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Passport applicants prepare to spend two nights outside Montreal office


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MONTREAL — After spending the night outside a downtown Montreal federal building, Christian Bourque said Tuesday he expected to have to wait another night before getting a chance to renew his daughter’s passport.

Bourque was one of dozens of people — many of whom had flights within 48 hours — who were camped out hoping to renew travel documents for themselves or a child. Bourque, who was trying to renew his 15-year-old daughter’s passport, arrived in line on Monday and said he thought he would be able to enter the office by Wednesday.

“We haven’t seen our son for a year, he lives in Portugal,” Bourque said in an interview. “My youngest daughter needs a new passport. We sent them the request about two and a half months ago — they said it will take about 20 working days and here we are almost three months later.”

By early afternoon around 60 people were waiting outside the federal building and dozens more had left empty chairs to hold their places in line.

Since April, long lines have been reported at passport offices across the country amid a surge in applications and renewals.

Dave Mustaikis said he arrived at the office around 2 p.m. on Monday.

He was lucky. He received an appointment for the following day — after spending the night outside.

“It will be alright if I get my passport in the end,” he said.

Inside the building, around two dozen waited in the foyer, hoping to speak with passport officials.

Florent Cohen, who had been waiting since shortly after 4 a.m., said he was told he needed to come to the office 48 hours before his departure to use the emergency procedure to get a passport for his four-month-old son.

Cohen, who wants to introduce his parents — who live in France — to his newborn, said passport officials have been unhelpful.

“They didn’t provide us any answer on what’s going on, what to do next,” he said, adding that he’s frustrated by “the lack of communication and explanations about the procedure.”

In Ottawa, Families Minister Karina Gould said the delays, which she had earlier described as “unacceptable,” are the result of the high volume of passport applications.

“I completely understand and get the frustration of Canadians on this,” she told reporters. “Passports (are) something that a lot of people haven’t had to worry about in the past, but because of the high volume that we received over the past couple of months, it’s putting a big strain on the system.”

Gould’s department is responsible for Service Canada, which processes passport applications. She said 600 people have been hired since January and another 600 people have been transferred from other government departments.

But Kevin King, president of Union of National Employees, which represents employees at passport offices, said the additional workers aren’t able to authenticate passports because they didn’t go through the 12-week training program. The work that the transferred employees do has to be validated by a passport officer, he said.

“Pulling people from other government departments to assist with things like traffic flow and stuff like that, with queues at offices, does not solve the problem,” he said in an interview Thursday.

King said he’s worried about the lack of civility from some people waiting for their passports.

“There have been examples in Montreal … where employees have been jostled, verbally harassed,” he said, adding that some of that harassment has taken place as workers are leaving their offices.

In downtown Toronto, about 10 people waited in line outside the passport office on Tuesday afternoon, a couple of hours before it was scheduled to close for the day. David Sumantry had been waiting in line for about an hour, the second last person to get a spot before security started to turn people away.

“I got really lucky,” he said. “I sort of feel like people are just sort of resigned to this. They’ve heard about it in the news and everything and are just like, ‘This is what we have to deal with,’ but nobody is excited for sure.”

In Montreal, Bourque said he doesn’t understand how the government didn’t plan for the increase in passport applications.

“There’s something a bit Soviet about the surroundings,” he said. “I don’t understand how this could happen in Canada.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 21, 2022.

— With files from Jordan Omstead in Toronto.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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Court martial planned for soldier who criticized vaccine mandate, led march to Ottawa

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By Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa

The Canadian soldier who recently led a protest march to Ottawa is now facing a court martial for having spoken out against the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine requirements while wearing his uniform.

Warrant Officer James Topp was recently notified that he will be allowed to have his case heard in a military court instead of by his chain of command, according to the army reservist’s civilian lawyer.

Phillip Millar says the decision represents a second about-face after the military initially offered his client a court martial when he was charged in February, only to rescind the offer and send his case to Topp’s unit commanders.

“It’s hard to know what they’re doing, because I don’t think they really know what they’re doing,” said Millar. “But now they’re saying it’s a court martial.”

The decision raises the stakes for Topp, according to military law experts, as courts martial are allowed to impose heavier sentences against Armed Forces members than if they are tried by their chain of command in what is known as a summary trial.

Yet it also means he will be allowed to have legal representation at trial, which wouldn’t have necessarily been the case if he was tried by his commanding officer, while his trial will receive much more public attention.

“The stakes are obviously going to be increased in a public-relations context,” said retired lieutenant-colonel Rory Fowler, who is now a lawyer specializing in military law in Kingston, Ont.

The Department of National Defence did not respond to questions about whether Topp’s case was changed from a court martial to summary trial and back again.

Topp was charged in February with two counts of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline after the army reservist appeared in uniform in two online videos criticizing vaccine requirements for military personnel and other federal employees.

Canadian Armed Forces members are severely restricted in the comments they can make while in uniform, particularly when it comes to criticizing government policies, in large part to protect the military from any perception of politicization.

Topp, who is now in the process of being released from the military, later led a months-long march from Vancouver that ended in Ottawa last week and was supported by many of the same organizers as this year’s “Freedom Convoy.”

He has since become a symbol of sorts for Canadians opposed to vaccines, vaccine mandates and perceived government overreach. Some Conservative MPs have also hitched their wagon to him, including leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre.

While Millar questioned the military’s back and forth with his client, and said he planned to question the way Topp’s charges were handled, he nonetheless welcomed the latest decision to allow a court martial.

That is because Topp will now be allowed to have a lawyer present during his trial, where Millar said he plans to call expert witnesses to question the need and efficacy of the military’s vaccine requirement.

The requirement imposed by chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre late last year remains in place even though a similar mandate for most other federal public servants has now been suspended.

“It opens the door for us to call witnesses about the decision to charge him,” Millar said. “It opens the door for us to call experts on whether or not there was any science behind the mandate.”

While the shift from a summary trial back to a court martial means Topp will be afforded an independent trial with legal representation, Fowler said it also means the army reservist faces potentially stiffer penalties if convicted.

Under a summary trial, commanding officers are largely restricted to handing down reprimands and fines. If he is found guilty by court martial, however, Topp faces the threat of dismissal from the military with disgrace and up to two years in prison.

Retired colonel Michel Drapeau said while there may be a number of reasons why the military opted to change the case from a summary trial back to a court martial, he believed the latter was the appropriate venue for hearing Topp’s case.

“It provides for a trial in an open court with all Charter legal guarantees,” Drapeau said in an email. “It also provides for the provision of free legal support to the member.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2022.

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Tamara Lich breached conditions by appearing with fellow convoy leader: Crown

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By Erika Ibrahim in Ottawa

The Crown is seeking to revoke bail for Tamara Lich, a leader of the “Freedom Convoy,” after she appeared alongside a fellow organizer in an alleged breach of her conditions.

Lich was charged in February with mischief, obstructing police, counselling others to commit mischief and intimidation for her role in the massive protest against COVID-19 restrictions that gridlocked downtown Ottawa for more than three weeks.

She was released the next month with a long list of conditions, including an order not to communicate with key convoy organizers except through counsel or in the presence of counsel. She was also banned from using all social media.

Crown prosecutor Moiz Karimjee told an Ottawa court on Tuesday that Lich breached one of her conditions by being seen with fellow protest leader Tom Marazzo at a recent gala, where she accepted an award for organizing the protest.

He argued that she should be detained.

Lich’s lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, said he will contest the revocation of Lich’s bail and seek her release with conditions.

Ottawa police Det. Chris Benson, who is the lead on Lich’s case, told the court he reviewed video of Lich and Marazzo appearing together at the awards gala.

Greenspon asked Benson if he knew of any other evidence that Lich and Marazzo communicated before or after the brief interaction in the video, which took place in “less than three seconds.”

He asked the detective if he was aware that some lawyers from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms were present, some of whom are acting as her lawyers in civil matters.

Benson said he believed a photograph showing Lich, Marazzo and others posing together at the award ceremony shows that she breached her conditions due to her physical closeness to him.

Lich monitored the hearing remotely from an Ontario detention centre, watching on video conference and listening in from a cellphone, her blond hair in a high bun.

Both Marazzo and Lich were key spokespeople of the winter convoy protest. Marazzo is also a leader of a group called Veterans 4 Freedom, which staged several rallies in Ottawa over the Canada Day weekend.

Police sought a Canada-wide arrest warrant for Lich for the alleged breach of her bail conditions and she was arrested last week in Medicine Hat, Alta., where she lives.

Benson said he oversaw Lich’s transport from Alberta to Ottawa after she was arrested.

Lich’s surety, whose identity is protected by a court-ordered publication ban, said they became aware of the photo of Lich and Marazzo a few days after the event, and immediately contacted Lich about it out of concern that a possible violation of bail conditions took place.

The surety explained that Lich assured them that legal counsel was present at the gala.

Greenspon pointed out the evidence brought against Lich to argue she broke the bail condition consists of a very brief congratulatory interaction between her and Marazzo, adding lawyers approved the photo and were just off-camera.

He argued Benson didn’t provide any evidence that contradicted the terms of the bail conditions.

“These actions were so minimal as to amount to not being prosecuted, let alone convicted,” he said.

The purpose of the bail condition was not to preclude the brief interaction and photo that took place, Greenspon said — rather, it was to prevent a similar event to the one that took place in Ottawa earlier this year. He argued the interactions in question do not risk reoffence.

The matter should have been brought to a judicial referral hearing or some other recourse rather than the Canada-wide warrant that has led to Lich being detained for nine days, he said, noting an email showing the Crown sought the expansion from an initial Ontario-wide warrant.

Justice of the Peace Paul Harris reserved his decision until the next court appearance on Friday.

Lich is charged for her role in the “Freedom Convoy” along with a co-accused, Chris Barber, who remains out on bail.

On Tuesday morning, Barber’s lawyer was granted a publication ban on court documents showing Barber’s cellphone communications, except for those with Lich.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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