Canadians are getting creative trying to cut long waits for passports that have dragged on for nearly five months as a surge in post-pandemic travel demand overwhelmed the system.
As of August 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 is prioritizing applications from people traveling immediately, 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 falsify travel plans to speed up the process to overcome the 340,000 application backlog.
Federal officials say they are working to solve the problem.
False trips affect the 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” booking a flight you don’t plan to take to qualify for the 48-hour emergency approval mechanism of Passport Canada.
“It affects the whole system. There are a lot of people who did the right thing. They sent their passports way in advance. Their applications are affected by anyone booking fake travel,” Gould told the CBC in a phone interview Friday.
She had heard of the practice but doubts it is widespread.
“I would be very disappointed to hear that, because that would be additional pressure on a system that is already under pressure,” Gould said.
Meanwhile in Toronto, a man the CBC agreed to call Robert said he has spent the past 59 days organizing 10 employees to hold lineups for about 500 absent passport applicants.
He said he has earned up to $1,000 a day providing this service.
No passport number is needed to book many flights online
“Most of my clients book fake flights just to get their passports so they can drive through [the border]”, said Robert.
“You’re jumping through more hoops to get through [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 clients.
Multiple travel agents and Air Canada confirmed that many flights can be booked online without a passport number and the full or business class ticket can often be refunded.
Other travelers go to Service Canada’s out-of-province offices, where lines aren’t as long, with some citing shorter waits in Halifax or St. Louis.
Photographer of St. John’s Robert Young is often called for passport photos.
He said recently more travelers from other parts of Canada are using passport processing services in Newfoundland.
“We’ve always gotten people from the edges of the world like Pangnirtung (Baffin Island), but now they’re showing up from the bigger cities,” Young said.
Fixing government promises is working
Gould said lineups have been reduced by hiring 500 new employees, extended hours and prioritizing applicants with close travel plans within 48 hours.
On July 25, Service Canada expanded its passport collection services, adding five more locations in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and BC to its existing 29 passport offices.
This and other measures such as transferring application files to one of Service Canada’s 300 offices upon request were intended to reduce passport processing waits.
But many who submitted applications last spring say the turnaround remains slow.
It’s difficult to get someone on the phone or get an accurate status on an application, according to many applicants, including Paula Langley, a Canadian living in the US who applied for a new passport in April.
Updates are hard to come by
“The biggest problem is that people are not able to get an answer on where their passport is in the process. I think the issue is partly technology. They are likely using outdated software. Other countries allow you to check the status yours in an online portal,” said Langley.
“It’s very difficult to even get someone on the phone to ask questions. The 1-800 number just hangs up because the line of callers gets so big.”
On the Passport Canada website, delivery is promised in 46 days or six and a half weeks. But anyone who needs a passport within two working days can go to specialized sites that offer urgent service, if they have proof of travel.
The government’s plan was to ease backlogs, but some were given a chance to jump the queue by booking and then canceling trips.
The system is broken
“It’s worrying,” 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 canceling,” she said. “It’s really what’s holding the whole process back right now. For every person who steps forward, someone crashes.”
Taylor Bachrach, the New Democratic Party’s transportation critic, said the fact that people are trying to work around the system is proof that it’s not working.
“It shows how frustrated people are and how far they’re willing to go,” Bachrach said.
“If people have to ‘game’ the system to get their documents, it shows how broken the system is.”
People in his Skeena Bulkley Valley constituency in Northern BC live a 12-hour drive from the nearest passport office.
Bachrach has a staff who have spent the past few weeks dedicated to helping voters 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 passports. But he had to pay $2,000 in additional travel costs to get from here . Smithers, BC, all the way to Victoria to get the passports… It definitely has a big impact on people.”
Bachrach said these months of passport chaos are “unacceptable”.
“The surge in demand for passports was entirely predictable. But the Liberals failed to act even though they had months to prepare for the return trip.”
The lack of foresight has left many Canadians worried, with only a few weeks of summer left. Joseph Ivens of Terrace, BC, applied to renew his two teenagers’ passports on April 4.
The family of five has been saving for a trip to Mexico for four years. The flight was booked for August 27, but the passports have not arrived.
The minister promises that family passports will arrive
The father of three children said he made hundreds of phone calls, several requests for the transfer of the file and appealed to his deputy. He may be forced to travel to Calgary or Vancouver at the last minute to try to secure travel documents so that the vacation is not lost.
“It’s causing my family massive stress with loss of sleep. It’s breaking us,” Ivens said. “I have no chance.”
Gould, the minister responsible for passport services, told the CBC on Friday that Ivens will receive the travel documents in time.
“He’s going to get his passport. I understand people are stressed, but everyone is getting their passport on time,” Gould said.
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