Passport-processing turbulence grounds family’s Euro trip Six months proves insufficient to renew son’s expired document

Tara Powell is trying not to think about how she would be in Venice right now if it weren’t for federal incompetence in passport processing.

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Tara Powell is trying not to think about how she would be in Venice right now if it weren’t for federal incompetence in passport processing.

“I should stop thinking that way; it’s not good for me,” says the veterinary technician who lives in Cooks Creek, near Beausejour.

Last week, Powell cancelled a trip to Europe with her two children after six months of trying to get her son a passport.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Tara Powell (centre) got a passport for her daughter Jorja easily enough, but her son Ethan still didn't get a passport six months after applying. The family had to cancel their trip to Italy.

After mixed messages from federal officials, the single mother took four separate unpaid days off work to drive into the city and queue up at the passport office on Main Street.

“There was a lot of yelling and screaming and crying when I was there waiting for my time, and a lot of people were upset and couldn’t believe what was going on,” she said.

“I’m not the only one who’s had passport nightmares lately.”

For weeks, Canadians have been queuing up for hours at Passport Canada and Service Canada offices in an attempt to get passports, sometimes sleeping in tents overnight. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government stands accused of ignoring warnings of a surge in applications several months ago.

Powell applied in January by mail to renew passports for both her children, whom she has custody of following a divorce. Her daughter’s passport arrived in April without needing assistance from her ex-husband.

But because their son is under the age of 16, both parents must sign a consent form for him to be granted a passport.

Five years ago, Powell renewed their son’s passport without issue, by having her ex sign a form and scan it.

She tried the same option this time. In January, she mailed in the forms with her son’s expired passport and his original birth certificate. Passport Canada returned the documents on May 31 with a letter saying “your passport will be/has been delivered to you by courier service.”

It hadn’t arrived two weeks later.

Powell called customer service numerous times, and made four visits to the Main Street location, trying to explain her situation.

What is causing delays?

OTTAWA — The federal Liberals say a sudden uptick in demand has created a backlog in processing passports, though unions claim they warned Ottawa of a surge months ago.

“We told them the situation was coming during the pandemic, and they ignored it until this issue was at their doors, literally and figuratively,” said Kevin King, head of the Union of National Employees, which represents Passport Canada officers.

“We are now in indefinite triage mode.”

OTTAWA — The federal Liberals say a sudden uptick in demand has created a backlog in processing passports, though unions claim they warned Ottawa of a surge months ago. 

“We told them the situation was coming during the pandemic, and they ignored it until this issue was at their doors, literally and figuratively,” said Kevin King, head of the Union of National Employees, which represents Passport Canada officers. 

“We are now in indefinite triage mode.”

King’s union represents passport officers, who are the only people who can entitle passports and oversee their physical creation

They’re supported by Service Canada staff — represented by the Canada Employment and Immigration Union — who liaise with the public and help assemble the applications for the officers to entitle.

Both unions say they urged federal officials in recurring 2021 meetings to prepare for a surge of Canadians with expired passports applying for new ones, especially as the United States prepared to loosen pandemic travel restrictions.

They had also expected a spike in demand thanks to the 10-year passport, which Canadians could first obtain in 2013. Because many countries require travellers to present passports that don’t expire for at least six months, the unions said they warned Ottawa of an onslaught of demand coming by mid-2022.

Employment and Social Development Canada, which oversees both departments, did not respond by deadline to a request for comment. The agency previously stated that applications dropped to one-fifth of the typical volume for the first two years of the pandemic.

Karina Gould, the minister overseeing both Service Canada and Passport Canada, has insisted for weeks that Ottawa is hiring and training more staff.

“It takes 15 weeks to train a passport officer. This has already been going on for months,” she told the House of Commons on June 23. “This is not something that changes overnight.”

Ottawa has recently asked public servants who have any past experience in passports to help process applications. But King said that will only add to the workload of the passport officers, who are the only ones who can actually entitle a passport, and it’s unclear how many staff Ottawa is hiring will be full-fledged officers.

“If you don’t have passport officers who are able to entitle a passport, this problem… is going to be with us all summer long and into the fall,” he said.

Both unions say people who have waited in hours-long lines are, at times, abusive and have threatened staff.

In Montreal, officials started issuing appointments to people waiting in line, after police had to be called to maintain order last month.

Last week, Ottawa issued a tender seeking 800 chairs within a week, marking it as “urgent for passport offices,” so people waiting in line have somewhere to sit.

Days prior, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a special cabinet committee to reduce wait times at both passports counters and at airport security.

Ottawa is under fire for delays in airport screening, where a May hiring spree hasn’t prevented hour-long waits for frustrated travellers.

Similarly, Immigration Canada has a ballooning backlog of applications for visas and residency permits, which critics have linked to department staff largely continuing to work from home.

Meanwhile, the Nexus program has faced a backlog of nearly 300,000 applications this year. The program allows pre-approved Canadians access to separate security lines for travel to to and from the U.S.

Some who applied have reported being billed annual charges despite the Canada Border Services Agency not having processed their cards, often because they cannot book the required sit-down interview.

—Dylan Robertson

On the first visit, June 16, an agent told her that her ex-husband, who lives abroad, needed to contact a Canadian embassy. The ex-husband left voicemails but said he never heard back from anyone at Passport Canada.

On her second visit, she waited 90 minutes in the rain, only to be told to return a few days before her scheduled flight abroad.

During her third visit, after waiting in line five hours, an agent said her son’s passport had not yet been processed, notwithstanding the letter she received a month earlier on government letterhead telling her the document was on its way.

Powell said she had a meltdown in the lobby. At that point, her flight was just three days away.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Ethan Powell's passport never arrived despite a notice from Passport Canada informing her the passport was set to be delivered by courier.

“I had sleepless nights, wondering, ‘Is it going to happen,’ and what do I tell my children,” she said.

“(It was) the feeling that I’ve done everything that I can possibly do, and was told to do, and just not knowing if we were going to be able to go or not.”

On her fourth visit, a day later, an agent reviewed her digital file and said her ex-husband abroad could no longer submit a scanned signature. Instead, he would need to physically mail her a completed form or visit a Canadian embassy to fill one out.

She was told if everything went to plan, she might have the passports in hand within a week.

Powell considered postponing the flight, but wasn’t sure Passport Canada or her ex-husband would actually respond on time. She had already annoyed her colleagues by taking so many days off work and would need to make adjusted arrangements for friends to look after her six pets and an aquarium of fish.

She ended up cancelling the trip after spending roughly $20,000 on it. She has submitted cancellation-insurance claims for non-refundable costs.

“I was left in the dark; it was very stressful and I’m still numb,” she said, adding she can’t understand how the federal government-run service has deteriorated to this level of chaos, even factoring in the impact of the pandemic .

“I was very dumbfounded as to how it got this far, and this bad,” said Powell, who reached out to the Free Press to warn Manitobans hoping to travel abroad.

“Definitely make sure you have that passport in hand before you book anything, and don’t think six months is enough time.”

She’s planning to take her kids to Europe next June.

“Hopefully by then I’ll have a passport,” she said.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Tuesday, July 5, 2022 7:03 PM CDT: Adds photo

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