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People camp out overnight in line outside a Service Canada passport office in Vancouver on June 22.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The minister responsible for Service Canada admits the government did not fully anticipate the overwhelming surge in passport applications that came with the lifting of travel restrictions and is hopeful waiting times will return to normal by the end of summer.

Families, Children and Social Development Minister Karina Gould said the federal government hired 600 new staff ahead of the anticipated increase in passport applications and renewals, but said “clearly it was not sufficient.” The surge has forced some Canadians to camp overnight outside of government offices in an attempt to obtain their passports.

“If I put myself where we were as Canadians back in February, we weren’t talking about this kind of a surge. We knew it was going to increase and that’s why we took the measures that we did. But I will concede for sure that they were insufficient for what ended up happening,” Ms. Gould said in an interview.

Service Canada issued 363,000 passports during the first year of the pandemic, from April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021 – and that number jumped to more than 1.27 million the following fiscal year. The government has received 757,207 passport applications since April 1, nearly 60 per cent of the past year’s total.

The misery of waiting overnight in line in hopes of getting a passport

Service Canada is hiring an additional 600 staff to help with the delays. Ms. Gould said training for some of the new hires is being shortened from the typical 15 weeks to one to two weeks, so that fully trained passport officers can focus on more complex applications, such as children with custody issues, while new hires will work on simpler files.

Ottawa is asking Canadians travelling within the next 45 business days to go to one of the country’s 35 dedicated passport offices for service. Waiting times topped more than six hours at some locations Monday, according to the government’s website. The government is asking those who are not travelling within the next 45 business days to apply at a Service Canada centre or by mail.

Ms. Gould said the return to normal waiting times will depend on the number of applications the government receives in the coming weeks.

“If volumes on a weekly basis continue where they are now and don’t substantially increase, we feel quite confident that we’re going to be in a much better position over the next four to six weeks and definitely by the end of summer,” she said.

The department has a service standard time of 10 business days for passport applications submitted at a passport office. Ms. Gould said 96 per cent of those passports are being issued within the standard, but the government’s website says they could still take up to two weeks.

Ms. Gould said the mail option is about “40 per cent less efficient” than in-person service. The government groups processing times for mail with the in-person option at Service Canada centres; the service standard is 20 business days, but processing can take up to nine weeks.

Raphael Girard, a retired assistant deputy minister who was responsible for Passport Canada in 1993, said the government needs to consider more creative solutions to the problem, such as extending passports for a year so officials can catch up on the backlog. He said this could be done by having Canadians bring their expired passports to a government office, where an agent could extend the document with a stamp.

The gong show at our passport offices is inexcusable

However, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said simply extending expiration dates is not possible. Aidan Strickland said amending an expiry date that is not aligned with the electronic expiry date recorded in the Canadian ePassport could create further travel disruptions for the passport holder, and that the individual could also be refused boarding on a plane and denied entry to some countries.

More generally speaking, Mr. Girard argued the government has “lost the sense of operations designed to improve client service.”

“They’re layering on ... controls and slowing things down, whereas 90 per cent of the workload is always routine,” he said.

Last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau established a new task force of cabinet ministers to improve government services, such as passports, and monitor the delays causing chaos at Canada’s airports.

Conservative social development critic Laila Goodridge said Ms. Gould and Mr. Fraser, along with the task force, “continue to fumble managing the delivery and processing of passports. This is indicative of what we’ve seen with the Trudeau government that is unprepared for a predictable increase in demand for travel.” She pointed to a recent government tender for 800 chairs for people to sit on as they wait outside of passport offices.

NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach said the continued delays for Canadians to get new or renewed passports are unacceptable, and that many people are going to their MPs for help to get their documents.

“Ultimately, the increased demand for passports was entirely predictable. But the Liberals failed to act even though they had months to prepare for travel to return. Now they need to urgently address this problem before more Canadians see their travel plans ruined, including speeding up the hiring process to clear the backlog.”

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