OTTAWA (CP) - Documents, please!
That famous demand - traditionally spat in some clipped foreign accent to signal the dramatic turning point in an espionage thriller - takes on new meaning at a Canadian airport near you, starting Tuesday.
That's the day every Canadian heading to the United States by air must carry a valid passport, or hold one of the special Nexus Air cards reserved for frequent travellers.
The U.S.-mandated policy shift marks the formal end to a happy-go-lucky era of casual cross-border traffic between North America's intertwined trading partners.
It's causing huge headaches as tens of thousands of Canadians stampede to government offices to make sure they're properly documented for U.S. travel.
"We are in a very unique, exceptional situation right now," Francine Charbonneau, a spokeswoman for Passport Canada, said in an interview.
"Our infrastructure is under a great deal of pressure."
Just ask Marie Mason.
The resident of Rocky Mountain House, Alta., drove 3½ hours this week to hand-deliver her passport application to Edmonton, the only passport office in northern Alberta.
After almost five hours standing in a line that snaked about 100 metres through Edmonton's main federal office building, Mason was wondering if she'd have to get a hotel room in the city for the night.
Some in the Edmonton lineup arrived at 5:45 a.m. to wait outside in the cold, dark dawn for the passport office's 8:15 a.m. opening.
"I think this is stupid," Mason said. "I thought we were supposed to have free trade with the U.S. We are supposed to be allies, but I don't think we are."
The American law, called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, has been in the works for years, and became a fait accompli in November when the final implementation date of Jan. 23 was announced.
The air travel component is the first stage of a two-part implementation that will add a passport requirement for all land and sea travellers to the United States no later than June 2009.
In response, Canadian passport applications in November shot up by almost 90,000 to 355,474, an increase of 33 per cent over November 2005, according to Charbonneau.
December applications were up 31 per cent over the same month in 2005 to 322,085, and January applications are following the same trend.
Despite adding 200 frontline staff in the autumn, Passport Canada - a self-funding, stand-alone agency under the Department of Foreign Affairs - hit the breaking point early this month.
Delays began in earnest on Jan. 8, said Charbonneau. Prior to that, getting a passport usually took about 10 business days if you applied in person and 20 business days if you applied by mail.
"Now you can add five to 20 business days on top of those," she said.
Lineups at Canada's 33 full-service passport offices have grown accordingly, but vary widely by region.
That's in part because passport offices, and more than 90 application "receiving agents" located at select postal outlets and government offices, are not evenly distributed across the country. All the locations are listed by province on the Passport Canada website (www.ppt.gc.ca (external - login to view)).
Booming Alberta has just four outlets, including a receiving agent in Fort McMurray's post office. Tiny P.E.I. has three outlets, and Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have five each. Ontario has more than 50 and Quebec has 27.
The wait at the downtown Ottawa passport office was barely an hour this week, and applicants at a downtown Toronto office last week waited about two hours.
"There has to be a more efficient system than this," said Les Lumley, an Edmontonian who took the day off work to wait in line for more than four hours to get a passport for a business trip to North Carolina.
"Why don't they have more passport offices?"
Fabian Lengelle, a Passport Canada spokesman, says Ontario currently accounts for 42 per cent of the total passport applications and Alberta just 10 per cent, which explains some of the disparity.
But the number of applicants in Alberta has skyrocketed in the past three years by more than 100,000 annually, and Passport Canada's infrastructure just hasn't kept up in the province, he said.
"We are definitely studying this issue."
A government employee in Edmonton, who declined to be named, said passport office staff were getting an earful.
"Some people are very irate and are under a lot of stress," said the employee.
"The staff don't make the rules and are doing the best they can."
Passport Canada is encouraging people to mail in their applications and, despite the current backlog, is not telling Canadians to wait to apply.
"I don't think it's wise to go stand in a lineup if you don't need that passport right away," said Charbonneau.
"But those delays might get higher and higher, so if you don't want to risk suddenly having a trip that might constitute an emergency to you, it's wise to have your passport."
Depending on your location, you can have applications checked by a receiving agent if you're unsure of the procedure. The agent then forwards the application to Passport Canada. Charbonneau also says its a good idea to have your passport photo taken by a professional, because the photo rules are strict.
Emergency passports can still be issued in as little as 24 hours, but Charbonneau reminds applicants that a last-minute deal on a Florida vacation package won't make the grade.
"We're talking more about a death in the family, an illness in the family and you need to get somewhere. It's up to the passport officer's discretion to decide what constitutes an emergency."
While the hassle for Canadian travellers is currently top of mind, the law also applies to Americans who leave their country and return by air.
Considering only 28 per cent of U.S. citizens have a passport - compared to about 40 per cent of Canadians - there is widespread fear the law will discourage American tourist travel.
The U.S. State Department said this week that 250,000 new U.S. passports are being issued each week, adding to the 73 million valid ones already out there.
That doesn't alleviate the concerns of Randy Williams, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada.
Williams said tourist operators have been hurt by the new U.S. law already, and will continue to suffer for several years.
"People are confused about it, that's a fact," he said.
"All the research shows that people on both sides of the border don't know what the rules are, or will be."
A report by the Conference Board of Canada suggests the rule change will cost Canada some 14 million U.S. visitors and $3.6 billion in lost tourism revenues between 2005 and 2010.
Confusion among would-be American travellers has already cost Canada's tourist industry $1.6 billion over the past two years, said the report.
Canadian businesses that deal with cross-border traffic have been trying to get the message out.
WestJet, for instance, has a warning pop up on its website as soon as a person searches for flights to the United States. The warning links to information on the passport requirements.
The tourism association unsuccessfully lobbied to have Canada Customs officials hand out information flyers to travellers over the past year - the way yellow warning sheets were delivered to travellers during, and well after, the SARS health crisis in 2003.
"We've known about this passport thing for 2½ years," said Williams.
"It would have been very easy to give out handouts at Customs offices right across the country on both sides of the border, just letting people know."
At this point, it's too late for that.
The U.S. State Department says it doesn't foresee a problem come Tuesday, since 96 per cent of Canadian air travellers to the United States in the first week of January were already carrying passports.
But the rush at Passport Canada offices indicates there are still thousands of would-be Canadian travellers who need proper travel documents.
The new era is upon us.
The number of full-service Passport Canada offices and receiving agent outlets, by province, across Canada:
Ontario: 53 (13 full-service offices, 40 receiving agent outlets).
Quebec: 27 (seven offices, 20 outlets).
British Columbia: 9 (four offices, five outlets).
New Brunswick: 5 (one office, four outlets).
Nova Scotia: 5 (one office, four outlets).
Northwest Territories: 5 (five outlets).
Alberta: 4 (three offices, one outlet).
Manitoba: 4 (one office, three outlets).
Saskatchewan: 4 (two offices, two outlets).
Newfoundland and Labrador: 3 (one office, two outlets).
Prince Edward Island: 3 (three outlets).
Nunavut: 3 (three outlets).
Yukon: 1 (outlet).
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