OTTAWA — The federal government is adding new passport service locations across Canada as a backlog in processing applications continues.
Social Development Minister Karina Gould announced Wednesday that people can now apply for and pick up passports at Service Canada centres in Red Deer, Alta., Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Trois-Rivières, Que., and Charlottetown, P.E.I.
That's on top of five new locations added in July, and Gould expects to bring another seven to nine locations into the program soon.
"I think this is a really important and long-overdue change," she said in an interview. "Those of us who live in more urban areas, we don't realize that we're so lucky to be close to a passport office."
The additions should make it easier for people outside large centres to access services and ease stress on offices in regional hubs, she added.
No new federal money was required to make the change, Gould said. Resources come out of a revolving fund made up of passport fees.
Gould said the current crisis and complaints over long wait times have accelerated the work but she was already looking at bringing passport services to more locations before the backlog.
She visited Sault Ste. Marie in April, before media began reporting on complaints over wait times. The local Liberal MP, Terry Sheehan, told Gould that people in the Sault had to drive seven or eight hours to Thunder Bay or Toronto to visit a passport office in person.
Until Wednesday, there was no passport office on Prince Edward Island.
"So I was starting to already look at who is not close, and how can we fix this," she said. "And then it became that much more acute."
Nearly 1.1 million applications for new and renewed passports have been filed since April as pandemic restrictions loosen and Canadians resume travelling.
More than one-quarter of those hadn't yet been processed as of early August.
Government statistics show the system is starting to catch up with demand, as the gulf between the number of passport applications each month versus the number of passports issued is getting smaller.
Call centre wait times have gone down significantly and "triage measures" were implemented at 17 passport offices to mitigate in-person headaches.
Gould said 442 new employees were hired so far this summer and 300 are already trained and working.
But a large backlog remains.
In the first week of August, the number of passports issued within 40 business days of an application fell to 72 per cent from 81 per cent the week before.
That is largely because of mailed applications.
During the first week of August, passports from in-person applications were issued within the government's 10-day service standard 95 per cent of the time, a rate that has remained steady throughout the summer.
For mailed applications the service standard of 20 days was met only 40 per cent of the time in early August, down from 53 per cent in late July. The government also warns it can take more than 13 weeks to get your passport by mail.
The overall numbers aren't materially better than in June, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was forced to respond to growing complaints and called the system's performance "unacceptable."
The week of June 20, 76 per cent of passports were issued within 40 business days.
The processing times also don't take into account the wait to get an in-person appointment and there are only a limited number of walk-ins available.
Proof of upcoming travel is required to get service within two months at offices with 10-day processing times, including those announced Wednesday.
Urgent services for people who can prove they need a passport within 48 hours are only available in bigger urban centres — Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Gatineau, Que., and Quebec City.
As the backlash over the wait times continues, some reports suggest Canadians are making "fake" travel plans to show to passport officers, then cancelling their flights once their application is in the queue.
Gould said she's not aware of this being a "widespread issue" but she has heard about it anecdotally. "I strongly discourage Canadians to do that. It's unfair, it's unkind and it's unnecessary," she said.
Gould said at the morning press conference that the government failed to predict to what extent demand would sharply spike earlier this year. She insisted an unexpected glut of mailed-in applications is the main culprit in the passport delays.
Although she wouldn't comment on the specifics of its deliberations, she said a cabinet committee stood up earlier this year — the Task Force on Services to Canadians — is looking at how to make sure that services under federal jurisdiction are being delivered in "a timely and effective way" that takes the toll of the pandemic into account.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 17, 2022.
Marie-Danielle Smith, The Canadian Press