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Hours on hold and endless queues: Canadians still grappling with poor passport service

Canadians routinely wait hours on the phone and in person when dealing with Passport Canada, leaving many travellers infuriated by the quality of the agency’s customer service.

Post-COVID chaos at passport offices prompted the federal government to step up and promise a series of changes to get the documents into travellers’ hands in a timely manner.

Passport Canada claims that after a prolonged period of pandemic-related delays, the agency has returned to its normal “service standard” of getting passports to most people in 10 or 20 business days, depending on where an application is initially filed.

But the agency’s service standard makes no promises about how quickly they will serve people in person or over the phone.

Data and anecdotal reports suggest Passport Canada’s customer service track record is poor.

A CBC News analysis of passport office wait times shows people in urban centres often wait several hours to get face-to-face with a customer service agent at Passport Canada-branded offices.

On a weekday morning in mid-March, for example, Passport Canada’s website estimated the wait time at its west-end Ottawa location at 2 hours and 45 minutes.

In downtown Toronto that month, would-be passport holders faced a three-hour wait to get to the front of the line before noon.

The wait times in late April were much the same: people in Mississauga, Ont. were being told then they’d have to wait about 2 hours and 45 minutes to be served if they were on site at 9:30 a.m. There was a bright spot in Halifax — there the wait was only an hour.

People line up at the passport office, Tuesday, June 21, 2022 in Laval, Que. The government promised to fix post-COVID chaos at the country's passport offices. Canadians still routinely face hours-long wait times in person and over the phone.
People line up at the passport office on Tuesday, June 21, 2022 in Laval, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

On Monday, prospective passport holders in Brampton, Ont. faced a nearly three-hour wait shortly after that city’s office opened, according to Passport Canada data published online.

At Calgary’s Sunpark Drive location, travellers were told it would be at least three hours before they could speak to somebody after it opened its doors for the day, online data shows.

More than 12 hours on hold

Debbie Braun is a retiree who lives in High River, Alta., less than an hour south of Calgary.

She told CBC News that the prospect of those long in-person wait times led her to skip the drive into the city and send her passport application by mail in February.

And given Passport Canada’s commitment to process the vast majority of mail-in applications “within 20 days,” Braun thought she’d have her hands on a renewed passport well before her Mexican vacation in April.

In the end, it took twice as long. Braun said she got her passport in 40 days — and only after a bureaucratic battle with multiple phone calls and more than 12 hours spent on hold.

It was the same time frame for Braun’s daughter, who filed separately by mail from northern Alberta.

That’s despite Passport Canada’s commitment that 90 per cent of all mail-in applications will be processed within 20 days.

People line up outside the Guy Favreau federal building while waiting to apply for a passport in Montreal, Sunday, June 26, 2022.
People line up outside the Guy Favreau federal building while waiting to apply for a passport in Montreal on Sunday, June 26, 2022. (The Canadian Press)

The agency routinely blows past that target.

Government data from 2022-23 reveals Passport Canada only met that 20-day processing target 52 per cent of the time.

Numbers from the past fiscal year haven’t been published online yet. A year ago, Karina Gould, who was the minister in charge of passports at the time, suggested there had been a big improvement.

Andrew Griffith is a former director general at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) who also worked at Service Canada and on passport files during his long tenure in government.

“The wait times are excessive. Nobody leaves happy if they have to wait three hours in person or on the phone,” he told CBC News.

“They either need to staff up or find other ways to reduce the time lag. I think, from a service point of view, it’s really problematic and it’s the kind of thing that undermines the faith of people in government institutions.”

WATCH: This is what your next passport will look like 

This is what your next passport will look like

12 months ago

Duration 2:04

Citizen and Immigration Minister Sean Fraser unveiled the look of Canada’s new passports, which include new imagery and security features.

While they’ve promised the option in the past, the government doesn’t yet allow Canadians to apply for a passport online.

Immigration Minister Marc Miller has said “system vulnerabilities” have prevented Ottawa from fulfilling that commitment. “It’s not secure,” he told reporters in February.

People can only fill out the required forms on the computer. Applicants still have to print them out and send them by mail for processing, or submit them in person.

The new Canadian passport is unveiled at an event at the Ottawa International Airport in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 10, 2023.
The new Canadian passport is unveiled at an event at the Ottawa International Airport in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

That’s what Braun did — but then she wanted to use the government’s online application status tracker to keep tabs on her progress.

The federal government launched the tracker after the chaos of 2022-23, billing it as a big fix to prevent future passport pileups.

But Braun soon discovered she needed a file number to log in. She said she had to call to get that information because the online file number generator was “useless” and never gave her one after days of failed attempts.

That’s when the trouble started.

‘Who has time for that?’

“That first morning I called, there were 376 calls ahead of me in the queue,” she told CBC News. “I had no choice — I had to sit there and wait.”

Passport Canada had somehow affixed an old mailing address to her file. Braun filled out the right address when she sent it in, she said, and she has a copy of the application to prove it.

Each time she dialled through, she said, she was faced with a wall of other callers in front of her.

Later in February, she was number 352 on the line to speak to an operator.

WATCH: Federal government announces online passport status tracker

Federal government announces online passport status tracker

1 year ago

Duration 1:17

Minister of Families Karina Gould says this is the first step in modernizing the system after months of delays due to a backlog.

In March, 377 people were ahead of her on the phone. On another March call, she was caller number 367.

On her last and final call that month, there were more than 500 callers ahead of her on hold, she said.

“I mean, who has time for that? Five hundred calls?” Braun said.

Braun said her average wait time to get an agent on the line was two hours and 40 minutes.

“How can somebody at an office sit on hold for two and a half hours?” she said.

Braun described some of the operators as “quite rude” and argumentative, adding they blamed her for an address error that was really their fault.

“I worked for Greyhound Canada for 35 years and if I would’ve done what Passport Canada does to the people calling in, I would have been fired,” she said. “It just angers me and it leaves a bad taste in your mouth, you know?”

She said that while the government has “bragged” about its changes to the passport program, it has nothing to boast about.

“They just tell the people what they want to hear — ‘Oh, we’ve fixed everything’ — and the systems they put in place to improve things aren’t adequate because they don’t think it through,” she said.

40 days to get a passport

No one federal department is responsible for the passport program.

That’s a problem, Griffith said, because nobody wants to take ownership of a vital service that touches so many Canadians personally.

In 2023, after the passport fiasco, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau created a new cabinet position called “citizens’ services,” with a minister responsible for “serving as our government’s champion for service delivery excellence.”

Trudeau’s mandate letter to the minister, Terry Beech, said he should focus on “delivering services where and when Canadians need them” and deal with “service delivery challenges” on passports.

A spokesperson for Beech said he was not available for an interview.

Minister of Citizens’ Services, Terry Beech listens to questions from seniors on the Canadian Dental Care Plan in Burnaby, B.C. on Wednesday Mar. 6, 2024.
Minister of Citizens’ Services Terry Beech Beech was not available for an interview about passport wait times — something he’s nominally responsible for fixing. (Ethan Cairns/Canadian Press)

Griffith said Beech’s appointment was political — an attempt to show people the government cares about wait times. But the minister does not seem to have the power to push through any real change, he added.

“I never really thought the ministerial role was a meaningful position,” he said. “I don’t think it needs a minister unless you’re really going to revamp government. You never see Beech, he’s not very active.”

IRCC, which is taking the lead on introducing online passport applications, said in a media statement that it “remains committed” to the concept but didn’t offer a timeline for a rollout.

Employment and Social Development Canada, which is responsible for managing the passport program on behalf of IRCC, told CBC News that it sometimes “experiences increased demand on a seasonal basis as popular travel times approach.”

As for long call centre wait times, the department said time spent on hold “can vary and some clients may experience either longer or shorter hold times.”

The department says it encourages people to use the online status tracker to “get updates on their applications without needing to call or visit Service Canada.”

“Service Canada remains committed to service excellence and improving the experience for clients applying for passports,” the department said.

Braun, meanwhile, said her experience left her with little faith in government’s ability to deliver.

“I followed the rules, I did what I was supposed to do and then you have to go through the nightmare and you get upset,” Braun said.

“It’s a good thing I did the 10-year passport thing because I don’t think I could go through this again in five years.”

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