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Lineup for passports begins the day before outside Bay Centre; bring your own chair

Ticket to frustration: Dozens regularly line up before office opens; many are there because their mailed application is in limbo and their travel date is fast approaching.

The first person in line at the Service Canada passport office in Bay Centre on Friday set up her chair at 5 p.m. the previous evening, after her mailed-in application went missing.

“I wasn’t taking any chances,” said 26-year-old Clara Kucher of Victoria, who had hoped to travel June 25 to Italy. “It’s completely ­unacceptable, it’s a disaster, it’s completely disorganized.”

Kucher was one of about 70 people who got in line on the sidewalk outside the Fort Street entrance before the office opened at 8:30 a.m. Friday in hopes of reaching an agent. People who walk in are slotted into place between those who have appointments.

Kucher’s mailed application needed to be transferred to the Victoria branch and the passport office can only process so many transferred documents a day, she said.

Kucher did reconnaissance on the ideal time to arrive to be first in line. She saw people lined up at 10 p.m. on Sunday for Monday’s opening.

Last week, Karina Gould, the federal ­minister responsible, said wait times are “far from acceptable” and fixing them is her top priority. Part of the problem is a surge in demand coupled with the fact that many ­passport staff were given other work during the pandemic.

Those in line Friday had common ­complaints: Waiting months on applications mailed in with original documents, being forced to re-apply for passports in person and re-gathering documents, unsuccessfully phoning the toll-free Service Canada number for days on end, emailing inquiries to Service Canada with no reply, and a lack of realistic information on everything from how to line up to worst-case wait times.

The savviest came prepared with camping chairs and practical shoes. Those who borrowed plastic chairs from the food court quickly learned that’s a no-no.

“I’m a 76-year-old man with a knee ­replacement, and there’s parents with young children,” said John LeGood of Cobble Hill. “They came by twice asking us to kindly take the chairs back into the cafeteria where they belong. We said: ‘We have no place to sit down.’ It’s just ­intolerable.”

LeGood was with granddaughter Lauren Steele, 20, of Nanaimo, who arrived just before 7 a.m. and was waiting inside the office, almost five hours later, in hopes of having a passport for her July 21 trip to Seattle. “It’s pretty horrendous,” she said. “I wish they could handle it better, especially the phones.”

Dan Miller, 44, of Chemainus, arrived at 6:45 a.m. to try to get a passport for his son, who is headed to Ireland and England on June 27. He mailed in his application weeks ago and can’t get through to Service Canada to find out the status.

Miller, an electrician, said he knows from his own business “there’s no one to hire out there,” especially for specialized work, and he understands why the government is struggling.

At the same time, “they tell you to go to the website and you can’t get any information and so you call and no one answers, you can’t get a person, and so now I’m sitting on a floor with a hundred other people.

“I also feel bad for the people in the passport office because they are the ones having to deal with everybody’s frustration, everybody upset because they had to take a day off work.”

Many of the overnighters learned to lean on one another, holding each other’s places in line to find a washroom or stretch their legs, or find food. Satu Reuhkala, 33, said amid the stress and the late-night hours, the group quickly became “a wonderful new community — total strangers but fast friends.”

Julie Dargis, boyfriend Mike Neary and friend Diana Rai all got in line at 11 p.m. Thursday, and ordered pizza at around midnight to share with those in line. Rai was supposed to take her grandson to Port Angeles and Mexico leaving June 22.

As the sun rose Friday, Juan Rodriguez left his post and returned with Tim Hortons Timbits for everyone. He needs to fly to Mexico next week. Like many others, he used social media rather than the government website for information on lineups and wait times.

Catherine Novak, 58, who works in the ­public sector, worked on a laptop while standing in line after arriving around 9:45 a.m. Novak was surprised in October when she realized she is one of a large number of ­Canadians who, during the chaos of the ­pandemic, unknowingly let their passports expire.

In a typical year, two million to five million passport applications are filed in Canada. ­During the pandemic, there were only 1.5 million passports issued over two years.

“I know they are going as fast as they can — they must be slammed in there,” said Novak, who plans to drive to the United States in three weeks.

The passport office on Friday was processing passports for people leaving up to Aug. 22 in an attempt to serve those in immediate need and to relieve the backlog.

Katrina Schulz, 39, who was trying to get a passport for 16-month old daughter Zafira, said the government should have known there would be a flood of passport applications when it opened travel up and should have been better prepared. “There’s no reason for any of this.”

For some, the wait paid dividends: Many left the Service Canada office on Friday with a return date to pick up their passports or a date when they’ll be mailed.

Others were on the verge of tears, facing the prospect of re-collecting documents, ­purchasing new air tickets, returning another day or ­cancelling their trips.

Jessica Kjernisted and Brad Ostaffy of ­Victoria had planned to introduce nine-week-old Thea to family in Europe on Sunday.

The couple sent her application by express mail about a month ago. Since then, they’ve been unable to track its whereabouts. Kjernisted said she phoned Service Canada 124 times one day before giving up.

On Thursday, they were turned away — told the office can only process so many ­“transferred” applications each day.

On Friday, the couple returned at 6 a.m., ­hoping for “a miracle.”

They didn’t get one. As Kjernisted left, she said the couple will have to cancel their trip.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

— With files from The Canadian Press

Tips for passport seekers

• The Fort Street door to Bay Centre opens at 6 a.m.

• Adults with expired passports only need a renewal form and don’t have to do a full re-application.

• Children with expired passports DO need a full re-application.

• The birth certificate is the holy grail of identification and should be brought in all cases.

• The federal government says 72 per cent of Canadians who apply for a passport in any manner will get it within 40 business days, while 96 per cent of people who submit their application in person will get their passport within 10 business days.

Federal government instructions for applying for a passport, including wait times at offices and making an appointment

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