People line up at a passport office in Montreal on June 22. The number of people who would have qualified for fee remissions offers a glimpse at the extent of the delays at beleaguered passport services.

Ottawa has failed to issue passports within the required timeline to almost 300,000 Canadians in the first year of a new fee-remission policy brought in by immigration officials to ensure service standards are met.

According to the Service Fees Act, when an individual pays for a government service and there’s an unreasonable delay, the department involved must return a portion of the fee.

In April 2021, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada rolled out its remission policy for fees to apply to a program designed to attract foreign youth to travel and work in Canada; for the citizenship ceremony where someone takes the oath; and for passports.

Passport applicants, however, were not entitled to refunds this year due to the short nature of timelines and “exceptional circumstance” of the COVID-19 pandemic that officials say falls under a provision in the law enacted in 2017. Those circumstances are defined as situations outside the department’s control and include:

  • “Unforeseen” system disruptions;
  • Emergency situations that cause a closure of an office, a reduction in the service capacity or a surge of applications outside the department’s control;

Yet the number of people who would have qualified for fee remissions offers a glimpse at the extent of the delays at beleaguered passport services as Canadians look to travel extensively again.

Since the spring, Canadians have been camping outside Service Canada offices across the country to get new travel documents for planned trips as lives returned to normal for many, with border and public health restrictions relaxed.

Public anger prompted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to create a task force in late June to address unprecedented delays in government services, especially in the processing of passports and immigration applications.

“We know service delays, particularly in recent months, are unacceptable,” said Trudeau. “We will continue to do everything we can to improve the delivery of these services in an efficient and timely manner.

“This new task force will help guide the work of the government to better meet the changing needs of Canadians and continue to provide them with the high-quality services they need and deserve.”

According to data obtained by the Star, the immigration department, which oversees Passport Canada, failed to promptly deliver passports to a total of 295,789 Canadians in the year between April 2021 and 2022. Of those, 217,139 received their travel documents between one and 10 days late, while 78,650 got theirs 11 days or more past the standard times.

The passport service standard was set at 10 business days for in-person applications; 20 days by mail; end of next day for urgent service; and two to nine days for express service. Applicants who got their passport one to 10 days late would have been eligible for a 25 per cent refund, while those experiencing a delay of 11 days or more were supposed to get 50 per cent.

The number of passport applications that missed the target time surged from 1,648 in April 2021 to more than 23,000 last August to 55,117 in January, before falling to 40,343 this April.

The data provided by immigration officials did not break down further in terms of how an application was received. However, in the 2020-21 fiscal year, 81 per cent of all in-person passport applications were processed within 10 business days and 78 per cent of mail-in applications met the 20-day target.

A five-year adult passport application currently costs $120; a 10-year is $160. If all 300,000 applicants eligible for remissions were applying for a five-year adult passport, more than $11.2 million might have been returned for the substandard service.

Under the fee-remission policy, immigration applicants would be notified if their application was not processed within the established service standards and a refund would be issued based on the calculation method applicable for the fee paid.

Immigration department spokesperson Nancy Caron said this year’s remissions would have started by July 1, but have been postponed due to the pandemic, as the policy does not apply to applications processed in “unusual or exceptional circumstances” that may disrupt regular operations or result in “unforeseeable and significant influx of applications.”

“Remissions are not retroactive and applications received prior to the exceptional circumstances being lifted will not be eligible for remissions,” explained Caron, adding that exceptional circumstances are in effect for passport applicants with applications submitted between April 1, 2021, until at least Sept. 30.

For the International Experience Canada Program, which allows young people from other countries to travel and work in Canada, 766 applicants saw delays of one to 28 days beyond the 56-day service standard in the first year of the remission policy; they qualified for a 25 per cent refund of the $153 application fees. Another 222 applicants, who waited 29 days or more, would receive 50 per cent in remission of the paid fee.

In contrast, only 14 citizenship applications met the remission criteria, where days between a positive decision and first citizenship ceremony notice must be more than four months.

Remissions under these two programs totalled just under $50,000.

During debates on the federal budget that passed in June, the immigration department had asked for exemptions from fee remissions for a string of programs: authorization to return to Canada, rehabilitation for criminality and serious criminality, restoration of temporary resident status, and temporary resident permits.

However, clauses relating to the exemption were defeated by the standing committee in finance and were removed.

Caron said uniform and predictable processing times and service standards cannot be established for those programs as they are highly dependent on third parties such as foreign judicial systems and international public safety organizations.

“Due to the high complexity and discretionary nature of the decisions associated with these applications, few can be considered straightforward,” Caron told the Star, adding that officials are still assessing the status of those programs to ensure compliance with the Service Fees Act.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of Conduct. The Star does not endorse these opinions.

Source link

By Jon Doe