Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Canadian Passport Blues

I've got the blues and they're definitely Canadian.

This all started with the realization that I will soon have to apply for a new Canadian passport. One wouldn't think that this should cause too much anxiety, and it didn't, until fairly recently.

There was a time, when the Canadian Embassy was still on Hayarkon Street by the Mediterranean Sea, that getting a new passport was quite a simple affair. There was a simple form to fill out and the photo could be taken almost anywhere. I remember walking into the embassy and informing the person at the desk that I had come to apply for a new passport. She phoned upstairs and soon a kind elderly lady appeared. We sat down on two comfortable chairs and she went over my application. She seemed surprised that everything was filled out so properly, as she said most people were always missing things. But she didn't realize that an OCD like me would have gone over the form countless times before submitting it, even then sneaking a few peeks at the completed form on the way to the Embassy.

So, I didn't expect any problems when I helped my son apply for his first Canadian passport many years later. After helping him fill out the form, I printed out the photo instructions, which had now become quite detailed and were only in English, and told him to go over them with the photographer at the photo studio in Beer Sheva. When he brought the photos to me, I checked them and everything looked alright. Armed with the completed form, guarantor signature and photos, I headed out for the long two and a half hour journey to Tel Aviv. By now the embassy had left its cosy location by the sea and was perched high above in a sterile, modern building close by the Nokia (Yad Eliyahu) Arena. Gone were the comfortable chairs and friendly lady, and instead I was ushered into a small, bare room where a rather stern and haggard individual stared at me from the other side of a heavy glass window. He motioned to a small turntable in front of me. I placed the form and photos there and he swung them over to his side. He barely glanced at the form, as he went directly for the photos. By this time I was pulling out the money for payment, still totally unaware as to what was to come.
"Not so fast," he said.
"What?" I asked, looking up, just a little perturbed by the ominous sound of his voice.
"These are no good," he said, shoving the photos back onto the turntable and swinging them back to me.
I had never suffered rejection before from a Canadian official (from Israeli, yes, many times), so my response was one of surprise and consternation.
"Why not?" I asked feebly, picking up the photo and scrutinizing it again. I knew the measurements were right. There were no shadows to be seen. Noam wasn't smiling. His profile was facing straight at the camera, totally in focus. The photo paper was right, and there was a clear white background. What was I missing?
"His mouth isn't closed," he said.
The man gestured to the photo. I looked back down at it.
"It looks closed to me," I said.
"His lips aren't together."
I looked at the photo again. There was the slightest gap between his upper and lower lip, just enough to let him breathe. I shook my head and looked up at him with a beseeching look, thinking back to the long journey there.
"You're rejecting it just because of that?" I asked, trying to keep my voice calm.
"Yes," he said, "It's my job to be sure that everything is in order. I know that they won't accept this, so there's no point in my accepting it."
My Israeli side urged me to stand up and scream, but I told myself that he was just doing his job, and being the good Canadian I was, I packed up my things and left. I stopped short of telling him I was sorry, though.  My Israeli side just wouldn't allow me to become that Canadian again.

So my son went through the whole photo taking process again and brought me back the new photo. This time his lips were so closely pressed together that it looked as if they were stuck together with super glue. But the embassy accepted the new photo and that was all that was important.

Wondering if others had gone through a similar experience, or if they were just picking on me (did I mention paranoia in addition to my OCD?), I checked the forums where I discovered tales of  faint ghostly shadows visible only to passport personnel, profiles slightly off centre, and philosophical discussions about what constituted a smile (Mona Lisa definitely would have never been awarded a Canadian passport). If I had thought this was solely an expat issue, I soon discovered that even people who had their passport photos taken by reputable photo studios in Canada, had had their photos rejected. There was even a well-known Canadian photo chain which promised to take your passport photos again for free if they were rejected by the passport office. Note that they didn't guarantee getting it right the first time.

So, a year later when it was time to apply for a new passport for myself, I was understandably on edge. I don't handle rejection well, and wasn't sure I could go through it again. So I decided to write my English Teachers network mailing list, asking if anyone knew of a photography studio in the south of Israel that could take a proper Canadian passport photo. I didn't get any suggestions at first, but I did receive a slew of passport horror stories. One man even had to have his passport photo taken five times in Beer Sheva until it was finally accepted at the Canadian embassy. And then finally someone told me about a small photo studio in Raanana that was recommended to her by a friend at the embassy. Raanana is close to a three hour drive from my home in the desert, and  you may think me crazy to even consider driving all the way there for a passport photo, but I didn't have to be told twice.

Why do they do this to us then? Why do Canadians, who are generally thought to be polite, apologetic and down to earth – adopt such bureaucracy? Getting an Israeli passport is a much simpler process, even though Israeli security concerns are much greater. Are the Mounties behind all this?

I guess I shouldn't underestimate parted lips and a smile. You never know where they will lead. And it could be much worse, as in the case of my grandniece, who had to get a passport when she wasn't even one month old. My nephew and his wife were taking her with them to his brother's wedding in Chicago. And they had to get the passport process expedited in order to get to the wedding on time. Look at the advice given by a baby site, regarding the taking of the passport photo:

"Your baby can't sit up let alone keep her mouth closed and eyes open on demand. Passport Canada requires a full front view of your baby's head and shoulders but your hands or arms may not be seen. Try dressing your baby in a sweater so you can crouch below her out of frame and hold her up with your hand under her clothes. Another suggestion is to lay your baby on a large piece of white paper and have the photographer stand on a stool and take the picture from above."

Are you still with me, or have you turned to drink? There was mention, though, that Passport Canada might be somewhat lenient regarding the expression of a newborn. Whew! At least that. And just when we thought that it couldn't get any worse, they were informed that the expedition process would take an extra day. Why? Now put your glass back down and get ready for this… the passport office had to perform a security check on the less than one month old baby. (And we bad-mouth the Americans.)

Anyway, I had hoped that my talking about this would lessen the anxiety. But no, I can still sense it eating away, fueled by the image of a stern official studying my photo with disdain. Maybe I should just travel on my Israeli passport, eh?


  1. they may be getting silly about passports but Canada is still one of Israel's best friends.

  2. If you had stayed in Scarborough you wouldn't have had any of these problems. Mind you you could have been shot or stabbed very easily here so on due reflection it may be safer in the Israeli desert. I just look at what I wrote and it is truly terrifying.

  3. I'm with you. I also resent the overzealousness of the "present day officials" who are barely polite. My "unacceptable photo" due to slightly parted lips was tossed back. Not only did I dislike the rejection but I was quite angry because of the very smug attitude of the official. I looked at every other Canadian passport I had kept and I had a big smile. I guess there's no reason to be happy if you're an ex-patriate wanting to travel home for a visit. I just travelled on my Israeli passport and a customs official there told me to bring my old Canadian passport even if it's outdated because Israeli passports are easily faked.As for Gayle's response, I think some Canadians might want to travel to other countries as well, and a half smile never used to be bad PR.

  4. Dear David
    I read your blog entry about renewing your Canadian passport, and empathize with you. I want to say that the reputation of the embassy employees is not very positive, and you are not the only one who feels the requirements are ridiculous. Why should someone who has held a Canadian passport for years and years need a guarantor and two references?
    Yesterday I finally got everything together, went to Tel Aviv(2 hours on the bus) ,and got there only to find that the embassy was closed. It seems that although the internet site says that the embassy is open from 8:30-4:30, the consular office is only open until 12- but of course that little fact is not mentioned on the main page.
    At least I was able to take advantage of the big city and visit my daughter, so the day was not wasted.
    Ahh the joys of being an expat!

  5. I went through a similar thing getting my passport - my birth certificate and photos were rejected in round one! Then I got a new b/c and reapplied - they then rejected my new photos and then requested a 3rd ID (which only two are required - I used my Ontario Drivers License and birth certificate - then had to send my Israeli license in as well. Then they rejected my 3rd attempt at passport photo - I didn't even bother taking pictures again here - I got them done at a walmart in Toronto shortly after on a trip (which I flew in on my Israeli passport). Then I resent it and they accepted it - 4th time a charm. It took over a year to get the passport going through the mail from Beersheva.

    Now I've hired an immigration firm to handle my kids citizenship papers which is as "simple" as getting a new passport - but I'm not prepared to venture down that road all on my own -so I'm paying a pro! But I still don't have where to get good photos for my kids in Beersheva. I would appreciate any help if anyone knows a good passport photo place in Beersheva that has been successful in getting CDN passport photos done!

  6. I still make the long drive to Raanana to get Canadian passports taken. (I live about 45 minutes south of Beer Sheva.) After having photos taken there a number of times (for passports for myself and my children) with no problems - I came to the conclusion that the long drive is worth it.

    I go to "Zion Photo", 100 Achuza Street, Raanana.
    Telephone: 09-7601808
    (best to phone first to make sure that the person who knows how to do this is there, before making the long drive)

    I put the word out and tried to find a good place in Beer Sheva for taking Canadian Passport photos, but never found one.

  7. Just re-read this, David. I'm experiencing Canadian Passport Photo Jitters, so I haven't yet renewed my passport which expired months ago. I'll be making my way to Raanana soon.

    1. I also haven't renewed my Canadian Passport which expired a few months ago. I have been trying to psyche myself up to go through the process again. Let me know how it goes.

  8. SInce I was the person to recommend Ra'anana, I can now tell you that I have also hit jackpot in Ariel. I'm sure, David, you'll be happy to drive there. But, if you go on the FB group "Former Torontonians Living in Israel", you can get ask and get an updated list of places to go, all over the country. You would think that with the Anglo community in Beer Sheva someone there would know what to do.

  9. Laughing out loud. What a pleasurable read about such an unpleasurable topic. A friend sent me the link to this post after I was kvetching on facebook about our applications being rejected due to Israeli-sized photos, among other things.
    We also have no guarantor for our 8-year-old because WE HAVE ONLY LIVED HERE FOR 3 MONTHS!!! (shoulda renewed before our aliyah visas went in, but once they were in, we were stuck; at least we didn't get caught in this summer's Israeli consulate strike)
    Of course, an 8-year-old is a much bigger security risk than a newborn, so I can understand the paranoia. Luckily, for $50 extra, we can fill out a Declaration in Lieu of Guarantor in the consulate, but the clerk wouldn't let us do it while we were THERE today and let us mail it back in when we have good photos (we live north of Haifa).
    She was nice enough to note that she saw both parents, so now only ONE parent needs to make the return journey with the 8-year-old... but I cannot do it next Wednesday when I have to go to the airport anyway because they're closed on Wednesdays.
    They have totally taken a lesson from the Israelis all around them, right down to people cutting you off in line! Not a shred of Canadian feeling in the office, despite the cheesy "Canadian landscapes" DVD playing on a constant loop in the waiting room.
    What a rinky-dink operation. I am seriously disappointed.
    (my hopes soared when I saw the beautiful shiny building that says "Canada House" on the outside... but then the guard inside muttered "koma revi'it" the minute he saw us and we got shuffled into the glorified closet that is our nation's presence here.
    Have added you to my Adventures in AliyahLand blogroll. :-)

    1. Thanks for sharing your own experience and for adding me to Adventures in AliyahLand, which I have been reading and find quite interesting. Let's hope that our Canadian bureaucracy makes things easier over time. Some things have been made easier since the writing of this blog entry, which can be seen in a later entry - Canadian Passport Blues Revisited - but we still have a long way to go.

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  11. Hi David,

    I came across you blog in a search for complaints against the Canadian Consulate in Tel Aviv. Here's a doozy for you to chew on :)
    My son-in-law (also named David) is an Israeli-born Canadian who had a certificate of citizenship issued in 1979, in the old card form. Last year, when he applied for a new passport, he also had the new certificate in the letter form issued in Tel Aviv. In the process, they confiscated his old card, telling him it was no longer needed.
    Now, he has moved to Canada and tried to apply for a SIN, for which you need - you guessed - a certificate of citizenship. He proudly presented his Tel Aviv issued certificate and they said: "it's no good, there's no identifying information on the backside of it. Where's you original card?"
    So, calling into the Consulate long distance, they refused to help or even suggest a remedy. The person at the other end of the line was rude and short with him. As it turns out (upon further research), they had no right to keep his original card since it was still in effect and undamaged.
    We now don't know what the end will be. He expects to be offered a job soon but may have to refuse it because of the Consulate's error. It may take him months to have the certificate reprinted, at additional cost and loss of income. All because a lazy and incompetent person at the Consulate didn't do her job and refuses to acknowledge it.

    1. That is one of the most difficult things - the lack of accountability. Anyone can make a mistake, but they add insult to injury when they aren't even willing to admit their mistake or refuse to rectify it. I hope this gets worked out soon for your son-in-law and let's also hope that we can expect more responsible service from Canadian government officials in the future.