Travellers who lost money and missed out on important occasions because of errors at Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) say the government should compensate them for their losses.
The government’s eTA (Electronic Travel Authorization) system was out of operation from June 8 to June 10. As a consequence, many passengers who had paid for flights and had their documents in order — including some who were merely transiting through Canada on their way to other destinations — were prevented from boarding.
The eTA costs $7 and is required of all international travellers who hold passports from visa-waiver countries such as Mexico, Australia and New Zealand and much of the European Union — countries whose residents aren’t required to obtain visas to visit Canada.
The system crash happened because IRCC did not adequately prepare for the surge in applications that followed the expansion of the eTA system to include 13 new countries with a combined population of over a quarter of a billion people.
“We did foresee a significant surge in demand,” Immigration minister Sean Fraser said in response to a question from CBC News, “but it exceeded our expectations.”
Fraser said IRCC received up to 25,000 eTA applications a day after the expansion, “disproportionately from the Philippines.”
IRCC’s failure to anticipate the surge in demand echoes its failure to foresee surging demand for passports after pandemic travel restrictions were lifted.
Fraser said the portal is now fixed and he’s confident it will be able to handle future demand.
But that fix came too late for many people — including sisters Ana and Gloria Garcia Mendoza, who lost what would have been their first-ever trip outside of their native Mexico.
The two were headed to Vancouver to attend the graduation ceremony of their niece Patricia Gomez Barajas, who was receiving a master’s degree from the University of British Columbia.
‘Abandoned and unheard’
The two women, one of whom recently completed treatment for stage four cancer, drove from their hometown of Sayula, Jalisco, for five hours to Puerto Vallarta to catch a direct flight to Canada. They were prevented from boarding.
The loss of their non-refundable ticket came as a heavy blow to the two, who run their own small flower shop.
They had taken care to complete their eTAs well ahead of flying time, and received a confirmation email from the IRCC on May 30 marked “eTA approved.”
The two women had to pay for overnight accommodation before going home the next day. The experience cost them slightly over $3,000 that they can ill afford to lose, said their niece Patricia Gomez Barajas.
“They both are self-employed and do a lot of informal work and it’s hard for them to amass that kind of money for the tickets,” she said.
“As a family, we have felt abandoned and unheard. IRCC has failed to provide effective communication and support.
“They’re feeling pretty disheartened, and it was a lot of money, and they were already scared of travel and this is like a confirmation for them that they’re not people who travel.”
She said that when she followed instructions to provide feedback through the online portal, she received an automated response that said the wait time for a response was running at 207 days.
Dorothy Barry was also travelling to see family when she left her home in County Cork, Ireland, at the end of last week.
She had reservations on a flight to Calgary to see her brother Michael for their first reunion in eight years.
She said she went to the eTA site and appeared to have completed it successfully, “but when I clicked to transfer to the payment page, nothing happened. And I would say that happened twenty times between Thursday evening at 5 o’clock and when I went to Dublin Airport at 9 o’clock on Friday morning.
“I got up during the night, I was trying it at four in the morning.”
Barry, 69, went to the airport three and a half hours before her flight.
She said that when she explained to WestJet staff that she was having difficulty with the eTA, the woman at the check-in desk at first assumed she was simply not very good with technology. But when staff attempted to get through the eTA site on their own phones on her behalf, they soon realized the problem was in Canada.
‘There has to be a Plan B’
Barry was denied boarding and lost her non-refundable flight. She said WestJet refused to rebook her on the grounds that the same problem was likely to occur again.
She said she had to pay for a one-way ticket via Edmonton that cost 1,179 euros ($1,700 Cdn). She had to pay another 92 euros ($132 Cdn) for her revised return flight.
Barry said she’s not impressed with how the system failed, the absence of a back-up system, and the official refusal to waive the requirement for a document that had become unattainable.
“In Ireland, there’d always be a way around it. You’d be able to look somebody in the eye and they’d say, ‘Look, go on’, and it’d be grand,” she said.
“The person in the Canadian immigration service who extended this to 13 countries without doing a risk assessment should lose their job P-R-O-N-T-O. There has to be a Plan B if electronic systems fail.”
Compensation not ruled out
Fraser didn’t rule out the possibility of IRCC compensating some travellers. He said that his department is gathering information about who was affected and how.
“We don’t yet understand the impact on travellers, to understand those people who’ve actually missed out on opportunities as a result of the system being down, where it was the responsibility of the government, versus a traveller who maybe applied at the last minute,” he said.
“That’s something we don’t yet have a full picture of. So when we come to understand what the consequences may have been for travellers, we’ll be in a better position to understand what solutions we may be able to offer.”
Patricia Gomez Barajas said his words were “good to hear. Some hope.” She has since received an email saying that IRCC is looking into her case.
Dorothy Barry said she would try to recover the money from travel insurance, but as far as she’s concerned, it’s IRCC that should be on the hook.
“The Canadian immigration service, the government of Canada, will pay me sometime in the not too distant future,” she said.