The provincial government’s understaffing of the Vital Statistics Agency has meant a 40 per cent drop in birth certificates, with 20,000 fewer issued in last fiscal year than one year prior.
The drop is documented in the agency’s recently released annual report, which shows there was only a one per cent drop in births in Manitoba between the 2019 and 2020 calendar year.
"This government clearly hasn’t taken this issue seriously, and Manitobans are the ones that are suffering. They can’t apply for permanent residency (or) certain federal government programs, because they can’t get the documents they need to qualify," NDP finance critic Mark Wasyliw said Tuesday at the legislature.
The government says it has ramped up staffing and technology to get the agency back on track.
Yet the NDP noted that Finance Minister Scott Fielding disclosed last Friday that one-third of the budgeted 44 positions at the agency remain unfilled.
That means 30 staff working and 14 "in various stages of the hiring process right now," Fielding told the finance estimates committee, chalking that up to regular staff turnover.
Fielding said it now takes only three months to get a certificate, which he said is far beyond the government’s two-week target, but better than the six-month wait in place just months ago.
In June, the Free Press reported that 13,000 Manitobans were waiting on birth, marriage and death certificates, down from a backlog of 24,864 requests that dated from Aug. 11, 2020 to March 31, 2021.
The Free Press asked the Vital Statistics Agency for updated figures a week ago, but has yet to receive the data.
Fielding told the legislature Tuesday that 99.9 per cent of the backlog had been cleared.
"Our department is doing a great job (and) we want to ensure the wait times are reduced even more," he said.
Manitobans have said that the backlog prevents them from accessing benefits, sending a body to relatives abroad and registering to practise Indigenous rights.
The government has said that requests with incomplete information, particularly for documents that were never digitally recorded, have caused part of that backlog, as has having limited in-person staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The agency has worked with unions to boost staffing to help clear the backlog, including by scheduling staff on weekends.
Yet funeral directors, who need death records to ship bodies abroad or help execute wills, said the backlog preceded the pandemic.
The Vital Statistics Agency’s latest annual report also reveals a rise in stillbirths, with 180 recorded in the fiscal year ending in March 2021, a gradual increase from just 135 three years prior. That’s a 33 per cent rise during a period in which births overall slightly dropped in Manitoba.