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Visa backlogs force Canadians to cancel trips to India

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It’s 8:30 a.m. on a chilly Friday morning in Surrey, B.C., and a queue of people snakes around a strip mall in the Metro Vancouver suburb.

They’re not here for the mall’s sweet shop or the Filipino fusion restaurant. Most of them have been waiting hours for an Indian visa at the BLS International Visa Application Centre.

A lineup of people snaking around the block of a strip mall.
Dozens of people lined up outside the BLS International Office in Surrey, B.C., on Friday, Nov. 18. It comes amid widespread reports of delays in the Indian visa processing system. (Lyndsay Duncombe/CBC)

Arminder Bajwa is one of hundreds of Indian visa applicants who say backlogs in the system are leaving people like him in limbo as visa applications have spiked amid a drop in global travel restrictions. He’s been here since 5:30 a.m. when temperatures were near zero.

Indian visa applicants are calling for the return of an electronic visa program that allowed online applications and was in place in Canada before the pandemic, as well as more staffing to address reported processing delays across the country.

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“I’ve spent like $8,000 on tickets,” Bajwa says from the queue, surrounded by dozens of others trying to keep warm. “For my sister’s marriage … that’s my sister, and I have to be there because that’s like a tradition.

“That situation, inflation and everything … $8,000,” he repeats.

A Sikh man wearing a turban looks at the camera.
Arminder Bajwa is one of dozens of applicants, some of whom had been lining up outside the visa office since 3 a.m. He’s already booked tickets, which cost him thousands of dollars, so he and his family can go to India. (CBC)

But Bajwa’s passport has been with authorities inside the BLS office for over 17 days, and he’s getting desperate.

Another person in line said they had been waiting over two months — despite the Indian consulate’s stated timeline of 30 days for a visa.

Before the pandemic, applicants like Bajwa had access to an electronic visa application that was entirely virtual, a program that was brought to a halt amid travel shutdowns.

And though the program has been restored to over 156 countries, it hasn’t been restored yet to Canada, despite India’s status as the largest source of new Asian immigrants to Canada since 2016.

The Indian high commissioner-designate, Sanjay Kumar Verma, said that visa applications have spiked to dramatic levels but denied widespread delays.

But a voicemail from BLS International, to which the Indian High Commission has outsourced its visa applications, says that “processing times have been increased.”

The company did not return a request for comment. But an acknowledgement of delays is little consolation for Bajwa and others in his situation.

“The population in Surrey, Metro Vancouver, is ballooning. It’s, like, increasing day by day,” he said. “They need more offices. They need more people.”

Travel agent says e-visa should be restored

Manpreet Grewal, the manager of the My Dream Traveler agency in Mississauga, Ont., says that BLS should consider opening more offices across Canada and Ontario.

She says she’s been hearing of delays in the system for months and has even published multiple TikToks for visa applicants seeking advice.

“These days, there’s only one location in Brampton for the whole GTA,” she told CBC News in an interview.

Currently, there are nine BLS International offices across the country — the only centre that processes applications for Indian visas in Canada. They’re concentrated in the largest urban centres, even as more immigrants make their way to smaller communities. This means those who live away from urban centres either have to mail the BLS centres their documents, or make their way there in person.

Grewal, and the Indian Association of Tour Operators, have called for the e-visa program to return. The program allows those in qualifying countries to fill out the application and get an electronic travel authorization (ETA), before having their e-visa stamped on their passport at their destination.

 

A brown woman types on a computer.
Manpreet Grewal, a travel agent in Mississauga, Ont., has made a number of TikToks with advice for people needing Indian visas. She says it’s difficult to get appointments, even for people who need them immediately because their Indian relatives have died. (CBC)

 

If applicants have Canadian citizenship, even if they’re born in India, they have to get a visa to return, as India doesn’t allow dual citizenship.

“The main reason [for] the delay for the visas is because they are not opening e-visas,” she said.

High commissioner cites strained resources

The high commissioner-designate denied there were significant delays happening across the system, though he conceded there were massive increases in application volumes that had tightened resources.

“If I look at Ottawa … October 2022 [visa] submissions as compared to October 2021, submissions have increased by 605 per cent,” Verma told CBC News in an interview.

He said the comparisons were similar for Vancouver and Toronto, with respective increases of 203 and 188 per cent since last October.

A Zoom screenshot of an Indian man in a suit framed by an Indian and two Canadian flags.
Sanjay Kumar Verma, the high commissioner-designate, said applicants should use the drop-off service at BLS International sites — which are only located in Canada’s biggest cities — to avoid long queues. (CBC)

Verma encouraged applicants to look at visa application timelines on the commission’s website and said that those waiting in queues at BLS offices were walk-ins without appointments.

“As far as we are concerned, we are processing the visa applications and granting the eligible applicants’ visa much, much faster than people otherwise realize,” he said.

As for the e-visa program, Verma said the program was being restored “country by country, looking at the constraints on resources.”

“There are discussions. There are considerations. There are movements in that direction. When it is finally decided by the two governments, then, of course, we’ll hear the outcome,” he said.

A request for comment from Foreign Affairs Canada was not returned by deadline.

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Ontario pharmacists get greenlight to prescribe COVID-19 treatment Paxlovid – CBC.ca

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Starting next week pharmacists in Ontario will be able to prescribe the antiviral drug Paxlovid as a treatment for COVID-19, the health minister said Thursday.

Sylvia Jones made the announcement at a morning news conference in Toronto, where she said the prescriptions will come at no cost to patients. The new policy takes effect December 12.

There are about 4,000 pharmacists in the province who are already dispensing the drug. The prescription program will work on an opt-in basis, so it is unclear how many pharmacies will choose to take part.

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Ontario’s chief medical officer of health said in a related statement the change will expand access to the medication, increase protection to the most vulnerable, and ease hospital pressures.

It’s a move Dr. Kieran Moore said last month the government was considering in part to help keep people out of hospital, especially in rural areas where access to primary care physicians can be limited.

The antiviral medication is taken orally within five days of symptom onset and is recommended for people at higher risk of COVID-19 complications, including people over 60 and people who are immunocompromised.

The announcement comes as hospitals in the province continue to strain under pressure from multiple respiratory illnesses.

Across all ages, the number of Ontarians going to emergency departments with respiratory complaints remains well above pre-pandemic seasonal averages, according to Ontario’s Acute Care Enhanced Surveillance (ACES) database.

Some pediatric hospitals have stopped surgeries and other procedures to maintain capacity for patients seeking care for respiratory symptoms.

Meanwhile, Ottawa’s children’s hospital has accepted staffing help from the Canadian Red Cross and opened a second pediatric intensive care unit, though others had not sought extra support as of this week.

Jones touted co-operation between pediatric and community hospitals one innovation helping to make sure more health-care professionals are trained to treat children with respiratory illnesses.

She also said it has been a difficult flu season and thanked health-care workers for their efforts under tough conditions.

“I really want to reinforce that these are incredibly dedicated, incredibly talented, educated people who have stepped up and continued to step up through what has been a very challenging virus season,” she said.

Throughout the surge in respiratory illnesses in Ontario, Jones has insisted that the province was prepared to handle it. With respect to steps some hospitals have had to take to deal with an influx of patients, both Jones and Premier Doug Ford have credited them with “thinking outside the box” and not doing “business as usual.”

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Bank of Canada raises key interest rate to 4.25 per cent, its highest since 2008 – CTV News

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The Bank of Canada has raised its overnight rate by 50 basis points to 4.25 per cent, marking its seventh rate hike in nine months. The last time the bank’s policy rate was this high was in January 2008.

The inflation rate remained high at 6.9 per cent in October, well above the bank’s 2 per cent target. Higher gas prices put upward pressure on the cost of most goods and services, according to the Consumer Price Index released by Statistics Canada last month.

The bank says the economy continued to operate in excess demand during the third quarter and the labour market in Canada remained tight. With unemployment remaining at historic lows, Statistics Canada reported average hourly wages rose by 5.6 per cent year-over-year in October.

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The bank says tighter monetary policy is affecting domestic demand in the Canadian economy, with declines in the housing market and consumption moderating during the third quarter. Since its monetary report in October, the bank continues to expect economic growth to stall through the end of this year and into the first half of 2023.

“The November GDP data showed us that economic activity in Canada had already started to shrink,” said Sheila Block, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “Given that slowdown, any hopes for a soft landing have been crushed by today’s rate hikes.”

During a press conference following the bank’s last rate announcement on Oct. 27, Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem signalled “the tightening phase will draw to a close, we are getting closer, but we aren’t there yet.”

On Wednesday, the bank did not rule out further rate increases to tackle inflation.

“Looking ahead, Governing Council will be considering whether the policy interest rate needs to rise further to bring supply and demand back into balance and return inflation to target,” reads the release.

However, experts think it will be difficult for the bank to raise rates during a period of low growth.

“It will be very hard for a central bank to raise interest rates when the economy is in a recession,” said Kevin Page, Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy President and CEO. “I think it is highly probable that the central bank will not need to raise interest rates in the short term (next three to six months).”

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre blamed the cost of living crisis on the federal government’s increased spending during the pandemic.

“It’s another uppercut for Canadians,” said Poilievre. “It’s all because of the inflationary deficits and spending of Justin Trudeau.”

Meanwhile, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called for other measures to help combat inflation.

“The federal government has to do more to look at the solutions around inflation,” said Singh during a press conference in Ottawa. “Some of those solutions include acknowledging that high profits in the corporate sector — corporate greed — is contributing to the cost of living going up.”

In the House of Commons, Associate Minister of Finance Randy Boissonnault defended his government’s policies to address the increased cost of living.

“The bank is doing their job. We’re doing our job by making sure we have the fiscal fire power to face what’s going to come,” he said during Question Period. “We’re helping Canadians to buy a new home, we’re advancing the payments for worker benefits and we’re also making sure student loan interest gets removed forever.”

The next policy rate announcement is expected on Jan. 25, 2023.

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Media shunning transparency law due to worsening delays, journalist says

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Veteran journalist Dean Beeby says reporters are abandoning the federal Access to Information Act as a research tool because turnaround times are terrible and getting worse.

The access law allows journalists and others who pay a $5 fee to request documents — from internal emails and expense claims to briefing memos and studies — but it has long been criticized as antiquated and poorly administered.

Federal agencies are supposed to respond within 30 days or provide valid reasons why they need more time to process a request.

The law has not been significantly updated since its introduction almost 40 years ago, and many users complain of lengthy delays as well as heavily blacked-out documents or full denials in response to their applications.

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Beeby, an independent journalist who spent much of his career at The Canadian Press, says bureaucrats now realize they face a much bigger blowback from releasing information than from withholding it — and the law provides a rich menu of excuses to keep things buried.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2022.

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