Madam Speaker, I appreciate the chance to speak on the motion this morning. It is an issue that has been close to my heart for some four and a half years. Ever since I was elected, passports and how they are processed have been a big challenge for both my office and my community.
When I first took over, my office was the passport office in Sault Ste. Marie. The previous member was processing literally thousands of them a year and had three people working full time at it.
I decided early on that this was not the role of the office of a member of Parliament. We had many other things that we needed to do. However, we continued to help people with passports, particularly in emergency situations such as not being able to get passports or having their date of travel coming up and not having passports or needing their ID back or whatever.
Being far away from a passport office makes all that very challenging and very difficult, so we moved very aggressively to ask the government to open up more passport offices and to open up passport offices in regions of the country where there were none, such as northeastern Ontario. We suggested that in the case of northeastern Ontario, it would make sense for the new passport office to be in Sault Ste. Marie, in my constituency, since we are an international border community.
I have colleagues from northern Ontario who are facing the same challenges in the distances we have to travel to get a passport. From Sault Ste. Marie alone, the closest passport office is eight hours.
People point out that there is one in Thunder Bay and that people could be sent there. Thunder Bay, for those who have not looked at the map and who do not understand the distances we have to deal with in northern Ontario, is as far away as Toronto, so that is not an answer for us in northeastern Ontario.
We appreciate the opportunity today to speak to this motion brought forward by the member for Brossard—La Prairie. I want to put a couple of thoughts on the record concerning this issue.
First of all, we will support the bill in principle because we want to have further opportunity at committee to talk about it, to perhaps bring forward amendments that would make it better, and to speak to the government about both the inadequacy of the services that are now being delivered through Service Canada and about how difficult it is, particularly given the economic climate that we are in.
In some instances we are okay with this as an interim measure and as a step toward a full passport operation in our region. It is better than what we had. The government has set up a passport intake office where workers are working very hard to make sure, when a passport is sent forward, that it is filled in properly, that the money is collected, that the ID is in place, that there are not going to be any more holdups with that passport, and that it will come back quickly so that people can get on with their work and with their business.
We support that initiative, but it is not the end that we had in mind, which is a full passport office. We support the notion of passport offices in regional Service Canada centres. We also support the amendment by the Bloc that those Service Canada offices that have already been dedicated to deliver passport services be included in the motion, meaning that passport offices would not only be open in regional passport offices, which in our area would be Sudbury, but that the Service Canada offices now delivering those services would also have a full-fledged passport service placed in those offices.
That solution is short of setting up brand new Passport Canada offices, which I think the government still has a very clear responsibility to do. One of the things we do as a federal government is to make sure we are taking care of the relationship we have with other countries and that when people from Canada travel, they have the proper documentation with them, both for the security of the person travelling and for the security of the other countries looking at that passport to know that this is a bona fide citizen of Canada.
This is some of the most fundamental and essential work we do as a government and as a service to the people of Canada. To be shortchanging people in the way we do and to be suggesting that people from Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury or Timmins might have to travel five to eight hours to get to a passport office is just not fair. It is not equitable. It is not what we should be asking our citizens to do.
In the big centres, the big cities where there already are passport offices, people simply get in their cars, walk down the road, take a taxi or grab a subway, and in a matter of a few days they have their passports. That is not the case for people in rural and northern Canada.
Anybody who understands the geography of this country will understand that rural and northern Canada are a very important part of this country. Very essential activities happen there. Lots of people live in those parts of our country for very important reasons, and as full Canadian citizens, they want full access to those services, particularly the ability to acquire a passport quickly so they can get on with their business or travel.
However, I raise some red flags. Service Canada, in my community, is already inundated with the kind of work it is being asked to do, for two reasons. One is that there has been a regionalization of Service Canada services, which has depleted some of the offices that exist, not at the regional centre, but in places such as Sault Ste. Marie and Timmins. Now those workers, who work very hard, who are committed, dedicated and trained to work in those offices, are finding themselves stressed to the max and under the gun to deliver a whole array of services that were delivered in different ways until the Conservative government took over, and until the previous government began to downsize its operations across the country.
Literally thousands of passports are processed through the Service Canada service desk in Sault Ste. Marie. The week of December 12 of last year, there were 171 passports processed; the week of December 19 there were 179; and the week of December 26, the week between Christmas and the new year, there were 70.
Then we get into the new year, and as March break approaches, anyone who deals with passports knows that activity will increase exponentially. So far this year, in the week of January 2, there were 160 processed; the week of January 9 there were 322; the week of January 16 there were 314; the week of January 23 there were 372; and the list goes on. The week of February 6, there were up to 349 passports being processed in the Service Canada office in Sault Ste. Marie. That is a lot of work.
When someone has to sit down with each one of those individuals, work through the application process, explain all the things that need to be filled out, send them off sometimes to have pictures taken or find someone to be a guarantor or whatever, it is very time consuming and difficult work, and the workers want to do it correctly. That was added on top of the work they already do.
For example, the Service Canada office in my riding, now with a reduced number of people, is being asked to process ever-expanding numbers of EI claims, applications for Canada pension, Canada pension disability, old age security, the guaranteed income supplement, social insurance numbers, boat licensing, common experience payments, employment programs, job banks, et cetera. Summer is now approaching, a time when Service Canada will be dealing with youth employment and all the work that goes with that.
What I am saying this morning is that the we in the NDP can support this in principle, but we will not support it if we do not see some commitment from the government to actually deal with the problems that already exist in the Service Canada offices across the country, so that if this happens, it does not just load on top of those workers more work that is extremely difficult to do and requires a level of involvement that does not exist already.
I would like to suggest a friendly amendment to this private member's motion, as was done with the Bloc, which the NDP agrees with, concerning the existing Service Canada offices that deliver passport services across the country, that we include Service Canada offices in communities that are at international borders. That would be really important.
Madam Speaker, I move:
That the amendment be amended by adding the words “and all international border communities” after the words Service Centers.
I would ask the member if she would be agreeable to a friendly amendment of that nature, which I would like to move at this time.
If it is not accepted as a friendly amendment, and if this private member's motion, which we are supporting in principle, is successful and moves on to committee, we will be bringing this amendment to that committee to have it discussed further.
We will also be bringing to that committee, as we talk about this, the very difficult challenges that face those who work in Service Canada offices right now without the imposition of a full-fledged Passport Canada requirement on them.