The sun hadn’t even come up by the time Deekshitha Jetta pulled her car into a parking lot in Brampton, Ont. It was barely 5 a.m., but already a line wrapped around the building where Indian visa applications are processed.
“No people. Just chairs,” Ms. Jetta said. The owners of the chairs were in their cars, sleeping. She was 26th in line. She added her chair, then went back to her car to sleep.
The Brampton strip plaza is home to one of nine Indian visa processing sites in Canada and one of just two in the Toronto area. And it’s where dozens of people like Ms. Jetta are waiting for hours – sometimes days on end – for documents to travel to India.
New Delhi abruptly suspended visa services to Canadians in September after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly accused the country of involvement in the killing of Canadian Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar. And while India has since resumed some services, the month-long suspension – and the uncertainty the rift has caused – has created a backlog for appointments.
So for the many people in Canada with deep ties to India – those who regularly travel between the two countries to work or see loved ones, or who need to travel imminently and cannot wait months for an appointment – the only option is to wait in line for a walk-in spot.
By mid-morning last Friday, most people had emerged from their cars. It was cold out, and they sat huddled in toques and parkas and blankets over cold cups of coffee. The mood was one of quiet resignation.
One man had been there since Wednesday – two full days in the strip plaza. He was missing his wife’s birthday, he said ruefully. His daughter was incensed.
“Subway,” one man called out, when the group was asked about food and bathroom facilities. “Esso,” said another. “Tim Hortons,” shouted another man. A few others groaned audibly at the mention.
“We’re just cold,” said Ms. Jetta. She was there for documents she needs as part of her permanent residence application in Canada. By that point on Friday morning, she’d been in line for four hours.
“We just want to be done,” she said.
At the other end of the strip plaza was a tenser crowd – an even longer line of at least 90 people. This was where the most urgent cases were waiting, where the people in line needed a visa immediately for flights booked for the days and weeks ahead. These were people who had weddings and funerals and elderly relatives to attend to.
Here, people spoke in hushed tones. They were fearful, frustrated. Many asked that their names not be published, worried that their application might be denied as a result.
A woman near the front of the line had an infant strapped to her chest. A red stroller, filled with diapers and formula and blankets, held their place in line.
Over and over, people expressed their frustration at the disorganization of it all.
“I mean, it’s 2023 right?” said Jasleen Kaur. “There has to be a better system.”
Dheeraj Pareek, a spokesperson for the Consulate-General of India in Toronto said the office is “aware” of the lines. “We always advise those seeking Indian visas not to book their air tickets for travel before obtaining the required visas,” the statement said.
In the absence of an official system, the people waiting in Brampton last week had created their own.
They appointed their own line “leaders,” who made a list of everyone in the queue: two folded pieces of foolscap covered in names and phone numbers. They’d all taken photos of it for posterity.
The list was meant to provide a little humanity, ensuring that elderly people could have extra time to rest in their cars and that everyone got a chance for a short break to go home for a hot meal or a shower. Every few hours, they took roll call.
Almost all the people waiting that day said they had close ties to India – that they considered India a second (or sometimes first) home.
“We feel like we have roots there. We feel like we have a right to go there,” said Sualeh Elahi, who was trying to get his family to Delhi for his brother’s wedding next month.
His mother died earlier this year, he said, and her last wish was for Mr. Elahi’s brother to marry as soon as possible.
“We’re waiting for the unknown,” said Vishal Gupta. He bought his plane ticket months ago to attend a family wedding – long before the flare-up between the countries.
“We did everything right,” he said. “And then, at the whim of somebody else, you’re at their mercy.”
Rohit Kumar echoed this. He was trying to get a visa for his toddler son, to reunite with family for the holidays. By that point Friday morning, the visa office was set to close in just two hours. There were still dozens of people ahead of him.
“I’ll be here tomorrow if I have to,” he said.
“If I still don’t get it tomorrow, then Sunday. Monday.”