As the government implements measures at some Service Canada locations to ease the massive backlogs for passport applications, unions representing federal workers say Ottawa has ignored their suggestions for reducing the delays.
Social Development Minister Karina Gould said in a statement Thursday she remains “deeply concerned” with the delivery of passport services, and said specialized passport sites in large cities will be prioritizing service to individuals with urgent travel needs within the following 24 to 48 hours.
She said that triage work began earlier this week in Montreal, then extended to Toronto, and will begin in Vancouver on Monday. Gould said individuals with longer-term travel plans will be directed to other Service Canada centres.
Gould told reporters in Ottawa that the majority of the applications are from first-time passport holders or children, which are more complex and require more time to process.
“There’s no easy solution here,” she said. “There’s a lot of work that has been done and there’s a lot more work that needs to be done.”
As COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, Canadians are returning to international travel in droves, applying for a passport for the first time or renewing passports that expired during the pandemic. This has sparked long lineups at passport offices. In some cases, the police have had to be called due to altercations.
The number of passports issued has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic. Service Canada issued 363,000 passports between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021, followed by more than 1.2 million between April 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022.
Nearly 500,000 passports have been issued since April 1.
The union representing more than 2,000 Service Canada workers said it raised concerns with the government last year about an expected increase in passport requests.
The union cautioned there would be an influence as COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, but also because individuals who received a 10-year passport in 2013 — the first year such passports were made available — would need to renew them in 2023.
“It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was about to happen, so we’ve been asking for planning: Are we going to staff up? Open up alternative work sites? Are you going to cross-train people?” said Crystal Warner, national executive vice-president of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union.
“They didn’t give us a clear answer on what the plan was. There didn’t seem to be a lot of concern or consideration. Not that we were dismissed, but it was a dismissive kind of vibe.”
The government was “not treating the situation seriously whatsoever,” said Kevin King, national president of the Union of National Employees, whose members are responsible for processing passport applications. (Warner’s members’ duties include passport intake at Service Canada centres.)
“The problem is we don’t have enough passport officers in the office,” King said. “We identified a lack of passport officers a year ago to this employer, and the employer has said we’re looking into it.”
Warner said the number one topic on calls the union has been getting from members is concerned over service delivery. She said the suggestion of having centers operate 24/7 would be unfair to the public and workers, but said the union has been urging the government to allow more centers to operate with extended hours and on weekends, only to be told the government is reviewing options.
“Could we do extended hours? 100 per cent. Could we do weekends? 100 per cent,” she said.
The union also wants to be able to triage individuals so that senior citizens in line with CPP or Old Age Security issues, for example, could be prioritized over individuals with non-urgent passport requests. But she said that request was rebuffed.
“They really need to review the people that they have in place in the department making their decisions,” Warner said. “I don’t know who is advising Minister Gould, but it’s no good.”
King described Gould’s announcement Thursday as “like bailing out a leaky bucket with a teaspoon.”
The government has taken measures including adding 600 additional staff and launching an appointment booking tool, but King said he still has not been given any indication as to how many of the 600 will be passport officers, who are equipped to process complex requests.
He said there needs to be an additional 150-200 passport officers spread out across the country, and the government also needs to ensure there is better protection for those officers. King said they are being harassed, spat on, and photographed.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” King said of the backlogs.
With a view to 2023 when the first batch of 10-year passports will be up for renewal, King said: “There’s going to be a really, really high peak in volume at that moment in time, and I’m not convinced the employer is ready to have enough passport officers on the ground to meet the needs of the public.”
While extra personnel is welcome, Warner said they should have been added long ago, as onboarding requires a minimum of 12 weeks and it can take even longer for an individual to be fully trained for the job.
“The reality of that is you don’t get someone fully trained for like six months,” she said.
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