Dealing with Transport Canada: bring patience and cash

gov-transport-canadaOver the course of my 20 year career as a professional mariner in Canada, I routinely deal with Transport Canada, the certification authority in Canada. Some of my peers find these interactions akin to going to the dentist, sure they are useful, but not that pleasant. This post is about one of my recent interaction with Transport Canada Marine Safety (TCMS); you can be the judge of what its akin to.

Two years ago I had a surprisingly good interaction, which was quite refreshing. I was to join a vessel in Dubai, and the UAE government required a discharge book, issued no later than five years ago. Canada does not issued discharge every five years, but rather once, at the start of a career. Time was tight, as these things always seem to be, and I hurried down to “my” usual TCMS office in Nanaimo, centrally located on Vancouver Island. The two engineering examiners know me there, from our many interactions, and I have brought, over time, all my paperwork to make sure my file is updated in their office.

Luckily it as just an administrative task; issue a new front page of the discharge book and voila. I had gotten there a bit late in the day near closing time, and then realized that I needed a passport picture. Regardless, the lady said that she would wait for me, and she did, and I was issued a new front page for my discharge book, which somehow complied with the UAE’s requirements.

What a difference two years make.

Since then my last visit to the Nanaimo office, the regional director, so I am told by TC in Ottawa, had decided to “amalgamate” the regional certification capabilities into one office. On Vancouver Island, this meant that Victoria would be the only office to deal with seafarer certification related issues. Victoria is the capital of British Columbia, located at the southern tip of a very large Vancouver Island; it has arguably a small seafarer population, serving a few vessels based out of that immediate region.

This was not news to me, and like many of my peers, I questioned the rationale behind this “consolidation”. One, it was clearly a major cut to the ability of professional seafarers like myself to access important services we are required to access. Two, the choice of Victoria and Vancouver, major urban centers, where most seafarers are not located (due to high housing costs) seemed out of touch with the clientele meant to be served.

2012.04-TC-Headquarters.3Fast forward two years; I was switching job, and my prospective company required a particular endorsement on my certificate. I did not believe I needed it, but it was a pretty straight forward affair, since I had the required sea time and training certificates, stipulated under the Personnel Regulations. The task was to submit my supporting documents, and get the engineering examiner to issue a sticker endorsement thingy, to stick inside my certificate booklet.

Victoria, being two hours south of Nanaimo by car, was going to pose a challenge, as dealing with TCMS is never a straight forward thing. Usually two or three visits are required to actually get what you need done, even if everything is in order. So I was pleasantly surprised when I phone and the admin staff let me submit the paperwork by email. Despite the wasted time it took to fill out forms that the Nanaimo office already had on file, and the buggy PDF forms that TCMS supplied, I figure it was simpler than having to drive down twice, an endeavor that would cost me a significant amount of time and money.

It was a Thursday, the company was just waiting to get this endorsement to book my flight south, my relief was itching to go, I was ready to go, especially since our family depends on my one income.

Unfortunately, the sole marine engineering examiner, for the only office on the island, which dealt with seafarer certification, was not in the office that day. The next day was Good Friday, and of course Easter Monday, not a statutory holiday, but one government that workers take off. Despite getting my paperwork in early Thursday, nothing was going to happen until the next Tuesday, if the examiner wasn’t required for a ship visit.

Tuesday came around and I check in, and learn that the examiner was not in that day. I started to panic, after all, this is my livelihood, my paycheck. After the staff suggested, I phoned the Vancouver office, I resubmitted my paperwork, and was advised they could help me; a sigh of relief.

Courtesy Harbour Air
Courtesy Harbour Air

Relieved I was, until I booked the plane (yes, a plane) to Vancouver for Thursday, to pick up the endorsement. By the way, traveling to Vancouver is not a quick or an inexpensive proposition, it has a significant impact on our meager family budget.

That evening, after a quick email to verify that indeed, everything was set, and that I was  going to be issued the next day, the proper endorsement, I received a reply that there was a problem, and that it would take three days to figure out what Ottawa wanted to do. Luckily, at least Harbour Air is quite flexible with their cancellations policy, but this was not doing any good to my blood pressure.

The next day, now a week after official submitting a request for this simple endorsement, I still was nowhere near one, from either the Vancouver or Victoria office.

I phoned Ottawa’s certification of seafarer department, if for nothing else, but to let them know that as a seafarer, as their client, this system was not working for me, and I was very frustrated. The inability for TCMS to issue a simple endorsement, in a timely fashion had pretty significant impacts on the company, the vessel’s operation, and my ability to feed my family.

From the interwebs
From the interwebs

After politely drilling home the fact that I was on the beach losing a considerable amount of money, I finally got a “I’ll look into it”. Several hours later, Vancouver called and was ready to issue the endorsement. But by that time, all planes were booked, so another wasted day.  I re-booked a plane ticket for the next day. Next morning, I get an email from the Victoria office that my endorsement is ready, over a week after submitting for it. Once again I canceled the flight (sorry Harbour Air), as Victoria is a closer, more flexible option, and picked up the endorsements – a five minute affair in the office.

Lessons I learnt –

Closing TCMS offices (the Nanaimo Office is not “closed”, btw, just that the engineering examiners there don’t do certification anymore) might seem like a good idea to save money but TCMS should consider this –

  • …the remaining office that gets all the rest of the clients from the rest of the region should probably have at least one dedicated examiner available at all times. You would expect “amalgamation” to mean a pooling of resources, but in fact it’s just a straight up cutting of services.
  • …that the office is located in an area that services the majority of its clients. Western Canada is a physically huge area, concentrating the two offices close to each other, at the bottom of the province, is not central. Travelling is time consuming and expensive.
  • …it should not take over a week to process a simple endorsement.
  • …it should not take Ottawa’s blessing to issue a simple endorsement.
  • …as pleasant as it may seem to joke about the situation, deflect the frustration of clients, after learning that there are more delay in processing a simple request, is not helpful. In the commercial world, money and time is very tight, delays cost me personally. My license is how I feed my family, it is our only income, I take it very seriously.

This article has 4 Comments

  1. Migrate to Australia. AMSA staff is very polite, helpful and sharp. Every record is maintained centrally at Canberra and you never have to fly to get your certificates. Documents are sent to your home.

  2. That is funny Mr. Handa – Martin did a whole book on his experiences and frustrations and eventually having to give up on the Australian system. How about you tell us the other side of the coin, tell us how your experiences went there. Reason I am asking is that I too tried the Australian system 20 years ago and had to give up.

  3. Yes that is true, Mr. Handa, from my first hand experience, AMSA was in all regards very effective and professional, not perfect, but certainly miles ahead of Transport Canada Marine Safety. In fact they chose to fly in an inspector into Freemantle to accommodate my oral exam, when the regular guy was not available. You can read about my journey

    On the immigration side, Australia, like Canada, talks a good game about skilled immigration but in reality they just want low wage experienced people to bring down wages; at least that was take on the experience. And therefore I drop my aspiration to move there – i guess I wasn’t desperate enough. With the way the government is flushing its marine industry down the toilet these days, seems it was a blessing in disguise.

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