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Dozens of Nunavut athletes in passport limbo as Arctic Winter Games approach

Members of Team Nunavut take part in the opening ceremony for the 2023 Arctic Winter Games last year in northern Alberta. Some athletes from the territory have been having a hard time securing passports needed to go to this year's Games in Alaska. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Members of Team Nunavut take part in the opening ceremony for the 2023 Arctic Winter Games last year in northern Alberta. Some athletes from the territory have been having a hard time securing passports needed to go to this year's Games in Alaska. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

Team Nunavut officials say between 50 to 70 young athletes are at risk of missing the upcoming Arctic Winter Games because of difficulties securing a passport.

This year's games are in Alaska's Mat-Su Valley, meaning all Canadians attending the games need a valid passport to cross the Canada-U.S. border.

But with the Games only five weeks away, nearly a quarter of Nunavut's current roster of 291 athletes are still struggling to have their passport applications processed.

"If they can't go because they can't get a passport in time, that's very disappointing for them," said Mariele DePeuter, Team Nunavut's chef de mission, adding many applications were sent back for minor errors.

"Obviously we have a lot of people where English is their second language, and they're just missing a very simple step on the application. Or they've had issues getting the photo ID or the birth certificates in the first place, to even be able to apply for the passport."

DePeuter said no team sports are at risk of not being able to compete because of not having enough players. Coaches for Nunavut's under-15 boys hockey team, which won bronze at the 2023 Games, told CBC News six of their players were still waiting on passports.

Team Nunavut plays Team Alaska in the hockey final of the 2023 Arctic Winter Games, in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Feb. 3, 2023. Nunavut won the gold ulu with a final score of 4-0.
Team Nunavut plays Team Alaska in the hockey final of the 2023 Arctic Winter Games, in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Feb. 3, 2023. Nunavut won the gold ulu with a final score of 4-0.

Spectators cheer on Team Nunavut at the 2023 Arctic Winter Games. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

And while the Nunavut team officials have been pressing their athletes since the fall to begin the application process, DePeuter said challenges in securing a passport has been a known issue since November. Complicating matters is team selections could not have happened sooner, she said, because of the timing of the previous Arctic Winter Games in 2023 — a year later than they otherwise would have been.

"There was a real time crunch on the volunteers for sport organizations to turn around after those [2023] Games, and get ready for another Games that was only 12 months away," DePeuter said.

Service Canada 'red flags' MP's office

The issue reached the floor of the House of Commons on Wednesday as Nunavut MP Lori Idlout used her time in Question Period to highlight the overarching issue of passport application challenges in Nunavut.

"Families are now forced to pay thousands of dollars to fly down South to get their passports expedited or not compete at all," she told parliamentarians.

Speaking with CBC News, Idlout said her office has been assisting athletes in processing passport applications by having them sent to her MP office in Iqaluit, citing concerns over the recent struggles in service delivery at the Iqaluit post office. Her staff would then bring the applications in person, to a Service Canada office in Ottawa or Gatineau, Que.

NDP member of Parliament Lori Idlout rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023.
NDP member of Parliament Lori Idlout rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023.

Nunavut MP Lori Idlout, seen here in the House of Commons in December, told parliamentarians this week that some Nunavut families are 'forced to pay thousands of dollars to fly down South to get their passports expedited or not compete at all.' (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

Idlout said they delivered about 20 to 30 applications before receiving a letter from Service Canada in November or December barring her staff bringing applications to Service Canada centres in person.

"They started red-flagging our office and made it more difficult for our office to help the athletes get their passports," Idlout said. "The way I understand it is that we were helping so many applications that it seemed it was an unusual activity from their perspective."

Lack of Inuit languages

But Idlout says this issue is synonymous with the overall lack of service delivery in Nunavut, particularly with having forms and service available in Inuktitut.

"Another huge barrier from Service Canada is the correspondence is sent in English and French only, so there are many Inuit that don't read either of those languages," Idlout said, adding she's like to see at least one of Service Canada's three Nunavut offices equipped to process passport applications.

In a statement to CBC News, the office for Citizens' Services Minister Terry Beech says they're aware of the challenges and recognize many of the issues raised by Idlout and DePeuter, like difficulties in obtaining photo identification and language barriers.

"To address these concerns, we manage applications on a case-by-case basis and offer support through various channels," the statement reads.

"We encourage clients to visit our 20-day passport services [plus mailing time] available in Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet, and Cambridge [Bay], or one of our 13 scheduled outreach sites."