Canada

Passport delays spur some Canadians to game the system with fake travel plans

Canadians are getting creative trying to cut the long waits for passports that have been dragging on for close to five months after a surge in post-pandemic travel demand overwhelmed the system.

'It's breaking us,' says Terrace, B.C., dad as family short 2 passports after 5-month wait

People line up at a passport office in Montreal on June 22. Delays in passport processing continue to disrupt Canadians' travel plans. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Canadians are getting creative trying to cut the long waits for passports that have been dragging on for close to five months after a surge in post-pandemic travel demand overwhelmed the system.

By Aug. 11, a total of 1,092,560 passport applications had been filed this year – with more than 550,000 of those applications flooding in since April.

Service Canada said it's prioritizing the applications of people traveling imminently, increasing staff and processing sites.

Despite all this, applicants say they are spending thousands of dollars to travel to less-busy passport offices — or even faking travel plans to speed the process to beat the 340,000-application backlog.

Federal officials say they are working to fix the problem. 

People line up in front of a passport office in Toronto on Tuesday, June 14, 2022. (Esteban Cuevas/CBC)

Fake trips impact entire system

Karina Gould, the minister responsible for passport services, said Canadians are getting their passports on time, and there's no need to "fake" travel — booking a flight you do not plan to take — to be eligible for Passport Canada's urgent 48-hour approval mechanism.

"That impacts the whole system. There are a lot of people who did the right thing. They sent off their passports well in advance. Their applications are impacted by anyone who books fake travel," Gould told CBC in a phone interview on Friday.

She had heard of the practice, but doubts it is widespread.

"I would be very disappointed to hear that, because that would be putting additional pressure on a system that is already pressured," said Gould.

Meanwhile in Toronto, a man who CBC agreed to call Robert, said he has spent the past 59 days organizing 10 staffers to hold spots in lineups for about 500 absent passport applicants.

He said he has earned up to $1,000 per day offering this service.

No passport number needed to book many online flights

"Most of my customers book fake flights just to get their passports so they can drive across [the border]," said Robert.

"You're going through more hoops to drive across [the border] than to fly. So what they do is just book a fake flight. It's usually Toronto to New York or Toronto to Miami, and within 24 hours, they cancel it," he said of his customers.

Multiple travel agents and Air Canada confirmed that many flights can be booked online without a passport number, and full-fare or business class ticket is often refundable.

A line of close to 300 people formed before dawn outside this Service Centre in Laval, Que., on July 30. (Gisela Frias)

Other travellers head to out-of-province Service Canada offices where the lines are not so long, with some citing shorter waits in Halifax or St. John's.

St. John's photographer Robert Young often gets called on for passport photos.

He said lately more travellers from other parts of Canada are utilizing the passport processing services in at Newfoundland.

"We've always gotten people from the edges of the world — like Pangnirtung (Baffin Island) — but now they are showing up from bigger cities," said Young.

Government promises fix is working 

Gould said lineups have decreased with the hiring of 500 new staffers, extended hours and the prioritizing of applicants with imminent travel plans, within 48 hours.

Back on July 25, Service Canada expanded passport pick-up services, adding five more locations in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and B.C. to the 29 existing passport offices.

In Ontario and Quebec, a business has popped up to deal with the long waits for passport applications. Line standers charge about $40-$60 per hour or a flat fee of about $240 to line up at dawn and hold an applicant's place so they can apply to get a Canadian passport or renewal. (Roger Thompson)

This and other measures – like transferring application files to one of the 300 Service Canada offices upon request — aimed to reduce passport processing waits.

But many who mailed in applications last spring say the turnaround remains sluggish.

It's difficult to get anybody on the phone or get an accurate status on an application, according to many applicants, including Paula Langley, a Canadian living in the U.S. who applied for a new passport in April.

Updates difficult to get

"The biggest problem is people being unable to get an answer about where in the process their passport is. I think the issue is partially technology. They are likely using outdated software. Other countries let you check your status in an online portal," said Langley.

"It is very difficult to even get somebody on the phone to ask questions. The 1-800 number just cuts off after the queue of callers gets too high." 

On Passport Canada's website, delivery is promised in 46 days or six and a half weeks. But anyone needing a passport within two business days can go to specialized sites offering urgent service, if they have proof of travel.

The government's plan was to ease backlogs, but it's given some a chance to jump the queue by booking and then cancelling travel.

Broken system

"It's upsetting," said Leanne MacLeod who runs Getaways by Leanne out of Toronto and offers passport advice online. What's not helping, she said, is booking a "fake" trip that you cancel to get travel documents. 

"I've seen people recommend booking a refundable hotel, then cancelling," she said. "It's really what's holding up the whole process right now. For every person who gets ahead, one gets bumped."

The passport office in downtown Vancouver also had long lineups, pictured here on April 20. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Taylor Bachrach, the New Democratic Party's transport critic, said the fact that people are trying to work around the system is evidence it's not working.

"It shows how frustrated people are and the lengths they are willing to go," said Bachrach.

"If people are having to 'game' the system to get their documents, that shows how broken the system is."

People in his Skeena Bulkley Valley constituency in Northern B.C. live a 12-hour drive from the nearest passport office.

Bachrach has one staffer who has spent the past several weeks devoted to helping constituents secure passports.

Family trips at risk

"I have a constituent whose family needed to travel to the United States, and we were able to work with the federal government to arrange for the passports to be picked up. But he had to incur $2,000 in extra travel costs to get from here in Smithers, B.C., all the way to Victoria to pick up the passports. ... This obviously has a big impact on people."

Bachrach said these months of passport chaos are "unacceptable." 

The Ivens family of Terrace, B.C., saved for four years for a trip to Mexico. They are supposed to leave on Aug. 27, but they need two passport renewals that were applied for on April 4. Pictured here left to right are (front) Finnley, Milla (back) Jaroslava, Maxwell and Joseph Ivens. (The Ivens Family)

"The increased demand for passports was entirely predictable. But the Liberals failed to act even though they had months to prepare for travel to return."

That lack of foresight has left many Canadians apprehensive, with only a few weeks of summer left. Joseph Ivens of Terrace, B.C., applied to renew his two teens' passports back on April 4.

The family of five has saved for a trip to Mexico for four years. The flight is booked for Aug. 27, but the passports have not come.

Minister promises family passports are coming 

The father of three said he's made hundreds of calls, several requests for a file transfer and appealed to his member of parliament. He may be forced to travel to Calgary or Vancouver at the last minute to try to secure the travel documents so the holiday is not lost.

"It's causing my family massive stress with loss of sleep. It's breaking us," said Ivens. "I have no recourse."

Gould, the minister responsible for passport services, told CBC on Friday that Ivens will get travel documents on time.

"He will get his passport. I understand people are stressed, but everyone is getting their passport on time," said Gould.

By Aug. 11, Passport Canada had processed 748,784 of 1,092,560 passport applications filed so far this year. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

One of Ivens' teen's, Milla, finally got her passport late on Monday. He's hopeful his son's will arrive soon. An agent told him on Aug. 15 that Finnley's document is now being printed and undergoing "final quality control."

But Ivens remains cautious.

"We are one step closer going together as a family. I am going to keep checking back anyway to be sure."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@cbc.ca

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