The federal government has said it implemented a system to reduce delays plaguing the downtown Montreal passport office, but those who were waiting in line on Thursday said the situation remained chaotic.
Florent Cohen said he had been waiting outside the office since 4 a.m. Tuesday, trying to get a travel document for his four-month-old son.
On Thursday morning, it seemed like he would finally get his chance. After inching toward the front of the line and entering the office, he said he was told new applications weren't being processed — only those who had already submitted applications would be prioritized.
Cohen, who said he couldn't apply earlier because he didn't have the paperwork for his young child, was sent back outside.
"I feel a bit exhausted, frustrated," said Cohen, who was scheduled to take his son to France to meet his parents Thursday morning but has since changed his flight to Saturday.
Passport offices across the country have been swamped in recent weeks because of the massive number of people applying for documents following the lifting of pandemic-related travel restrictions, the government has said. Many Canadians are using the "urgent" application system to obtain passports within 48 hours, leading to delays.
The problem is particularly acute in Montreal. Families Minister Karina Gould told reporters in Ottawa Thursday that before the pandemic, five per cent of passport applications were made through the urgent system. Now, her office said it's close to 50 per cent in Montreal.
Gould said earlier this week her department would institute a triage system to prioritize the most urgent cases, but she admitted Thursday the plan "didn’t go as smoothly, quite frankly, as we had hoped."
More than 300 people were waiting outside the downtown Montreal federal building around noon on Thursday. Large crowds have gathered outside the office every day this week.
"Every day, they change the rules they use to select people," Cohen said. "On Tuesday, there was kind of a list; on Wednesday, they took 70 people; and today, they decided, 'make a line, we'll come to you with questions.'"
Gould said passport office employees would speak to everyone in line in Montreal to ensure they get appointments before their departure dates.
"There are 10 managers who are working in the line and they will be there until midnight (Thursday)," she said. The passport office will stay open for appointments on Friday — a provincial holiday in Quebec — and Saturday, she added.
People who were waiting in line said they didn't believe that a triage would actually happen, and rumours were spreading that officials wouldn't be able to process everyone in time.
Kevin King, the president of the Union of National Employees, which represents passport officers, said his union had warned the government that it needed to hire more staff to prepare for the resumption of travel as COVID-19 restrictions lifted.
"We told representatives of the employer — anybody who has ears to hear — that this was coming, over a year ago," he said in an interview Thursday.
He said the government didn't increase the number of staff to serve people arriving in person and to deal with the backlog of mail-in applications. King said the problem is getting worse: more than 700 people were lined up in downtown Montreal on Wednesday.
"The lineups are actually increasing, not decreasing," he said.
While the federal government has said it hired more staff and transferred employees from other departments to passport offices, King said it's not clear how many of those people are trained passport officers — the only people who can authenticate travel documents.
Zidane Tarbi, one of those waiting in line Thursday, said he visited a passport office two months ago and was told to come back two days before his flight. Tarbi, who is scheduled to fly to Morocco next week to get married, said that with the long weekend, Thursday was his last chance to get an appointment.
"I'm very scared," he said. "This is my last chance; I can't miss the flight. It's a mess."