Ottawa is acknowledging it underestimated the demand for passports amid relaxed COVID-19 restrictions, and is aiming to clear backlogs by the end of the summer.
Speaking in Vancouver Monday, Families, Children and Social Development Minister Karina Gould described the long waits and uncertainty Canadians seeking the travel documents have faced for months as “totally unacceptable.”
“Where we want to be is people getting their passports well ahead of time when they apply, and that’s what we’re working towards in the next four to six weeks,” she said.
Throughout the spring and early summer, Canadians seeking to renew their passports have faced long, sometimes multi-day lines at Service Canada offices. Many who have mailed in their documentation have reported poor communication and lack of clarity about when their documents will arrive.
In both cases, some applicants have faced processing times of months, sometimes threatening scheduled flights or planned travel.
On Monday, Gould said the federal government had anticipated an uptick in demand when restrictions were relaxed, but not the scale of applications or the way people chose to apply.
Prior to COVID-19, she said 80 per cent of people applied for passports in-person, with 20 per cent applying by mail. This year, that distribution flipped, she said.
“What we didn’t anticipate was the level of surge we were going to receive,” she said.
“Quite frankly the mail system was not sufficiently staffed to deal with that. That is something we are fixing right now.”
Between April and June this year, Canadians submitted more than 808,000 passport applications, 166,000 more than during the same period in 2019.
That’s pushed the volume of applications for this fiscal year to 4.3 million, up from 2.4 million last year, and left federal public servants clocking about 6,000 hours of overtime a week.
Ottawa has hired 600 additional passport workers, but only about 100 of them have completed training, which takes 12 to 15 weeks.
The remaining workers should be coming on the job within the next month, Gould said.
Despite the uncertainty and extreme delays for some, Gould said the majority of Canadians are getting their passports on time. She said those who are approaching their travel dates with not documentation should go to a Service Canada site, where people with urgent need are being prioritized.