The federal Liberal government says hundreds of additional staff members have been added in recent months to address long wait times and backlogs at Canadian airports and passport and immigration offices.
But while the hiring spree has started to make a difference, cabinet ministers acknowledged Monday that far more work is needed to solve what has become a political headache for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.
“We’re not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination,” Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said Monday.
“There’s a lot of work to do. And in some cases, we aren’t up to the pre-pandemic service level that Canadians expect and deserve.”
Miller was speaking as co-chair of a special task force that Trudeau established in June to help tackle major delays with immigration applications and passport processing.
Comprised of 10 ministers, the task force was created in response to widespread public anger and frustration over the delays and significant problems at airports across the country.
Six of those ministers appeared at a news conference on Monday to update Canadians on their work to date. While they accepted some of the blame for the problems, the ministers also pointed to factors outside their control.
“How did this happen?” said Women and Gender Equality Minister Marci Ien, the task force’s other co-chair. “The longer answer is that we’ve seen an unprecedented surge in travel by Canadians.”
Miller said the delays still “should never have happened.” Social Development Minister Karina Gould, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra and Immigration Minister Sean Fraser provided an update on actions being taken by their departments.
Those actions include making it easier to renew passports, new measures to speed up security screening at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, and a new policy coming out on Sept. 8 regarding airlines having to provide refunds for changed or cancelled flights.
Staffing-up not a long-term answer: minister
The ministers pointed to the hundreds of new staff members hired recently to process passport and immigration applications and speed up airport security screening. They said the boost in staffing is starting to have an impact.
For example, Gould said, the government has hired 700 more people over the past year to help with passports, and that about 65 per cent of applications are now being processed within the government’s 10-day service standard.
“But inside that average, there’s still a gap that we must fill,” Gould said.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada similarly plans to add more than 1,250 staff by the end of the fall to help process visa applications, Fraser said.
“Despite the work, we know that the wait is too long,” he added.
And while Miller said Ottawa’s hiring spree has helped, he made it clear that the government does not consider it a long-term answer.
“We’ve thrown bodies at the problem, which is not the most effective way of doing things,” he said.
Over a million passport applications since April
Trudeau created the task force in response to severe criticism of the Liberal government earlier this year, when people camped out at passport offices and lined up for hours for airport security screening, causing flight delays.
Figures released earlier this month showed nearly 1.1 million applications for new and renewed passports have been filed since April as pandemic restrictions loosen and Canadians resume travelling.
More than one-quarter of those hadn’t yet been processed as of early August.
But government statistics also showed the system is starting to catch up with demand — as the gulf narrows between the number of passport applications filed each month and the number of passports issued.
As of the end of July, approximately 1.3 million immigration applications have taken longer to process than the government’s service standards dictate they should. That’s about 54 per cent of all pending applications in the system.