Kurl: Canada keeps hitting turbulence on the journey back to normal

Check out our airports, passport offices and other services. The federal government is NOT making this easy.

Travellers waiting at Toronto Pearson Airport's Terminal 1: Many have run into cancelled flights, hours of waiting and lack of staff to offload airplanes arriving at the gates.
Travellers waiting at Toronto Pearson Airport’s Terminal 1: Many have run into cancelled flights, hours of waiting and lack of staff to offload airplanes arriving at the gates. Photo by Peter J. Thompson/National Post

Can we agree that all those futurists who predicted that around this time we’d be enjoying a post-pandemic “jazz age” — a period of hectic economic growth and a robust return of joie de vivre — deserve, at minimum, some very dirty looks? Economic growth is being hampered by inflation not seen in decades. Unresolved supply chain issues, a war in Europe and a labour crunch prevent meaningful comebacks for business. Granted, the pandemic is not over, as top health officials continue to remind us. But as long as our governments behave as though it is (including dropping mask mandates, and no longer offering daily data or tracking so people can “assess their own risk”), at least we can rely on joie de vivre, right?

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Find me anyone at a Canadian airport looking joyful lately. The scenes at many of this country’s busiest hubs represent portraits of frustration, futility and the forlorn. Flights are being cancelled because airlines can’t staff the journeys they’ve sold. Passengers are left stuck for hours on the tarmac aboard parked planes waiting to clear customs and immigration. Travellers are waiting much longer than normal for pre-boarding security checks — again because there are not enough workers to meet demand. Not so jazzy.

Tourism operators recently “celebrated” national tourism week. Now they worry that the first experiences of Canada for overseas visitors are those of travel-related chaos, creating terrible first impressions. The federal government first tried to partly blame passengers themselves for the long lines going through security, suggesting two years of not travelling has left people out of routine, and slower. The transport minister also notes, correctly, that similar problems are being experienced by holiday-goers at other major international airports.

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While there have been some subsequent actions aimed at reducing bottlenecks, airport authorities are calling for more — notably dropping measures aimed at confirming an arriving traveller tested negative for COVID-19 before travelling and random, real-time testing on arrival. Friday, the federal government said it will indeed suspend mandatory random COVID-19 testing at all airports.

It’s not only at airports that Canadians are stymied by services they’re attempting to access from their federal government. People have taken to camping at passport offices across the country to obtain the documents they need for the privilege of enjoying all the airport pandemonium. In a country where one-in-five was born abroad, the need or desire to travel isn’t purely discretionary. The pandemic separated millions from relatives and loved ones overseas. This summer of travel doom threatens to scuttle long-awaited reunions.

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Then there are those waiting to settle permanently or make a lifelong commitment to the country. More than two million applications for citizenship, permanent and temporary residence are waiting to be cleared. This includes people trying to escape desperate situations in Ukraine and Afghanistan.

And while government was lauded for paying out pandemic-related emergency income relief quickly, current government demands for repayment have jarred those finding out they shouldn’t have received the benefits to begin with.

Our impressions around satisfaction with government are shaped by our political leaders, the laws they pass, the scandals they become embroiled in or avoid. But satisfaction is also strongly shaped by our direct interactions. Most of us will not meet an MP, testify in front of a House of Commons committee or create policy with public servants. We will, however, try to obtain travel documents, apply for benefits, cross a border and file our taxes. Given the current travails, it is perhaps not surprising that new data from the Angus Reid Institute finds almost half (46 per cent) in this country who have accessed federal government services in the last six months were dissatisfied with their experience. For the folks in those long passport lineups, for those stuck for hours on planes, “dissatisfied” must be a dissatisfying understatement indeed.

The Trudeau government knows Canadians feel this. It may not be able to do much more to bring an end to this ongoing pandemic. But it can focus on its own service shortcomings and try to help bring back a little joie de vivre.

Shachi Kurl is President of the Angus Reid Institute, a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research foundation.

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