Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to the motion introduced by the member for Brossard—La Prairie. Since I was elected, passports and how they are processed have been a huge part of what my constituency office does. One of the main issues raised by my constituents is the need for more passport-issuing centres in northern Ontario.
First, let us look at the current state of affairs with regard to passport services at my constituency office in Sudbury. Right now, my constituency office in Sudbury processes hundreds of passports each month. In fact, my office alone has processed approximately 1,600 applications since December 2008. This is about 70 passports a week on average. Finally, it holds the record for number of passports processed in one week, nearly 200 immediately after the Christmas holidays.
In addition to this massive volume of passport applications, my office in Sudbury also receives about a dozen inquiries a week from people who have had problems or need updates on passports not sent through our office. Often, there are major problems with these applications. With the limited resources our office has, this can be detrimental to the other important work that my office undertakes.
I will now discuss some of the major concerns that I have with the current situation regarding the issuing of passport services. With the massive number of applications processed each day and the often problematic nature of some of them, the resources of our offices are diverted from the important task of helping constituents with other federal issues.
My riding office, in particular, is experiencing a massive increase in the amount of constituents coming through the door, looking for more information on their EI claims, for example: the nearly 700 Xstrata workers who were laid off earlier this year and the 168 Vale Inco workers who were laid off less than a month afterwards, because of the government's caving in to corporate interests and their refusal to uphold an agreement under the Investment Canada Act; the CBC employees laid off in Sudbury, Thunder Bay and other parts of northern Ontario, because the Conservative government did not approve any bridge funding to save northern Ontario's voice; and hundreds of other people from northern Ontario and Sudburians who do not qualifying for EI under the flawed system the Liberal government set up and the Conservative government refuses to amend.
My constituents are entitled to get the help they need with their EI claims at my office. They should not be prevented from receiving these services because my office is busy making up for the lack of passport resources in northern Ontario. My constituents are also entitled to get the information and assistance they need in understanding and receiving their Canada pension plan.
The unfortunate cost of processing the enormous volume of passport applications is that a large share of the constituency staff time and resources are diverted away from assisting constituents and other urgent difficulties.
I want to be quite clear. I am in no way opposed to helping my constituents with their passport applications. However, this is not the only role of a member of Parliament. As I previously stated, there are several other areas that require the attention and assistance of an MP's constituency office. My fear is that these different areas of assistance, such as EI claims, pension enquiries and retraining options, are not as looked after as they could be due to the volume of passport applications.
First, let me address what has already been accomplished on the issue of passport services. At this point, I must give credit to my colleague for Sault Ste. Marie, who has been on this issue from the start of his tenure as a member of Parliament. The member has persistently asked 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. The member for Sault Ste. Marie has often suggested that a new passport office should be opened in Sault Ste. Marie, as the city is an international border community.
The member continues to press for a full passport office. He has raised the question in question period, in the House of Commons statements, through several ministry and community meetings and in the petition campaign. In fact, the member is responsible for an amendment that was accepted by the author of the motion, regarding the inclusion of Service Canada offices in communities that are at international borders, like the city of Sault Ste. Marie.
The northern Ontario team of New Democrats is united in improving passport services, not only in my riding of Sudbury, but in ridings all across northern Ontario that are suffering from a lack of passport-issuing offices.
It is clear more staff have to be hired and more resources given to employees who are currently run off their feet with all the government business now done by Service Canada.
I will address the potential future challenges that will exist should the House not adopt this motion.
The most unfortunate reality of this situation is that for the next short while the volume of passport applications processed by the constituency offices all across northern Ontario and Canada will only become worse. Why, may one ask? The amount of passport applications will multiply due to the implementation of the western hemisphere travel initiative on June 1.
As of June 1, all Canadian citizens entering the United States by land or water will be required to present documents to obtain entry, mainly a passport. What is the western hemisphere travel initiative? This western hemisphere travel initiative is a U.S. law that requires all travellers, including U.S. and Canadian citizens, to present a valid passport or other approved secure document when entering the United States from within the western hemisphere.
The new document requirements were implemented for air travel in January 2007. Final document requirements for those seeking to enter the United States at land or water ports of entry will take effect on June 1, 2009.
Due to the nature of the WHTI, it will not be enough to have passport services at all Service Canada outlets. Staff at Service Canada are already delivering numerous services: employment insurance, CPP, CPP disability, old age security, guaranteed income security, social insurance numbers, Canada summer jobs, boat licences, common experience or residential school payments, employment programs, job banks and more.
This is a bad situation. In essence, Service Canada outlets with limited resources will only get worse if we do not help them. What is needed, as my colleague from Sault Ste. Marie rightfully raised in his amendment, is passport services at all regional Service Canada outlets in addition to service at international border crossing sites, like the city of Sault Ste. Marie.
With passport services not only at regional Service Canada outlets, but also international border crossing sites, the sizeable amount of passport requests would be shared among a large number of offices, improving the overall effectiveness of the service. This would mean less overworked employees, more time with each application and, down the road, less problems and complications with passport applications.
When many individuals point out that northern Ontarians can go with one or two passport offices, one in Thunder Bay and another in Toronto, I find that insulting. Toronto is nowhere near practical for constituents in my riding who would need to drive four hours to get their passport services. Thunder Bay is even more ridiculous at close to 12 hours away.
I will now explore the bigger issue that has been raised by my colleague from Sault Ste. Marie, which is the already thin nature of the resources at Service Canada centres.
The New Democrats are supportive of this bill in principle as it would address a very large issue for many residents in my riding. It would provide an opportunity to engage in a dialogue with 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.
The spirit of this motion is supportable as an interim measure in that it would be a step toward full passport operations in the northern Ontario region. It would make the current overburdening situation in my northern constituency office significantly less than it is currently. 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, of which a northern Ontario office would be in my riding of Sudbury, but that Service Canada offices now delivering these services would have a full-fledged passport service in place in those offices.
In conclusion, the New Democrats are in favour of any motion that would seek to improve passport services administered by Service Canada. However, if no commitment is seen from the government to deal with the problems raised regarding the limited resources Service Canada currently has, many of which have been addressed throughout this debate, it will do little to solve the problem at the heart of this motion.