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'Bring a coffee': British Columbians experience long wait times for passport renewals

With restrictions lifting, Service Canada is seeing an increase in passport applications.
Some British Columbians have cancelled their upcoming trip because the passport wait was too long.

When Ben Treen was invited to a wine tasting trip in Portugal, he realized he needed to renew his passport.

The federal document had been expired for about a year and a half. 

Treen, who manages a chain of liquor stores in Vancouver, needed a quick turnaround. He received his invite just 10 days before departure. 

He contacted Service Canada’s appointment booking hotline to schedule an in-person meeting. Although the government website claims a representative will be in touch within two days, Treen says it took staff nine days to return his call.

“I actually cancelled my trip because I realized that they weren't going to call me back within that period of time," he says. 

A spokesperson for Employment and Social Development (ESDC) told Glacier Media that their “focus during this time is on ensuring anyone with travel in 25 days is prioritized for service.”

In a statement, ESDC said “to ensure we are providing the passport services Canadians need, we are using new workload management and processing technology to increase efficiency."

Since Treen needed to renew his passport anyway, he decided to wait at the Sinclair Centre in downtown Vancouver for a walk-in appointment.

He arrived at 8 a.m. and there was already a lineup of people.

“There was 40 of us and then you know, half the lineup went away when they realized how long of a lineup it was,” he says.

“I waited there for about four hours, and they hadn't moved. And so, I kind of gave up.”

How long are passport lineups in B.C.?

In British Columbia, many Service Canada centres have seen long lines, with people waiting hours like Treen.

Richmond resident Grace Chow said her patience and energy were quickly fading after standing in line for four hours to get in and another hour once inside the office.

"I have never waited so long for anyone in my life," sighed Chow, who had taken the day off work to get her passport renewed for a vacation in Hawaii. She said she had no idea it would take so long, adding “now, my whole day is gone.”

When Glacier Media asked whether there were certain centres that had longer wait times, the ESDC stated, “lineups will vary depending on location and time of day, as well as whether it is at a specialized passport site, but the surge in passport applications for those travelling within 25 business days is likely to lead to longer lineups for in-person services at all locations.”

In the last seven weeks, Service Canada has received almost 500,000 applications. That's due in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic, when travel and public health restrictions were in effect. 

“The volume of passport applications was relatively low,” the ESDC spokesperson said. “With the easing of restrictions and the resumption of travel, Service Canada has experienced an increase in passport applications across the country.”

Service Canada processed nearly 1.3 million passports between April 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022 — a sharp increase from the roughly 360,000 passports processed over the previous fiscal year.

The number of passport-related calls to the government has also shot up from 500 a day before the pandemic to now over 200,000 per day. 

To avoid long lines, ESDC advises Canadians with no imminent travel to “apply by visiting any of over 300 Service Canada centres.”

Before Treen gave up, he spoke with a security guard at Sinclair who told him to arrive well before the centre opens.  

“The doors open at 6 a.m. If you get here before then you can post up at the Hastings door — that one opens first. Bring a coffee. You’re going to be waiting a couple hours but that’s the only way that you’re going to get there without an appointment,” he recalls.

Although Treen’s business trip wasn’t essential, he still wishes the government had better communication.

“I think the only thing that was really frustrating for me was expecting an appointment. That's easily updated bit of information to say, ‘We are backlogged right now, we're experiencing 10 days, to have our Service Canada employees getting back to make appointments,’” says Treen.

“That would have been nice to know, instead of waiting around for this phone call, that wasn't going happen for days.”

After having experienced the long lines, Treen says he's planning on mailing in his application.

"It was a cool opportunity. It would have been nice. Hopefully, a similar opportunity arises [in the future]."

With a file from Nono Shen/Richmond News and Canadian Press