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Passport seekers face heartbreak, hop counties as government promises help is on the way

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Aly Michalsky was due to be on a plane on Thursday en route to her dream vacation, a two and a half week tour of Thailand with a friend.

Instead, the teen was stuck at home in Montreal after she couldn’t get her passport on time, despite applying for it 12 weeks ago. She is one of many Canadians who have had to postpone or cancel travel plans in recent months due to massive backlogs at passport offices across the country.

“It was something I saved up for over two years,” Michalsky, 19, told CBC News Network about the non-refundable tour she booked with a friend.

Christine Paliotti, Michalsky’s mother, said she started applying for her daughter’s passport on March 17 and it would be sent on May 3. When it didn’t arrive, that was the start of a series of phone calls — where there could already be 200 to 300 people in line, Paliotti said — waiting, being told they needed a transfer and waiting some more.

They even involved their local MP, who according to Paliotti called “almost every day” for them.

Aly Michalsky, right, and her mother, Christine Paliotti, made every effort to get Michalsky a passport for her dream vacation Thursday. She had to cancel her non-refundable trip to Thailand because she couldn’t get the travel document on time. (CBC news)

Their efforts were in vain. On Wednesday they went to the Laval passport office in a last ditch effort, but Michalsky said they were told after four or five hours that there would be no appointments. Then she realized she couldn’t go.

Paliotti said the trip itself cost more than $4,000, but she estimated the total cost, including pre-trip vaccinations and shopping, was at least $5,000.

“I worked really hard for my money and I grabbed the first chance I got to do something I’ve always wanted to do,” Michalsky said. “It’s just awful to have to tell my girlfriend I couldn’t go with her.”

Triage system

The federal government has attributed the lines winding around passport offices across the country, including in Vancouver and London, Ontario, to an “unprecedented wave” of applications as travel reopens after two years of pandemic restrictions.

People lined up outside a Service Canada passport office in Vancouver on Wednesday. Long lines and waiting times are the result of a huge backlog of applications at passport offices across the country. (Daryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Huge demand isn’t the only problem. Families Minister Karina Gould, the minister in charge of passport services, told reporters in Ottawa on Thursday that 85 percent of applications are for new passports and 43 percent for children, both of which involve a more complicated application process.

Gould said the government is adding more staff on the ground to stem the chaos, with Service Canada deploying managers to walk along the lines and talk to passport seekers before reaching out to a customer service representative.

This triage system will ensure that people who most urgently need a passport based on flight time — those flying in the next 12, 24, 36 and 48 hours — are given priority, she said.

Gould also said more passports will be printed in bulk at the processing center in Gatineau, Que., and shipped to other locations to take some of the stress out of smaller passport offices that don’t have large industrial printers.

VIEW | Latest government efforts to clear the backlog:

Government adds more staff to tackle passport delays

Karina Gould, minister for families, children and social development, told reporters on Thursday that the government is increasing its workforce and making passport printing more efficient to tackle the backlogs that have been frustrating travelers for months. Still, she says there is “no easy fix.”

Days waiting in the rain

The government’s new triage strategy met some frustration on Thursday at the Guy-Favreau complex in Montreal, which Gould says is experiencing the largest delays in the country.

Hundreds of would-be travelers have queued for days in the rain and police have been called in to help control the crowd.

Antoinette Corbeil, who had been waiting in line for 36 hours, was unhappy with the shift from a first-come, first-served system to one based on flight times.

“We organized last night in line with our numbers… and they let other people in for us,” she said. “That’s not fair.”

IN PHOTOS | Long wait in the rain at the Montreal passport office:

After the triage system started in Montreal, it was expanded to Toronto on Thursday and rolled out in Vancouver on June 27.

While Gould said Montreal was making “much better progress” on Thursday, the government website that tracks wait times at the 35 specialized passport offices across the country still warned people to expect delays of at least six hours at the Guy-Favreau complex.

Other busy sites, such as Ottawa’s only passport office on Meadowlands Drive, showed similar wait times.

Going the Distance

Some passport seekers literally go the extra mile to get their travel documents on time.

In Montreal, François Gamache had to leave on Thursday for a three-week trip to France to bury his father-in-law. After being told on Saturday by a Transport Canada agent that it would be “almost impossible” to process his file within a week, he headed to Chicoutimi, 200 kilometers north of Quebec City.

François Gamache of Montreal has the passport he managed to get after driving to Fredericton. The government says the ‘unprecedented wave’ of travel document applications came after two years of pandemic restrictions. (Francois Gamache/ Submitted)

There he waited for 30 hours for two days, without success.

At the suggestion of a customer, he drove to Fredericton, nearly 500 miles away, to try his luck at the passport office. On Wednesday he finally got his passport after waiting three hours.

Gamache estimated that he spent nearly $1,000 on food, hotels, and gasoline during the saga.

At the end, “I was really exhausted and I was actually very emotional. I fought so hard to get it,” he said.

Despite their efforts being in vain, Paliotti said they don’t blame the passport agents “who have to deal with all the pressure from the people getting mad at them” and are working extra hours.

Instead, she is frustrated by what she described as a disorganized process and lack of communication by officials, as well as receiving conflicting information from passport agents.

“It is citizens who share” [information]† there was a Facebook page for Montreal and the surrounding area, and we got a lot of information to help each other,” she said. “So I’m really mad at whoever is organizing this and that they don’t do it anymore.”

LISTENING | The government’s preparations ‘were not sufficient’, says the minister:

Metro morning11:14Long waiting times for passports ‘unacceptable’, says minister Karina Gould

Thousands of people wait long for passports and threaten their travel plans. Minister Karina Gould says the government’s preparations “were not enough”, and says what they are doing to speed things up.

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