'We have to point the finger at someone': Calls for accountability grow amid SAAQ crisis

Despite Quebec's automobile insurance board providing additional personnel Monday, long lineups of customers were still seen outside various branches, such as this one at SAAQ Henri-bourassa in Montreal's Ahuntsic-Cartierville borough. (Chloë Ranaldi/CBC - image credit)
Despite Quebec's automobile insurance board providing additional personnel Monday, long lineups of customers were still seen outside various branches, such as this one at SAAQ Henri-bourassa in Montreal's Ahuntsic-Cartierville borough. (Chloë Ranaldi/CBC - image credit)

One union and several opposition parties are calling on someone to bear the blame for the customer service crisis plaguing Quebec's automobile insurance board — and they're looking at the provincial government.

On Tuesday, Quebec Transport Minister Geneviève Guilbault announced she was cutting short a trip to Europe to return home and deal with the problem.

Last weekend, Guilbault announced that starting Monday, the SAAQ would get additional personnel and step up measures to counter long lineups of frustrated drivers waiting for services because of issues with its the new online customer service portal called SAAQclic.

However, long lines were still seen outside branches in several regions of Quebec on Monday. While lines were shorter Tuesday morning, CBC spoke with several people who said they had been waiting more than three hours for service.

Guilbault said that branches experiencing high traffic would extend their operating hours and offer weekend appointments in an effort to deal with the backlog.

The minister also said 150 additional employees would be added to various SAAQ branches.

Launched on Feb. 20, SAAQclic was supposed to allow customers to carry out most transactions online, including renewing driving licences and paying for a driving exam. But the transition has created headaches for drivers and car dealers seeking to register for licences or deliver vehicles.

Last week, SAAQ president Denis Marsolais said it could take two months for the situation to be fully resolved.

'They could've seen this coming,' says union

Christian Daigle, the head of the union representing 2,200 SAAQ employees, says the government was warned the online system could pose problems, but it didn't listen.

"They could've seen this coming before and be able to prevent all that but they did nothing about it," he said.

Prior to the portal's launch, many SAAQ services were shut down, creating a backlog of about 430,000 transactions, according to Daigle, "and they started up the Monday morning not having a Plan B or Plan C if there were some failures."

Daigle says Guilbault's measures to clear the queues come too little, too late. He says many of his members are on March break, leaving the remaining staff exhausted and facing verbal abuse from angry customers for something "they're not responsible for."

"Even though they announced 150 more [personnel], they won't be in place until next week when people come back," he said.

Kwabena Oduro/CBC
Kwabena Oduro/CBC

Daigle is now calling for accountability for the widespread service disruptions. "I want someone to take the blame for that. I have members that are getting fired for less than that during the year."

"We have to point the finger at someone."

On Tuesday, a trailer was stationed outside the SAAQ Henri-bourassa in Montreal's Ahuntsic-Cartierville borough to provide a warming spot for the dozens of people that have been lining up outside the branch daily.

It is also possible for those who have to wait in line to consult the SAAQ website in advance to determine the level of customer traffic at the service centre they intend to visit.

Opposition parties slam government for 'total disaster'

On Tuesday, Quebec's opposition parties took aim at the Coalition Avenir Québec government for going ahead with a change they say it was completely unprepared to deal with.

"It's unbelievable that it's such a mess at the SAAQ after having planned a transition for a month without any service to the population," said Joël Arseneau, Parti Québécois MNA for Îles-de-la-Madeleine.

"Why didn't they plan a contingency for such a situation?"

Québec Solidaire health critic Vincent Marissal also criticized the CAQ's "embarrassing fiasco," saying it doesn't bode well for the government's plan to make a similar digital shift in the province's health system.

"It's not rocket science," he said. "But what I have seen with the SAAQ doesn't reassure me that we will do it right with our very, very [sensitive] personal data in health."

André Albert Morin, Liberal MNA for the riding of Acadie and the official opposition critic for transport, said the situation is a "total disaster" and a "very good example of a total lack of planning from this government."

Like the SAAQ union, the opposition parties are demanding accountability. While they say it's too early to call for the resignation of the head of the SAAQ, they say they're monitoring the situation and will react accordingly.

"If they ignored the warning [from staff] and the warnings were conveyed to the right people, there's certainly questions to be asked about the responsibility of the head of the SAAQ for going ahead with this change," said Arseneau.

According to Radio-Canada, the government said it continues to trust SAAQ president Marsolais and has no intention of relieving him of his duties in the short term.

Replacing him in the midst of a crisis could further destabilize the organization, a source said.

The opposition parties said the CAQ government will be facing tough questions from them when the National Assembly resumes legislative activities next week.