Canada’s decision to halt passport services during pandemic violated charter, court challenge alleges

The federal government’s decision to halt a significant number of passport services during the pandemic has been challenged in court with allegations that it denies Canadians’ freedom of mobility under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Three women from across Canada are asking the Federal Court to review the decision by Passport Canada to restrict services to applications that officials deem “urgent.”

On March 19, the federal government shut down all Services Canada Centres and Passport Offices due to public health concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.

The Passport Program then adopted an “ad hoc” approach to only accept and process applications for “valid urgent travel reasons.”

“The Charter protects mobility rights and provides that ‘(e)very citizen of Canada has the right to enter, remain in and leave Canada.’ The refusal to accept and process a passport application in a timely manner impairs this constitutional right,” said the court application prepared by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms filed late last month.

“The issuance of a passport is not a privilege to be bestowed on citizens by government when it is convenient. Rather, it’s a necessity for travel in and out of the country.”

The court challenge was initiated by Shelley Baker of New Brunswick, Sonia Faye of Ontario and Diane Smith of Alberta — all three were told to wait until normal processing services resumed to apply for their passports.

Baker, who has health and financial struggles, said she needed a passport to visit her son in the United States, who she said suffers post-traumatic stress disorder due to his service in the American armed forces.

Faye applied for a passport online but was told by a Passport Program staffer that “she should not travel” and “should remain in Canada.” Smith’s passport expired in May and she simply wanted to renew it online.

“There is no statutory objective achieved by continuing to refuse acceptance of passport applications that are not deemed ‘urgent’ enough, and to only process passport applications that are arbitrarily considered to be for ‘valid urgent travel reasons,’” the three women argue in their court application.

On its website, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the department responsible for running the Passport Program, listed what reasons would qualify as “urgent”: medical emergency; deaths and funerals; financial problems; to support an essential service; and humanitarian needs.

However, the reference to the “urgent” travel reasons was removed from the website after the court challenge was served. Instead, officials now say mail-in service has resumed if someone needs a passport in more than 30 days and in-person services are available by appointment if a person needs a passport in less than 30 days.

James Kitchen, lawyer for the Justice Centre, said the court case should not be considered moot despite the partial resumption of the passport services.

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“We hope the court will compel the government to uphold its charter obligation and make a declaration of the rights violation,” Kitchen told the Star. “Nobody wants it to happen again.”

No hearing date has been set. The immigration department has yet to file a response.

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