Chaos at the passport office

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative ReporterWinnipeg Free Press

Mon., March 28, 20224 min. read

Eager travellers waited hours outside a Service Canada office in downtown Winnipeg this weekend, only to be told they should reschedule international plans because the agency’s local printer had broken — the latest issue affecting passport delays in Manitoba.

On Saturday afternoon, approximately a dozen people who were anxiously awaiting new passports at a federal government facility near Portage and Main started sharing frustrations about ongoing renewal backlogs at the agency.

“We all bonded because we were all in this desperate situation where we all felt very helpless,” said Shakira Whitton, a Winnipeg mother who has spent much of the last week scrambling to get her two teenagers new passports.

“(After being told the printer had broken), it almost felt like, ‘We’re being punked. This is a joke. This is not actually happening.’”

The simultaneous end of a frigid winter and virtually all COVID-19 restrictions in Manitoba have resulted in a mad dash to passport offices in preparation for takeoff.

With spring break 2022 underway, the Winnipeg Airport Authority was anticipating more than 9,000 travellers on Sunday, a daily record since around the time the novel coronavirus was declared.

Not unlike most Manitobans, the Whitton family’s travel documents have been collecting dust for the last 24 months.

Whitton only realized her kids’ passports had expired on March 15 as she started preparing for their imminent trip to Mexico. The teenagers were supposed to take a vacation with their father, who lives outside of Manitoba, in 2020. The trip was cancelled due to COVID-19 and later rescheduled for spring break 2022.

The mother of two said it is a “miracle” that she was able to secure the new documents for an extra $220 via 433 Main St. at the eleventh-hour on Saturday — just over 24 hours before she had to drive her kids to the airport — despite continuous communication and logistical challenges at Service Canada. Roughly one hour after the printer broke, she received a call from the agency to say that the device was up and running again and her kids’ passports would be completed shortly.

“Just because we got our passports doesn’t make it OK, the way we’ve been treated and how the system’s working,” Whitton said, adding the problem is not the customer service, but rather wait-times and communication that are both unpredictable. She had to visit the downtown office on three separate occasions before a final stop to secure the documents.

The federal agency’s website encourages Canadians to wait to call if they do not have travel plans within the next two weeks due to “very high” call volumes. The agency has put measures in place to protect both client and employee health and safety, and those actions have affected how quickly applications can be processed, the website notes.

Typically, clients who submit a regular passport application at a Service Canada office can expect their new edition to be ready after 10 business days, not including mailing time. Express submissions come at a fee to ensure that process takes under nine days. For urgent requests, travellers pay a costly sum in order to get their document by the end of the next business day.

“COVID-19 is causing disruptions to our services that are beyond our control. As a result, we may not always meet our service standards,” states the agency’s website.

In a statement to the Free Press last week, a spokesperson for Service Canada said the volume of passport applications has been relatively low throughout the pandemic, in part due to reduced travel because of public health restrictions and advisories. However, they said there has been a recent spike in applications across the country.

As far as Whitton is concerned, the agency could have better prepared for the influx by hiring more employees. Some of the people waiting around Saturday because of the backlog had applied for passport renewals weeks, if not months ago, she noted.

“We’re in Mexico now, as we flew out this morning and that’s how close the passport office was cutting it for us,” said one affected traveller, in a text to the Free Press Sunday. “I just want to forget about it.”

Despite mailing-in an application nearly seven weeks ago and numerous follow-up visits to the downtown passport office last week, she said she was a member of the group of people who waited outside Service Canada on Saturday afternoon and was informed the agency printer was not working so they were out of luck.

The woman was driving home empty-handed and trying to call her travel agent to cancel her trip, when she said she received a call from Service Canada to inform her that the Winnipeg office had successfully fixed its printer problem and she should turn around.

Long line-ups outside the Main Street passport office last week prompted a change in protocols so people could wait inside their cars. The office has been assisting people who have not made appointments in advance on a first-come, first-served basis.

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie


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