After two days and one night lining up outside the passport office at downtown Vancouver’s Sinclair Centre, Kris Hansen still hadn’t made it inside, still hadn’t spoken to a single Service Canada official. The 50-something school principal spent a Thursday night last week under a blanket on the sidewalk on Hastings. There were no security guards outside. No Porta Potties. No signage. No one in line had any idea when – or if – they would be seen.
After sitting cross-legged on the concrete for hours on end, Mr. Hansen had bought himself a canvas camping chair. He was trying to renew his son’s passport. The boy wants to see his dying grandfather in Japan one last time. He is desperate to say goodbye.
“I have no choice,” Mr. Hansen said, shaking violently from the bitter, pre-dawn cold. “I know how much this means to him.”
A few minutes later, a kind soul began handing out blue plastic ponchos, to help cut the north wind coming off the Burrard Inlet.
“I’m just so tired,” Mr. Hansen said, his eyes filling with tears. “I haven’t slept. I’ve had to cancel classes. There are so many better ways this could be handled. This is lacking all logic. All common decency.”
For the past five months, this is how people in B.C.’s Lower Mainland have been applying for – and renewing – their passports. A surge in demand is creating massive backlogs across the country. The wait times at the Surrey passport office are just as bad. The office in Richmond doesn’t have a printer able to create passports. Last week, police had to be called to the Montreal passport office to help with large crowds.
Toward the front of the line on Hastings, hustlers had arranged for down-on-their-luck Vancouverites to camp out in tents in the line for the night. At 5 a.m. sharp, a hustler – his pupils wide as plates – descended on the street with hot coffees for his “sleepers,” those holding spots in line.
He explained in an interview that he guarantees his “clients” – these are queue jumpers, let’s be clear – will have their passports processed. He doesn’t take cash. Clients e-transfer $500 for the spot, a fee that is in addition to an earlier $50 deposit. Anger over the transaction from others in line was surprisingly muted – possibly because the hustler is a giant of a man, and both he and his sleepers appear to be high as kites.
“Jesus Christ,” said yoga teacher Johnnie Ireland, by way of a greeting, as he joined the line that already stretched two city blocks around 1:30 a.m. “I feel like we’re trying to get the last flight out of Afghanistan.”
A homeless man pushed a puppy in a shopping cart down the middle of an empty street. In line, people in toques and puffy winter coats sat staring into the black night.
A week earlier, the federal government rolled out a new “triaging” system to deal with the passport crisis, which began ahead of March break: Those flying out in less than 48 hours are now given priority access, explained Karina Gould, Minister of Children, Families and Social Development, whose portfolio is responsible for the passport office.
So, people began immediately booking tickets for fake trips that they won’t be taking, to increase their odds of actually setting foot inside a Service Canada office.
Mr. Ireland, who needs a new passport to work as an Uber delivery driver, spent $500 he doesn’t have on a non-refundable ticket to San Francisco. “Maybe I’ll go – I could sleep in a park. I’m used to it, now.”
Ms. Gould has also begun promoting another government innovation, one that seems equally unhelpful: Wait times are now posted on the passport website.
“They’re a cruel joke,” said Mr. Ireland. “I think they’re made up.”
He came downtown after seeing there was just a 3½-hour wait at the Sinclair Centre, a Hastings Street mall named for the Prime Minister’s grandfather, Jimmy – father of Maggie.
“That was three days ago.”
Some have created elaborate backup plans, should they fail to be seen.
Julie Scott-Ashe, a GIS mapping analyst with the B.C. government, managed to secure an appointment at a Saskatoon passport office. Saskatoon and Regina are the only two passport offices in the country with appointments before August. Since it would cost $1,200 to fly to Saskatchewan from Vancouver, she is planning to book a cheap flight to Edmonton, then rent a car and drive the rest of the way.
She needs to renew her daughter’s passport, so their family in Europe can reunite for the first time since the pandemic began.
Ms. Scott-Ashe’s brother left for Europe on June 20 via Toronto. Eight days later, he was finally able to fly out of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport – where extremely long security wait times, flight delays – and cancellations – and mountains of misplaced luggage are causing chaos for travellers.
“Why is Canada so bad at this?” Mr. Ireland wondered aloud.
People in line marvelled when Ms. Scott-Ashe’s partner, Johannes Schneider, a German PhD who works at the University of British Columbia, checked his phone and saw that his German passport could be renewed by appointment on July 2, a Saturday.
Five months into the crisis, Canadian passport offices still close for weekends and holidays. They still shutter at 4, every afternoon. Last week, the Vancouver office had just half the 15 staff that normally work there.
Why hadn’t Ottawa asked bureaucrats to temporarily help staff passport offices, Ms. Scott-Ashe wondered. Before B.C. began rolling out COVID-19 vaccines, she noted, the province encouraged its civil servants to volunteer to work on the project.
At the very least, couldn’t Ottawa keep the Sinclair Centre open during one of the wettest, coldest springs in 100 years?
Last weekend, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he is striking a committee to “improve the delivery of these services in an efficient and timely manner.” Ms. Gould, the minister, said the long wait times are her top priority, but she said she cannot say when things will return to normal. She said in a statement last week that 72 per cent of Canadians who apply for a passport get one within 40 working days.
“It’s 3:30 a.m. everyone!” someone shouted. “It’s been another hour!”
A Door Dash driver delivered a meal to someone in the queue. Mr. Ireland was offered $600 to let someone cut the line. “I can’t do that to people right now,” he said.
Ashley Binning could easily have afforded to pay someone to wait for her, she said. “Ethically, though, would that be right?” She and her husband had booked a non-refundable, $3,600 trip to Las Vegas ages ago.
Instead, the Burnaby teacher took a Friday off work. Her husband, who works shifts, had to take two days off to sit with her. They drove their two-year-old son to Squamish to stay with Ms. Binning’s parents.
“Is it 5 yet?” Mr. Ireland wondered.
“Not even close,” said Ms. Binning.
“But there’s a new Wordle,” said Ms. Scott-Ashe.
“I’m going to end up in the psych ward if I don’t get seen today,” said Mr. Ireland. “I feel like Michael Douglas in Falling Down” – a film about an unemployed divorcé driven to a violent rampage as he tries to get to his daughter’s birthday party. “Seriously,” he added. “I don’t feel mentally well after doing this.”
Around 4:30 a.m., seagulls began to screech and caw as the navy sky lightened to indigo. Homeless Vancouverites emerged from piles of blankets beneath a nearby overpass. Buses puffed and hissed to a stop, as a new day dawned in the empty downtown core.
Ms. Scott-Ashe urged Mr. Ireland to print his e-ticket, following advice she’d read on Reddit: Service Canada was refusing people with e-tickets on their iPhones.
“None of this makes any sense,” said Mr. Ireland. “I feel like we’re playing Simon Says. I don’t even need to print a ticket to fly.”
At 6 a.m., the doors to the Sinclair Centre finally opened, and the cold and tired crowd began shuffling in. “Guys, this is the best day of my life!” Mr. Ireland shouted, to laughs.
A young man on crutches inched forward in front of him, wincing in pain. A woman carried her daughter’s wheelchair – and then the 12-year-old girl with neon pink braces on her legs – down three flights of stairs into the mall.
There was a piano in the atrium. Ms. Scott-Ashe suggested someone play Nearer, My God, to Thee – the dirge that is said to have played as the Titanic sank into the North Atlantic.
Around 6:30 a.m., someone returned to the line with four cardboard cartons of Starbucks coffee. You’re going to make it, the man said, as he poured out dozens of coffees. He couldn’t remember how long he and his daughter had been there. Two days – three? He seemed almost delirious with fatigue.
Around 7 a.m., someone from Service Canada briefly emerged from behind closed doors. She handed out paper tickets to the first 30 people in line. The rest would be triaged, based on when they flew, she said.
A woman named Laura, who declined to give her surname, said she’d never been so angry in her life. She had been waiting for four days, she said through tears. Her son’s passport needed to be renewed, so the family could fly to the south of France, where they planned to volunteer to work with refugees.
Because they were leaving Sunday, their odds were not good, the Service Canada official told her. Those flying Friday and Saturday would be given priority.
But not everyone had to cancel their trips. Just before 4 p.m., after 28 hours in line, Ms. Binning was handed a passport. Mr. Hansen, the principal whose son was trying to get to Japan to see his dying grandfather, was told to return on July 8.
Mr. Ireland was the last person served on Friday, at 3:17 p.m. Inside, there were 23 empty cubicles, and just four staff. “Don’t ask them any questions,” managers told anyone who tried to speak. “No questions,” they kept repeating.
On his phone, Mr. Ireland doctored an image of the poster for the movie Falling Down: “The adventures of an ordinary man at war with the everyday world,” it read. Michael Douglas held a rifle in one hand, and a passport in the other.
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