Federal government scrambles to address hordes of passport applicants at overwhelmed offices
Minister touts new triage system she says will make process more orderly, critics slam hours-long wait times
Families Minister Karina Gould, the minister responsible for passport services, said Thursday the government is adding more staff on the ground to help triage hours-long lineups at many passport offices as tens of thousands of people look to get their hands on travel documents.
The strategy shift comes as policy experts, and the government's Conservative critics, say the situation should never have been allowed to get so dire when it was obvious to many that there'd be a strong interest in travel as the pandemic receded.
Gould said, after reports of chaos at some passport offices in the Montreal area this week, Service Canada is deploying managers to walk the lineups that have popped up at some offices.
These managers will speak to would-be travellers about their applications before they get to a customer service agent — a system that will help staff identify people who are most in need of a passport.
People who require a passport for travel in the next 12, 24 and 36 hours will get priority service while others will be told to come back at another time, Gould said.
WATCH: Anger boils over as passport applicants wait days in line:
The minister said, after the first day it was in place in Montreal, the process "didn't go as smoothly, quite frankly, as we had hoped, but today we're seeing much better progress."
While Gould reported "progress," the government website that tracks wait times was warning people to expect delays of at least six hours at busy sites like Montreal's Guy-Favreau complex and Ottawa's only passport office on Meadowlands Drive.
The minister said a similar process is being rolled out in Toronto Thursday and Vancouver-area offices will also have managers triaging passport applicants as of Monday.
Gould also said more passports will be printed in bulk at the Gatineau, Que. processing centre near Ottawa and ferried to other locations, which will take some of the stress off of smaller passport offices that don't have large industrial printers to churn out hundreds of passports each day.
"We have received a large volume of passports. That doesn't make the situation acceptable," Gould said. "Canadians should never have to experience this."
Bureaucrats warned government about passport onslaught
Andrew Griffith is a former director general with Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and a former top official at Service Canada and the Privy Council Office.
In an interview with CBC News, Griffith said the government should never have allowed the situation to get to this point.
In Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada's 2022-23 department plan, bureaucrats told the government there would almost certainly be a surge in passport applications as COVID-related travel restrictions were relaxed, Griffith said, and yet not enough was done to prepare passport offices for the onslaught of applicants.
In that department plan, which Griffith shared with CBC News, internal experts advised the government that "forecasts predict that a recovery to pre-COVID-19 demand will begin in spring of 2022, and that demand for passports will continue to increase over the next three years."
"This growth will be due in part to applications being delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and an anticipated surge related to the renewal of the first wave of passports issued with a 10-year validity period," the departmental plan reads.
Griffith said the passport situation is a clear instance of the government "neglecting its core responsibilities and not planning or preparing properly."
"It's very clear that the policy folks were aware that there would be an increase but it wasn't connected to the operations side to make sure they were putting adequate preparations in place. It's one of those unfortunate examples of where the government sort of tends to over promise and under deliver," he said.
Speaking to CBC Radio's The House in an interview that will air Saturday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended the government's record on the passport issue but vowed to do more to address an "unacceptable" situation.
Trudeau said the government did hire 600 more passport workers in January to support the existing workforce and it's looking to add more in the coming weeks to clear mounting backlogs.
Griffith said subjecting thousands of Canadians to hours-long lineups risks undermining faith in government institutions. Canadians expect a certain level of service from the federal government and, when it fails to deliver, there's an erosion of trust, he said.
"If they can't get service in a timely manner, people become disillusioned. People are understandably frustrated about these things. I think it's a really serious issue," Griffith said.
'This is a waiting nation'
Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre said Thursday, in a video posted to his social media channels, that Canadians deserve better than what has transpired at passport offices in recent weeks.
Poilievre is seen walking the lines that have formed at Ottawa's passport office in the video, speaking to applicants who have camped out since 3 a.m. to get to an agent.
"What's the deal folks? Well, this is a waiting nation. We are asked to wait for everything as sleepy bureaucrats and government gatekeepers stand in the way of you getting the basic services to which you are entitled — one of them is a passport," Poilievre said.
"You see what's happening here? The government is doing a lot of things poorly rather than a few things well."