Tensions flare in Montreal as travellers face indefinite passport delays

·4 min read
Tensions flare in Montreal as travellers face indefinite passport delays

Tensions intensified Thursday outside the passport office at Montreal's Guy-Favreau complex when hundreds of travellers who had been lining up for days for travel documents learned the system to process their requests had changed again.

Despite the federal government putting into effect a new ticketing system with fixed appointment times in Montreal on Wednesday, Service Canada workers threw passport-seekers for a loop Thursday morning by prioritizing people according to their flight time instead of their appointment time.

"Our emotions are through the roof, we're trying to stay calm," said Antoinette Corbeil, who, like many, had been waiting in line for 36 hours in the rain.

Jennifer Yoon/CBC News
Jennifer Yoon/CBC News

On Thursday morning some people had set up tents and tarps to shelter from the downpour as they waited for their passports. Portable toilets have been set up to facilitate the long waits.

As the office opened, Service Canada agents triaged each family in line, asking when they are flying and what stage their passport application was at. Those flying in the next 24 hours were prioritized, frustrating some people who have been in line overnight.

"We organized ourselves last night in line with our numbers ... and they're letting other people in in front of us. That's not fair," said Corbeil.

Until the last few days, those waiting had taken matters into their own hands, implementing their own first-come-first-serve system to keep people from cutting in line. Police were finally called in to take over crowd control.

The fixed-appointment system brought in Wednesday left hundreds still going home empty-handed when just after 9 a.m. Service Canada workers announced the passport office had reached its capacity for the day.

Karina Gould, the minister responsible for passport services, has described the delays at the Guy-Favreau office as the worst in the country.

"It's absolutely insane. This is inhuman for us to go through this," said Corbeil.

Jennifer Yoon/CBC News
Jennifer Yoon/CBC News

New triage measures

In a statement Thursday, Gould said while Service Canada has added staff, streamlined procedures and increased processing capacity to help deal with the situation, challenges remain and new processing measures are required.

"Given the large crowds and lineups for passport services in urban centres, Service Canada is implementing new triage measures to provide a more intensive, client-specific approach," she wrote.

"While the triage methods vary from location to location based on the circumstances, staff will be focused on clear communication to clients, prioritizing service to those with urgent travel needs within the following 24 to 48 hours."

Jennifer Yoon/CBC News
Jennifer Yoon/CBC News

In Montreal on Thursday, the new system got the line moving a litte bit and chants of "on avance," or "we're moving forward," were heard.

But people like Florent Cohen, who was once near the front of the line, now finds himself being left behind. Trying to get a passport for his five-month-old son, he's spent the past two rainy nights in line, thinking it would be the same first-come-first-serve system as Wednesday.

He said he wishes somebody had told him that the system would be different today.

"If I've done that for three days for nothing, it's frustrating, and probably I'd be angry," he said. "You've wasted energy and you try to understand ... you know, a lot of questions because we are tired."

Poor communication 

After waiting in line since Tuesday at 3 a.m., Jeremy Asselin finally got his passport Thursday ahead of his 2 p.m. flight to Arizona to visit his godfather.

He said people had tried to pay him to cut in front of him in line but no amount could compensate him for having to sleep in the rain.

Jennifer Yoon/CBC News
Jennifer Yoon/CBC News

"They don't know what we've been through," he said, describing how painful it was to have to sleep outside in wet clothes. He said he was lucky to have been at the front of the line.

Dimitri Antonio had also been waiting since 3 a.m. Tuesday and was hoping to get as lucky as Asselin before his 6 p.m. flight to Greece Thursday night.

He said he's unsure when he should expect to get his documents because the communication between travellers and Service Canada workers "is terrible."

"There's been no leadership, no visibility, really no communication," Antonio said, adding he wants the federal government to provide more support to staff on the ground.

"They're clearly overwhelmed."

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