go.]"

Baker. along with Sonia Faye of Ontario and Diane Smith of Alberta, are represented by James Kitchen, a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.

Passport essential

Kitchen says the charter protects every Canadian citizen's right to enter, remain in, and leave Canada and that a passport is essential to exercising that right.

The notice of application, which was filed in the federal court in Calgary on July 27, says mobility rights are shared equally by all Canadian citizens, regardless of whether the reasons they want to travel are considered more "essential" or "valid" than others.

Kitchen told CBC News a temporary interruption in passport service might have been understandable, given the pandemic, but it should have been fixed by now.

"It's been over five months," he said.

"People whose passports expired in March or April or May, who have been trying to renew their passports, have been unable to. Up until the end of July, they would not have been able even to submit their application and hope it was processed in any reasonable time."

No explanation provided

James Kitchen, a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, is representing the three women in the lawsuit against the federal government. (Contributed)

Kitchen said Ottawa has figured out how to do other things remotely, such as process thousands of CERB applications.

He says no explanation has been provided as to why the passport program didn't adjust.

"When you get into July and August where we are now, the situation is not extreme or dire. It's not complete chaos. If that were the case, people would not be trying to travel. We wouldn't have international flights," he said.

"There are lots of countries accepting travellers. There are lots of people wanting to travel for all kinds of personal reasons -- whether it's to visit family or do things they've waited to do for a long time."

"This [passport program] should have come back online earlier in the spring and it didn't."

Kitchen said the federal government has yet to file a response to his application, which seeks to direct the respondent, the minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship Canada to restore normal passport service, both in person and by mail.

Kitchen said he expects a hearing would probably be conducted online, and last about a day.

He added the federal court is efficient and the issue might be resolved in about six months.

Passport service resumes

Meanwhile Baker says she's still hoping to see her grandson.

She expects to apply for a passport renewal as soon as the program goes back to normal.

First, she says, she'll have to take another passport photo because the last one has already expired.

In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said while the government's travel advisory against non-essential travel outside Canada remains in place, they do recognize the need to travel in some cases.

They said that since July 31, Canadians have been able to apply again for a passport by mail or request an appointment for urgent processing if they must travel within 30 days.

About the Author

Rachel Cave is a CBC reporter based in Saint John, New Brunswick.

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