Shelley Baker says she is suing the federal government for violating her constitutional rights because she couldn't get her passport renewed and therefore, couldn't travel to Texas to help care for her family. Baker, 61, along with two other Canadian applicants, are hoping to make the case that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects their right to leave the country for any reason, and that Ottawa's decision to withhold or restrict passport services after March 19, is unreasonable and unlawful. Baker says she had wanted to spend the summer near Belton, about an hour's drive north of Austin, where her stepson, Brian Postell, is raising his six-year-old son. "My stepson is a military veteran and he has medical conditions and when the COVID hit, he just needed more help at home," she said. However, Baker's passport expired in March and by March 19, Ottawa had closed its Service Canada and passport offices in response to the pandemic.
The federal government then restricted its passport program, only processing applications deemed necessary for valid urgent travel reasons.
According to the government web site Monday, Canadians with urgent travel needs may obtain passport services if they:
- have a serious illness, or must tend to the serious illness or death of another individual they have had a relationship with;
- suffer from economic hardships due to loss of job or business (the cost of an airline, bus or train ticket does not constitute economic hardship);
- or must travel for humanitarian grounds, supported by the requesting organization.
When Baker realized there was no way to renew her passport in person, she contacted the passport program by phone.
She tried to explain that her grandson had cochlear implants and her family had some other medical stresses and could have used her help caring for six-year-old Landon while school and daycares were closed for summer. Baker said her plea was denied. "The criteria was either the person travelling, or your family on the other end, had to be critical, like a near-death situation," she said.
"I didn't fall into that category. So from there, I had to tell my family that I wasn't able to [go.]"
Baker. along with Sonia Faye of Ontario and Diane Smith of Alberta, are represented by James Kitchen, a lawyer with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.
Kitchen says the charter protects every Canadian citizen's right to enter, remain in, and leave Canada and that a passport is essential to exercising that right.
The notice of application, which was filed in the federal court in Calgary on July 27, says mobility rights are shared equally by all Canadian citizens, regardless of whether the reasons they want to travel are considered more "essential" or "valid" than others.
Kitchen told the CBC, a temporary interruption in passport service might have been understandable, given the pandemic, but it should have been fixed by now.
"It's been over five months," he said.
"People whose passports expired in March or April or May, who have been trying to renew their passports, have been unable to. Up until the end of July, they would not have been able even to submit their application and hope it was processed in any reasonable time."
No explanation provided
Kitchen said Ottawa has figured out how to do other things remotely, such as process thousands of CERB applications.
He says no explanation has been provided as to why the passport program didn't adjust.
"When you get into July and August where we are now, the situation is not extreme or dire. It's not complete chaos. If that were the case, people would not be trying to travel. We wouldn't have international flights," he said.
"There are lots of countries accepting travellers. There are lots of people wanting to travel for all kinds of personal reasons -- whether it's to visit family or do things they've waited to do for a long time."
"This [passport program] should have come back online earlier in the spring and it didn't."
Kitchen said the federal government has yet to file a response to his application, which seeks to direct the respondent, the minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship Canada to restore normal passport service, both in person and by mail.
Kitchen said he expects a hearing would probably be conducted online, and last about a day.
He added the federal court is efficient and the issue might be resolved in about six months.
Meanwhile Baker says she's still hoping to see her grandson.
She expects to apply for a passport renewal as soon as the program goes back to normal.
First, she says, she'll have to take another passport photo because the last one has already expired.