Ontarians applying to renew their Nexus cards might have to wait even longer for an interview as the Canada's border service now estimates the current backlog has grown to 333,500, leaving applicants across the country in limbo.
The Nexus program allows pre-approved Canadians to pass through separate, generally faster lines when travelling to and from the U.S. Each applicant must be assessed for risk by both the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and interviewed. But those approvals haven't been happening since the pandemic began.
"You don't have any ability to contact anybody live to find out what's going on. And that's part of the frustration." said Mississauga resident Keith Lockman, who applied to renew his card in the spring of 2020 but still hasn't been able to schedule an interview.
Lockman is not alone: many in the Greater Toronto Area have been waiting months to formally renew their cards. At the heart of the issue: Canadian enrolment centres, where interviews take place, closed in March 2020 and have not reopened. Some experts suggest it's not just COVID-19 that's behind the backlog, but also an ongoing issue with a pre-clearance agreement between the United States and Canada.
The waiting game
Over his years of travelling, Lockman says the Nexus card has benefited him greatly.
"I can think of at least two trips where I would have missed a connection in the U.S. if I didn't have the Nexus card, because I could bypass the line," said Lockman, who applied to renew his membership after he got a notice of expiry in April 2020.
He said he received a conditional approval after he applied for renewal and was instructed to set up an interview. The problem is, the interview centres in Canada were shuttered and he wasn't able to schedule one.
Lockman says he was able to schedule a Nexus interview on the U.S. side at the Rainbow Bridge crossing; however, he says the office changed the days it was open and his interview was cancelled. It closed soon after altogether, and only re-opened in April.
"Even if I wanted to go back, the best I could do would be October and still nothing in Canada" said Lockman. Further complicating the matter is that he's moved to another city since his initial renewal and says he's been unable to reach anyone to confirm his new details.
Toronto resident Mitchell Salz is still waiting for his application to move ahead.
"We're coming up on close to 10 months now, and nothing's happened," said Salz.
He says, unlike Lockman, he never received a notice to renew his Nexus card, and had to apply again after the fact last summer. He says on the online portal it still shows approval of his is pending.
"I've called three times, spoken to somebody each time, and they say that it's going to be delayed and expect it to be at least six months. And that was maybe seven months ago," said Salz.
"I paid the fee last year … If you're going to take the money at least follow through. That's usually common courtesy in any transaction."
'Complexities and challenges'
Cross-border lawyer Laurie Tannous says she's been getting plenty of calls related to Nexus.
She says while for many travellers the backlogs are an inconvenience, it's harder for those who rely on crossing the border for their jobs.
"The problem is that for people who are essential workers, people who have come to rely on the ability to have that trusted status, to go to work, to come back, it's an impact," said Tannous, who is also a special adviser to the University of Windsor's Cross Border Institute.
When it comes to the closure of Canadian centres, Tannous suggests it's more complex than simply COVID-19, and adds she's hearing it's related to an agreement between both countries that allows U.S. pre-clearance officers to be armed in Canada.
"There are some complexities and challenges in that issue that, rightfully so, deal with some of our issues here in Canada from a sovereignty perspective," she said.
"Whether or not ... a U.S. officer or an officer from another country would have the ability to carry a weapon here and then use the weapon, then what would happen?" Tannous added, suggesting the closure of the centres is also related to unresolved matters related to the agreement.
"They were working through those issues … And then COVID hit."
Canada, U.S. 'in discussions,' CBSA says
In a response to CBC News, the CBSA didn't indicate when its Canadian enrolment centres would be open for interviews, nor did it respond directly to a question about whether the pre-clearance agreement has anything to do with the delays in re-opening.
"Nexus is a joint program managed by both the Canada Border Services Agency and the United States Customs and Border Protection," the statement reads.
"Canada and the U.S. are in discussions about the timing of the reopening of Canadian enrolment centres."
The CBSA said existing members who renew their membership before it expires will still be able to use their privileges.
Meanwhile, some like Lockman question why more of the process can't be done virtually, including the interviews.
"I don't see a way forward to interview 300,000 people, keeping in mind that every month there's more that are going to expire. There's going to be more renewals."