Trying to dance down at the passport office

By Glen Argan

A year and a half ago during our happy trek across northern Spain known as the Camino de Santiago, we encountered a few heavy rainfalls. The worst was the last day’s walk into Santiago de Compostella when we got thoroughly drenched.

During all this, I took care to keep my passport in the best of condition. Alas, I flunked the test. The minor water damage to my passport was enough to have the Canadian passport office declare it to be “DAMAGED!”

This came to the fore Thursday when I went to the Edmonton passport office to get mine renewed as it will soon expire, and we’re headed to Bolivia this summer.

The earnest young man whose job it was to provide initial clearance before one could get into the real lineup, gazed at my passport with a look of disapproval, showed it to a colleague an arms length away and told me it was damaged. He then went off to speak to a supervisor somewhere and returned to tell me that I could not renew my passport. It was DAMAGED, and I would have to begin the application process again from scratch.

I would have to get new forms, get two more friends to sign on as references and get my dear patient wife Nora to be my guarantor, the one who would swear that I really am who I say that I am. At least, they didn’t take away my passport photos.

As for the passport being damaged, those to whom I showed it regarded that judgment with a measure of disbelief. As well, the passport has gotten me across borders at least three times since the Great Deluge of Santiago without the slightest question from border guards. I would have taken a photo of it to post with this article, but restrained myself since I feared I might be violating some other rule. Now, it’s too late. The government has my expiring passport and won’t give it back.

This once slightly soggy passport cost me about four extra hours and seven or eight bucks for more parking downtown. I had to photocopy my driver’s licence, fill in all the passport forms again – all in capital letters – get two people to sign on as references, drive to Canada Place and drudge through the lineup on a busy Friday afternoon.

I could go into some detail about my observations in the passport office, but I will spare you most of that. Despite my efforts to draw forth at least a smile, two of the three passport agents with whom I dealt over the two days were quite humourless – one giving me a little lecture on the potential long-term repercussions of not looking after my passport properly. The third was a young Muslim woman who was most pleasant. All three would be about 25 years of age.

It got me to thinking what it would be like to do this line of work, day in and day out for your whole career. Well, maybe not your whole career. Ideally, a person would win a promotion or two and get the responsibility of telling the junior staff how the rules should work. If one was a real star, perhaps he or she would go to Ottawa and go to long meetings to decide what the new rules will be.

A lifetime of imposing rules, day after day, 35 hours a week, 49 weeks a year, for 35 years until the pension finally kicks in. I thank God that has not been my fate.

However, it is the fate of massive numbers of people in the workforce. Security guards, police officers, building inspectors, all manner of government employees and many others – all charged with the responsibility of ensuring that people do not step outside the lines. What has this done to us as a people?

Many people handle these roles with aplomb, finding ways to encounter their clients as human beings rather than as potential rulebreakers. How easy it would be, however, to let such a job define your life. Take the job home and rules come to define marital relationships and childrearing. Or, maybe after 20 years you snap, start screaming, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” and send your money to support Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.

Don’t get me wrong. We need rules and people to enforce them. The alternative would be anarchy and, Lord knows, we can’t have THAT. What would happen to all the money people pay in taxes?

Rules are needed to provide security and fairness. However, when vast sectors of the workforce are tied up with watching out for rule-breakers, what happens to love? What happens to community? What happens to our ability to dance?

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