Hundreds of thousands of Canadian citizenship hopefuls waiting for applications to be processed
Backlog of permanent residents waiting to take test grows during COVID-19 pandemic
In March 2020, Minakshi thought her journey to Canadian citizenship was coming to a close, as Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada set a date for her test.
Then the world changed before her eyes on March 11, exactly a week before her scheduled citizenship exam, as the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
The IRCC cancelled all tests, including hers, except for what it called a few "urgent" exams, held virtually.
"We understood, we tried to co-operate," Minakshi said.
But several months passed before the department resumed tests, shifting them online at the end of November.
Testing backlog grew during pandemic
Data obtained by CBC News shows Minakshi is one of hundreds of thousands of people stuck in a waiting pattern.
In a series of internal IRCC emails, employees acknowledge that the backlog of those permanent residents who are ready to take a citizenship test grew from 87,000 people in March 2020 to 102,000 by the start of this year.
The information also shows there were 311,259 people waiting to go through the entire application process for citizenship at the end of January.
Of those, 102,989 had been waiting between 13 and 18 months — and 865 for more than four years.
"One hundred and two thousand applicants, that's just like the size of a mid-sized city in Canada," said Ahsan Umar, the head of an ad-hoc advocacy group, Advocates for Citizenship Test.
The group lodged the access to information request that revealed the figures and the internal department emails.
"We all understand reasonable delays because of this whole situation we are in," Umar said. "But when it gets to lack of transparency and unreasonable delays, that instils a lot of deep sorrow in itself."
The cost of waiting
For Minakshi, who came to Canada 10 years ago and lives in London, Ont., it also compounded job-seeking issues.
She has only a first name, not uncommon for the part of India where she's from. She would like to start a career in real estate in Canada and obtain a surname. But to legally do that, she would first need to pass her citizenship test.
Since 2018, she estimates she's paid up to $600 to renew her permanent resident card and an Indian passport — and to get her fingerprints scanned three times to help with the IRCC's criminal background check, which must be periodically redone as a citizenship application is being processed.
Although she started her Canadian citizenship application in 2018, Minakshi said she has yet to receive a new test invitation, and she doesn't understand why it's her responsibility to pay for new scans, since her actions haven't caused the delay..
"Every morning, you know, instead of doing my regular work, I'm checking my phone. Everyday, have I got the email yet? Do I need to prepare for my citizenship test?"
Toronto resident Ben Mansoura, another permanent resident, managed to be among the first 5,000 candidates to receive an invitation to take an online test in December.
But the senior IT manager had to file an access to information request about himself just to find out he passed.
He's still waiting on criminal background and language eligibility results, with no indication of when those might arrive.
"The agents on the phone would almost be like: 'Why are you calling us?'" Mansoura said, whenever he called the IRCC to get updated information.
In 2019, he didn't have the right to vote in the federal election, and he's worried he may still be unable to cast a ballot in the next election, expected later this year, if delays continue indefinitely.
"I do want to take part in the betterment of this country," said Mansoura, who arrived in Canada in 2012 from the Czech Republic. "I feel unwelcome here, I feel like I'm not being treated equally."
More digital tests coming 'very soon': minister
Some of the internal IRCC emails in the 353-page document obtained by Ahsan Umar's group date back from before the online test launch, with employees settling on what one referred to as an "aggressive plan" to begin the pilot project with 5,000 test invitations by the end of 2020.
Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino was unavailable for an interview on the subject, but at a recent news conference, he asked those still waiting to "keep the faith."
"More digital testing and citizenship ceremonies are coming to you very soon," he said.
In a followup statement to CBC News, the IRCC said it had sent out 65,893 online test invitations by the end of April, and 43,697 people had completed their citizenship tests.
"Immigration officers have had to scramble for this last year as well," said Raj Sharma, a Calgary-based immigration lawyer.
Glimpsing at the numbers obtained by CBC News, he said he had expected the backlog to be worse due to the pandemic.
But Sharma said there was no explanation for the large number of people waiting for such a long time.
"It appears to be clear there were delays on some applications well before this pandemic, well before the excuse of this pandemic," he said.
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"It does look like there's some promising signs of spring ahead," Sharma said, referring to the online testing process flowing more smoothly now.
But it is little comfort for Minakshi: "If I get the fourth fingerprint request next year, I'm going to withdraw my file," she said.
With files from Christina Romualdo