For months, images of long queues outside Service Canada centres have been alarming anyone overdue for a passport renewal.
In the Northwest Territories, the problem isn't as severe, but system-wide service delays may still cause complications. Service Canada minister Karina Gould says the issue stems from an unprecedented wave in applications once travel restrictions were lifted earlier this year.
"We knew there was going to be an increase in demand for passports once restrictions were lifted, but we did not anticipate it would be nearly as big as what we've seen since March," Gould said.
Across the country, the number of people desperately lining up for passports has made headlines. The Globe and Mail reported people sleeping in tents outside the office in Vancouver, with similar stories in Ontario and Nova Scotia. Many have had to cancel travel plans.
Service Canada centres in the Northwest Territories haven't seen nearly as much activity as those down south, according to building staff. But those who chose to renew by post may see some of the delays experienced by people in other regions. Gould says demand for mail services went through the roof this past spring.
"You know, they had trips coming up later in the summer or the fall, their travel wasn't urgent, so they opted to renew by mail," she said. "And they did the right thing, but the challenge for us was that we didn't have the capacity to respond to the number of applications that were coming in."
The mail channel for passport renewal was originally designed for those who live in rural areas, without easy access to a Service Canada location. But with an unprecedented number of people choosing to renew by post regardless of their address, both phone lines and mail services have been overwhelmed.
"We want to make sure that the mail-in channel is still available and functioning for people for whom it's the only option," said Gould. "We recognize that there are many people, particularly in the Northwest Territories, living in remote communities without access to an actual Service Canada site."
Service Canada is looking at introducing passport clinics to increase access in rural areas, including the Northwest Territories. A passport clinic pilot program has already begun in northern Ontario. In the meantime, people relying on mail services should anticipate at least three months' wait time. Gould recommends that if you're waiting on a mail-in order but you live close to a Service Canada location, visit in person to get a more timely update on your passport status.
For those who have booked travel in the next month, showing up or calling in with proof of international travel could accelerate the application process.
"In the processing centres we go by order of receipt. However, if you do have urgent travel coming up, then we're doing everything we can to make sure your passport is processed ahead of your travel date," said Gould.
"So if you have your airline ticket or your hotel booking when you show up at Service Canada or go through the call centre, we can expedite your process."
Passport fees will also be waived if your wait time is longer than 20 days.
"Passport renewals are normally predictable," said Gould. "One of the reasons why we've been able to maintain our service standards in the past is that we know how many citizens there are, roughly, every year: we know how many babies are born, and we know how many passports are expiring. But the pandemic kind-of threw all that out the window and made it all much harder to predict."
Over the course of the pandemic, more than three million Canadian passports expired without being renewed.
"We knew there was going to be an increase, but we didn't know if it was all going to come at once, and we didn't know when travel restrictions were going to be lifted. We anticipated there was going to be an increase but we clearly didn't anticipate the level correctly," said Gould.
The challenge ahead is formidable.
Service Canada issued 363,000 passports from April 2020 to March 2021, and 1.3 million from April 2021 to March 2022. According to Gould, in the past four months alone, the government has already received close to a million applications, putting the country on track to break the record once again this year.
Canada also introduced the first 10-year passports in 2013, meaning the next year will bring an additional and significant wave of renewals.
Gould says Service Canada began hiring additional staff in October 2021 and held another round of hiring in January 2022. She hopes more staff and resources will help address these issues.
"All the work we're doing now should hopefully not only get us through the backlog," said the minister, "but give us that additional capacity for folks who have yet to renew."
Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio