You wouldn’t have guessed Cameron MacDonald would plunge parliamentarians into a whodunnit.
The slender, bespectacled public servant with a closely shaved head looks like what he is: A senior mandarin in IT.
But on Tuesday afternoon, he was at a House of Commons committee telling MPs that his former boss, Minh Doan – now the government’s chief technology officer – had lied to them.
Not only that. Mr. MacDonald recounted that amid all the recriminations in October, 2022, over the ballooning costs and byzantine contracting for the ArriveCan app, Mr. Doan phoned him, alternately crying and yelling, and threatened to make him the fall guy.
This doesn’t happen in Ottawa. Politicians throw shade at each other at committees, and sometimes grill officials. But you don’t see senior civil servant fingering each other, publicly, as liars.
Opposition MPs want to link this to direct political involvement by the Liberals. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau if he would “personally” cooperate with the RCMP – but there’s been no sign of that. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to see here.
Already, there was ArriveCan’s $54-million cost and layers of subcontracts. There were allegations of misconduct in another deal involving a lot of the same folks that have been referred to the RCMP, including alleged cozy ties between officials and IT contractors.
Both Mr. MacDonald and Mr. Doan were senior IT officials at the Canadian Border Services Agency when the ArriveCan app was developed. Both are more senior now: Mr. MacDonald is an assistant deputy minister at Health Canada. Mr. Doan is the government’s CTO. And now one is accusing another of lying to Parliament.
All along, it’s been hard for the public to know what the heck happened with ArriveCan contracts. The buck hasn’t stopped yet.
MPs on the Commons government operations committee have tried to nail down who chose the contractor, GCStrategies. The two-person firm subcontracted all the work, including to other firms, and charged a 15-to-30-per-cent commission.
Mr. Doan told the committee Oct. 24 it was his team – he couldn’t say whom – but that he was not personally involved.
On Tuesday, Mr. MacDonald showed up at the committee hearing knowing he was on the hot seat.
In October, The Globe and Mail reported that the two principals of a Montreal IT firm called Botler, Ritika Dutt and Amir Morv had raised allegations about a smaller deal that had been referred to the RCMP. Among other things, they said that Mr. MacDonald had encouraged them to work with GCStrategies, and that that firm’s chief executive officer, Kristian Firth, had spoken repeatedly – in recorded conversations – about his close relationship with Mr. MacDonald.
Mr. MacDonald denied that Tuesday, at times in a quavering voice. He told MPs he only met Mr. Firth outside his office on three occasions, including a lunch where he picked up his own bill. He passionately denied taking anything like a kickback.
And as for the choice of GCStrategies for ArriveCan, he said that was Mr. Doan. Mr. MacDonald said he had preferred Deloitte, but Mr. Doan told him he was under orders not to issue work to that firm because their work on a major government project was going badly. Mr. Doan, he said, left only one option: GCStrategies.
“If the CBSA had even just asked my team, they would have known who made the decision,” Mr. MacDonald said. What’s more, he offered the give MPs the names of people to ask.
Mr. MacDonald testified that months after he left the CBSA, Mr. Doan called him in a panic after reports on the ArriveCan contracts appeared in The Globe, telling him that the then-public safety minister wanted somebody’s “head on a plate” – and that if he had to, he would say Mr. MacDonald made the decision.
Mr. MacDonald said he stayed up till 3 a.m., writing notes, “trying to figure out some way to meet in the middle” to help Mr. Doan if he got called to a committee. He then sent a long e-mail to Mr. Doan suggesting what he might say if asked about the choice of GCStrategies, emphasizing that it couldn’t be narrowed down to a single “decision point.”
Now the tale of ArriveCan, so full of twist and gaps about what was done, takes another trip around the circular question officials are even more uneasy about: who did what. And who is lying about it.