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Ontario Premier Doug Ford makes a funding announcement for a new hospital in Windsor, Oct. 18, 2021. Mr. Ford used his late mother’s backyard as an unofficial second office to take numerous business meetings last summer.Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press

Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment says it offered to help Ontario develop its vaccine-passport app last month in a bid to keep sports fans from having to use a separate app ahead of the new NBA and NHL seasons.

The Globe and Mail has learned that Premier Doug Ford met privately with MLSE chief executive officer Michael Friisdahl in Mr. Ford’s mother’s backyard in July, though representatives for both say the meeting was unrelated to their vaccine-passport app collaboration, which the province revealed last week.

The Premier’s office and MLSE said Mr. Friisdahl met with Mr. Ford in the former’s capacity as the chair of a fundraising campaign for the Scarborough Health Network Foundation. At the time, Mr. Ford was publicly against the idea of vaccine passports, arguing that they might create a “split society.”

But he had changed his mind by summer’s end, with his government announcing a vaccination-checking app after the introduction of similar programs by Manitoba, British Columbia and Quebec. Though the province initially said the app would be developed in house, Mr. Ford said Friday that MLSE was involved in its development. The province had previously said it was collaborating with private partners as well. This drew the ire of small businesses such as restaurants, which still face capacity limits while the government has allowed sports venues, including Scotiabank Arena, where MLSE’s Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors both play, to operate at full capacity.

Mr. Ford used his late mother’s backyard as an “unofficial” second office to take numerous meetings last summer, including with staff, said Ivana Yelich, his executive director of media relations. The meeting with Mr. Friisdahl “was completely unrelated” to digital proof-of-vaccination certificates, which were not being considered then, she said. “We weren’t even in a position where we’d be considering lifting or not lifting capacity limits.”

MLSE’s chief technology officer, Humza Teherany, said in an interview that his MLSE Digital Labs team reached out to the Ontario Digital Service (ODS) in September, ahead of the October launch of the 2021-22 Leafs and Raptors seasons, to ensure there would be a system in place to check for proof of vaccination. MLSE was worried it might have to roll out its own system, different than any system used elsewhere in Ontario, which could frustrate fans, he said.

“This conversation was two tech teams working together to figure out how they could make something that’ll be valuable for the province,” Mr. Teherany said.

The MLSE Digital Labs team has more than 100 employees developing mobile services for fans – from arena navigation to in-seat beer delivery – and licenses them to other sports organizations. ODS had already developed a prototype app for vaccine verification when the MLSE team offered to help expedite development, both organizations said.

Both teams of engineers worked on testing the app and its code, they said. Mr. Teherany added that his team hoped to improve the user experience by minimizing the steps needed to use the app and QR codes – a priority for an organization that lets thousands of ticketholders into sports venues on a nightly basis.

Ontario has faced some criticism for developing its own program when it could have adapted one used by other provinces, such as Quebec’s, which was developed by Lévis, Que.-based Akinox. That app took four months to develop, while Ontario gave itself just six weeks to make the app public after the early September announcement.

Ontario’s associate minister of digital government, Kaleed Rasheed, said in an interview that the province wanted to have the kind of control it would not have if it had outsourced its development entirely to a private company, particularly for updates. But the MLSE partnership, he said, helped accelerate the rollout and uploading while allowing for more robust testing.

“I’m a firm believer in collaborating with everyone,” he said. “When we develop a product, it’s always good to go and ask the end user how they would like the product to be.”

Mr. Rasheed, a former account manager with BlackBerry Ltd., stressed that the system will not collect or share personal information or request a person’s location, nor will MLSE have access to any user data.

The province said it consulted with a range of small, medium-size and large businesses to understand their needs in the early phases of developing the system. It added that the code is open source to encourage further improvements and to share with other jurisdictions.

The digital scanning program was set to officially launch Oct. 22, but the app and QR codes first became available last weekend. Ontario said Wednesday that 3.9 million people had downloaded QR-code versions of their vaccination certificates and that there had been more than 896,000 downloads of the Verify Ontario scanning app for businesses.

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