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Surrey passport applicants might consider foul-weather approach

‘Last year, 2022, unfortunately had a big whammy,’ Surrey MP Randeep Sarai said
Entrance to the Canada Passport Office inside Central City shopping centre in Whalley. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)

Few would disagree that getting your passport can be a real drag. But if you want to avoid big lineups, you might want to give bad weather a try.

It worked for Malaesh Box. The football coach needed to renew his passport, as he’ll soon be traveling “down south” with some young players youths to expose them to the competition and talent outside Canada.

He decided to head down to the Surrey Service Canada Centre – Passport Services office at the Central City shopping centre in Whalley on Tuesday, Jan. 10, a relatively warm and sunny day for this time of year. But oops, he forgot a few documents.

“That wait time was supposed to be approximately three to five hours. So they were telling people ahead of time if you’re not going to wait for three to five hours, then you’d probably leave, if you don’t have urgent travel plans you’ll probably leave as well and if you don’t have travel plans within the next couple of months it’s best for you to book an appointment, leave,” he explained.

So he planned to return Thursday, Jan. 12, aiming to come in at 5:30 a.m. in an effort to beat the lines, but his alarm clock had other ideas. “I woke up at 7:30, I was like man there’s going to be a big line. I got here at like 8:40 and I was just, the process went a bit faster. I overheard one of the employees saying it’s raining, and not a lot of people are wanting to come and travel in the rain, so it’s making the process a lot faster.

“I got out of there within 30 minutes,” Box said, nodding in the direction of the waiting office on the second level, “and went downstairs within another 20 minutes. This is my second visit, so if I would have waited on Tuesday on a sunny day I would have waited almost five hours but today I’m in line, got my ticket and done within two hours.”

When people arrive at the main passport office at ground level, inside the mall, a commissionaire sends them to a satellite office on the second floor to wait for a ticket. Once obtained, they’re directed back downstairs for their application to be processed. There were 33 people seated in this waiting room at roughly 10:30 a.m. Thursday, with some chairs to spare.

One government employee said last summer was “a nightmare” but things appear to be getting better. A security guard said a typical day will see more than 500 people come, with up to 100 people lining up early in the morning. The nicer the weather, the longer the line.

A manager, said to be in a meeting, had a staffer hand a slip of paper to the Now-Leader containing a toll-free phone number to Service Canada’s Media Relations Office Public Affairs and Stakeholder Relations Branch for comment.

Mohammad Hussain, press secretary for Minister Karina Gould – in charge of the delivery of passports and processing applications under the auspices of Service Canada – said since last October service has “wildly” improved.

“Since October really, since Oct. 3, everyone that has applied for a passport has received it within standards and even in-person across Canada we’re seeing better times. The Surrey office is one where sometimes we do hear there are longer lines.”

“Surrey has been challenging in the past. The reason they included that room was to make the wait just generally better for people, we didn’t want people waiting outside in the cold.”

“Surrey, definitely it is a busy site, but I can’t say with certainty if it’s one of the busiest, or the largest rather,” Hussain said.

Since Oct. 3, Hussain said, 94 per cent of all mail-in applications and Service Canada applications have been processed, with people receiving their passport within 20 business days. For people going to an in-person, specialized site like Surrey’s passport offices, 99 per cent are receiving their passport within 10 business days.

The government, he said, has been tackling an “unacceptable” backlog. “We saw that in Surrey, we saw that across Canada.”

“That’s almost clear, I would say,” he said. “I know that the situation was unacceptable in the summer but Canadians should know that the passport system is working well now.”

Before the pandemic, Hussain noted, most people would apply in person for their passport. “But over the pandemic everyone started doing things from home, so we saw a huge surge in mail-in applications.”

The system, he said, was never designed to process primarily mail-in applications, a process much less efficient, and this created a bottleneck.

Since last summer close to 1,000 more employees were hired to help clear the backlog. “We’re back in standards for mail-in, we’re back in standards for in-person and the only thing left to do is really just finish out this backlog, I think the backlog is something like less than 20,000 applications. And for context, week to week we’re doing on average something like 70,000 applications, 80,000 applications.”

Hussain said anyone caught up in the backlog, who hasn’t received their passport within 20 days, can reach out to any Service Canada outlet, call the passport line and request their application to be dealt with “and they’ll immediately bump your application up.”

Randeep Sarai, Liberal MP for Surrey Centre, said currently passports are produced within 20 business days for 94 per cent of mail-in applications and 10 business days for in-person applications 98 per cent of the time.

“Yes, there is a bit of lineups if you want to go in person but they triaged them based on priorities, so if you need them within like two days they’ll get it to you within two days,” Sarai said. “If you need it within 14 days they’ll get it to you within 14 days and if you’re not in a super rush, then I think they kind-of come in within 20 business days, most times.

“Last year, 2022, unfortunately had a big whammy,” Sarai said. “It’s a global thing, I’ve heard.”

About the Author: Tom Zytaruk

I write unvarnished opinion columns and unbiased news reports for the Surrey Now-Leader.
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