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Passport seekers face heartbreak, hop provinces as government promises help is on the way

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2022-06-24 CBC/Radio-Canada

Aly Michalsky was supposed to be on a plane Thursday en route to her dream vacation, a two-and-a-half week tour of Thailand with a friend.

Instead, the teen was sitting at home in Montreal after she couldn't get her passport in time, despite applying for it 12 weeks ago. She's one of many Canadians who've had to postpone or cancel travel plans in recent months amid massive backlogs at passport offices across the country.

"It was something that I saved up for, for over two years," Michalsky, 19, told CBC News Network about the non-refundable tour she booked with a friend.

Christine Paliotti, Michalsky's mother, said she started the process of applying for her daughter's passport on March 17 and it was supposed to be mailed by May 3. When it didn't arrive, that was the beginning of a slog of phone calls — where there could be 200 to 300 people already in the queue, Paliotti said — waiting, being told they needed a transfer, and more waiting.

They even got their local MP involved, who Paliotti said put in calls "almost every day" for them.

Aly Michalsky, right, and her mother, Christine Paliotti, tried everything they could to get Michalsky a passport before her dream vacation Thursday. She was forced to cancel her non-refundable trip to Thailand when she couldn't get the travel document on time. © CBC News Aly Michalsky, right, and her mother, Christine Paliotti, tried everything they could to get Michalsky a passport before her dream vacation Thursday. She was forced to cancel her non-refundable trip to Thailand when she couldn't get the travel document on time.

Their efforts were in vain. On Wednesday, they headed to the Laval passport office in a last-ditch effort, but Michalsky said that after four or five hours, they were told there would be no appointments. That was when she realized she wouldn't be able to go. 

Paliotti said the trip itself cost over $4,000, but she estimated that total costs, including pre-travel vaccinations and shopping, were at least $5,000.

"I worked very hard for my money and I took the first opportunity I had to do something I've always wanted to do," said Michalsky. "It's just devastating to have to tell my friend that I couldn't go with her."

Triage system

The federal government has attributed the lines snaking around passport offices across the country, including in Vancouver and London, Ont., to an "unprecedented surge" in applications as travel opens up again after two years of pandemic restrictions.

The sheer level of demand isn't the only issue. Families Minister Karina Gould, the minister responsible for passport services, told reporters in Ottawa on Thursday that 85 per cent of requests are for new passports, and of those, 43 per cent are for children, both of which entail a more complex application process.

Gould said the government is adding more staff on the ground to help curb the chaos, with Service Canada deploying managers to walk the lines and speak with passport seekers before they reach a customer service agent.

This triage system will help ensure people who are in most urgent need of a passport based on flight time — those flying in the next 12, 24, 36 and 48 hours — get priority service, she said.


Video: Anger boils over as passport applicants wait days in line (cbc.ca)

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Gould also said more passports will be printed in bulk at the Gatineau, Que., processing centre and sent to other locations to take some of the stress off smaller passport offices that don't have large industrial printers.

 

Waiting for days in the rain

The government's new triage strategy was met with some frustration on Thursday at Montreal's Guy-Favreau complex, which Gould has said is experiencing the worst delays in the country.

Hundreds of would-be travellers have lined up for days in the rain, and police have been called in to help with crowd control.

Antoinette Corbeil, who had been waiting in line for 36 hours, was unhappy with the shift from a first-come-first-serve system to one based on flight times.

"We organized ourselves last night in line with our numbers … and they're letting other people in in front of us," she said. "That's not fair." 

After the triage system began in Montreal, it was extended to Toronto on Thursday and will be rolled out in Vancouver on June 27.

While Gould said Montreal was seeing "much better progress" on Thursday, the government website that tracks wait times at the 35 specialized passport offices nationwide was still warning people to expect delays of at least six hours at the Guy-Favreau complex.

Other busy sites like Ottawa's only passport office on Meadowlands Drive showed similar wait times.

Going the distance

Some passport seekers are literally going the extra mile to get their travel documents in time.

In Montreal, François Gamache had to leave Thursday for a three-week trip to France to bury his father-in-law. After being told by a Transport Canada agent on Saturday it would be "almost impossible" for his file to be processed in a week, he went to Chicoutimi, 200 kilometres north of Quebec City.

There, he waited 30 hours over two days, with no success.

On the advice of a client, he drove to Fredericton, almost 800 kilometres away, to try his luck at the passport office there. He finally got his passport on Wednesday after a three-hour wait.

Gamache estimated he spent nearly $1,000 on food, hotels and gasoline during the saga.

At the end, "I was really exhausted and I was even very emotional. I fought so hard to get it," he said.

Despite their efforts having been in vain, Paliotti said she doesn't blame the passport agents "who have to deal with all the pressure of the people getting angry at them" and are putting in extra hours. 

Instead, she's frustrated by what she described as a disorganized process and lack of communication by officials, as well as receiving conflicting information from passport agents.

"It's citizens that are sharing [information]; there was a Facebook page for Montreal and surrounding area, and we got a lot of information helping each other out," she said. "So I'm really angry at whoever's organizing this and that they're not doing more."

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