Nova Scotia

'It's been anything but easy': People lining up for hours amid Halifax passport office backlog

As Canada opens up and relaxes public health restrictions, many Nova Scotians are trying to take off for sun destinations, but a huge backlog at the Halifax passport office is threatening to ground their plans.

People hoping to travel in the next month say they’ve waited more than 7 hours, multiple days in a row

Claire Swinamer said she couldn't book an appointment at the office until April, which is after her planned travel date. (Robert Short/CBC)

When Claire Swinamer first stopped by the passport office in downtown Halifax to renew her passport for an upcoming trip, she thought it would be a quick process. 

She was wrong. 

"Today is my fifth visit down here in the past two weeks," Swinamer said. "I've been turned away every single time because the line's been so long … they just said, 'No, there's no chance, try again tomorrow.'"

Swinamer is one of many in the same frustrating situation. A backlog at the Service Canada passport office on Argyle Street is causing daily lineups of 50 to 100 people, all hoping for a walk-in appointment. 

The rise in demand for passport services has been spurred by lifting public health regulations and a renewed interest in travel. 

Some who've gathered at the Halifax office are trying to renew their passports, some are trying to get a first passport for their children, but all are spending hours in line. Some return day after day, hoping to be seen.

The hours of the Halifax Service Canada office are shown. Swinamer says people have been lining up in the hallway outside the office 'at the crack of dawn.' (Robert Short/CBC)

According to the Service Canada website, passport renewal can be done by mail or in person. If a person's travel date is within 25 business days, they must apply in person. The Halifax office is the only location in Nova Scotia that provides the service, said a Service Canada agent when reached by phone.

Swinamer said she tried to book an appointment, but the soonest available opening was in April — and her trip is in March.

Hoping to beat the crowd, she arrived at the office when it opened at 8:30 a.m. She found 50 people in front of her, who told her they began lining up at 5:30 a.m. 

"It's been anything but easy," she said. "It's just frustrating because this used to be such an easy process, and now it's just the most complicated thing ever, and it takes up like a week of your time."

Liam Sturge said he didn't use his passport for two years during the COVID-19 pandemic, so he didn't realize the document had expired when he and his family booked a trip to Costa Rica. 

Sturge had to miss a day of school as he waited in line for eight hours to be seen at the office. 

"It was pretty demoralizing," he said. "There's a corner you turn and you see a huge lineup of people, and it's just like, 'Oh my gosh, this is going to take a while.'"

Liam Sturge expected the renewal process to take 1-2 hours, but waited in line for 8 hours. (Robert Short/CBC)

Service Canada declined to make someone available for an interview with CBC News.

In a statement, it attributed the backlog to COVID-19 protocols, including occupancy limits that cap the number of clients who can wait inside the office and the number of staff who can work in close proximity. However, it also said "the number of staff available to process applications is equal to pre‑pandemic levels."

It said there are approximately 12 employees working each day in the Halifax office. Between Feb. 28 and March 4, they served 913 people, including 621 walk-ins.

"Measures are in place to ensure that passport services are delivered within published service standards, however, some delays are experienced due to the health and safety measures in place," the statement read. "Canadians should not delay in renewing their expired passports if they are planning to travel internationally."

Service Canada confirmed the Halifax office is currently booking appointments for April 1, and said appointments are prioritized based on date of travel. 

But not all the impacted would-be travellers are people who waited until the last minute. 

Amanda Mercer believed she did everything right for her first trip home to Dubai with her fiancé. She applied for renewal by mail in early January, several months before her planned trip. Less than two weeks ago, she learned it had been rejected because of "some drops of water" on her old passport, which she had submitted as part of the application process. 

She spent two days sitting on the floor outside the Halifax passport office, trying to get work done from her laptop. 

"For [the trip] to fall through would be a pretty big devastation," said Mercer. "We waited so long to be able to go somewhere together."

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