Travelling has not been stress-free for many Canadians since COVID-19 measures began to ease earlier this year.
Many have been caught up in delays at major airports this spring, with some waiting for hours to clear health checks and customs.
Meanwhile, for those who aren’t at the airport, attempts to get a hold of a new passport to plan those trips abroad have been excruciating. For weeks, many Canadians have been seen waiting in lines outside Service Canada offices to get their much-needed travel documents.
So, what’s happening exactly and what’s being done to fix the issue? Here’s what we know.
Unprecedented demand for Canadian passports has led to delays in processing times, putting eager travellers in limbo ahead of the summer travel season.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, many Canadians were forced to put their travel plans on hold due to measures imposed to limit the spread of the novel disease.
More than two years later, many of those restrictions are being lifted and travellers are eager to head abroad, but some need to get their documentation in order to do so.
Officials have been bracing for a rise in passport demand with the relaxation of COVID-19 border measures, which have eased several times this year.
But as many Canadians look to travel abroad, some passport seekers say they’ve been forced to camp outside service centres or reschedule trips because of the bureaucratic bottleneck.
When did this start?
News of long delays at Canadian passport offices began to emerge in April, with Global News reporting a surge in passport renewals at the time.
Since April 1 this year, Service Canada has issued 317,000 passports. In comparison, between April 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021, 363,000 passports were issued.
From April 1, 2021, to March 31, 2022, that number grew to 1,273,000 passports issued, with more than 960,000 issued between Sept. 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022.
Service Canada expects to receive 3.6 million to 4.3 million passport applications in fiscal 2022/2023, a spokesperson told Global News Friday.
Despite longer processing times, for the week ending June 5, 75 per cent of Canadians who applied for a passport received it within 40 working days, and 96 per cent of Canadians received their passport within 10 working days of submitting an application in person, the spokesperson added.
However, getting in the door at those locations is proving to be a challenge for some Canadians, which is putting their travel plans in jeopardy.
How is it impacting Canadians?
In Edmonton on Thursday, Melissa Hansen and Brianna Rosin drove from Fort McMurray for a shot at renewing their passport at the Canada Place office.
The two heard about the long lines and delays and packed lawn chairs for their wait.
“We drove from 10 last night to come here and now we’re here to wait in line,” Hansen told Global News.
“We’re travelling next month to Vegas, so less than 40 days, so we’re hoping that we can get it today, but we have no appointment so we’re just kind of winging it.”
Noah Huang also had travel plans for July and needed to renew his passport. He spent seven hours in line on Wednesday and returned Thursday morning hoping for the best.
“I didn’t get in (Wednesday). … We have to come here around 5 a.m. so maybe we can get a chance,” Huang told Global News.
Last week in Montreal, hundreds of residents brought camping chairs, blankets and sleeping bags to get a passport renewal in person.
“You think at 2 a.m. you’ll be the first one but that’s not the case,” Didier Cyr told Global News on June 2.
“We came here yesterday at 7:30 a.m. thinking an hour in advance was enough. The line already wrapped around the building.”
In British Columbia last month, Avang Narjali, who was five months pregnant, camped outside a passport office with her one-year-old, father and cousin hoping for a chance to get their documents.
“We showed up here yesterday at 5 a.m. and we stayed here overnight. It’s been horrible,” she told Global News on May 18.
“I’ve been going in and begging them to help us but they just keep giving us the same answer.”
So, when can Canadian travellers expect relief?
What’s the solution?
The recent surge in demand seems to have caught officials by surprise.
“The fact of the matter is that while we were anticipating increased volume, this massive surge in demand has outpaced forecasts and outstripped capacity,” said Karina Gould, families, children and social development minister, before a parliamentary committee on May 30.
“We know many people have been put in very difficult circumstances. And that is why I have directed officials to work as hard as possible to meet the demand.”
Like many sectors across the country, the travel and tourism industry is suffering from a labour shortage right now, said Beth Potter, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada.
“What we’re learning from government is that they’ve had to restaff a lot of those positions — positions that were either redirected or people left during the pandemic,” she told Global News.
“We have asked government to look at where they can streamline their processes so that we can get the backlog dealt with, and how they can increase their human resources that they’re applying to this problem. … There’s a big intake of stuff they really need to fast track as fast as they can.”
Last month, Service Canada announced it had hired 600 new employees to help with processing passport applications, had opened more dedicated passport intake counters in Service Canada locations, had created more processing hubs, and had introduced a new workload management system and processing technology to increase efficiency.
Service Canada continues to hire and train more employees, including the integration of up to 600 new employees over the course of the year and the reassignment of up to 600 employees to passport service delivery, the spokesperson said.
“In addition, teams in passport offices, processing centres and call centres are working overtime every day and on weekends, such as opening some Service Canada Centres on Saturdays to provide passport services,” the spokesperson added.
Also, Service Canada created a new process for applicants to renew an expired passport if it was issued in the last 15 years. Applicants no longer need a guarantor or need to provide their original documents, such as proof of citizenship or photo identification. They now need two photos, two references, their completed form and the applicable fees.
“We understand that this situation is difficult and stressful. … The minister has directed officials to work as hard as possible to meet the demand and to examine operations to ensure they’re doing everything they can,” a spokesperson for Gould told Global News in an email.
“The minister has been travelling the country, visiting Service Canada locations, and hearing directly from frontline staff about the challenges they are facing.”
As for travellers, Potter said they should do as much advanced planning as possible before their trip, including checking when their passport expires to avoid getting caught in a rush.
“Even if you don’t have travel plans, go and take a look at your passport and see when it expires so that you’re aware, and you can deal with it in a timely manner and give yourself lots of time so that you’re not at risk of running out of time to get that renewal done,” she said.
“Travel is going to look a little bit different for a while as we get the system back up and running. It was easy to turn it off. It’s a little harder to get back on.”