A Canadian tech CEO says he has no idea why his company is listed as having received a $1.2-million ArriveCan contract and is calling on the Canada Border Services Agency to issue a correction.
Craig McLellan said he was surprised to read in The Globe and Mail that his company, ThinkOn Inc., was listed as the sixth-ranked company in terms of federal outsourcing contracts related to developing and maintaining the ArriveCan app.
“We have received no money from the CBSA,” Mr. McLellan said in an interview.
The revelation surfaced just hours before the House of Commons committee on government operations and the estimates began hearings Thursday into the cost to build and maintain the ArriveCan app, which The Globe first reported is on pace to reach $54-million this fiscal year.
The committee heard from Darren Anthony and Kristian Firth, two partners with GCstrategies, the Ottawa-area company that topped the list of 23 companies that the CBSA said had been awarded contract work on the app.
The two men told MPs they are the only employees of the company and confirmed they have received $9-million – or $4.5-million a year – related to the app. The government had also said GCstrategies received $9-million in work related to ArriveCan as of March 31, 2022.
Mr. Firth said the company has invoiced a total of $44-milion in federal work with more than 20 departments over the past two years. He described the company as an IT staffing firm that puts together a team of IT specialists to deliver on various contracts.
Mr. Firth said the two-person company charges a commission of between 15 per cent and 30 per cent of the total value of contracts, which he described as the industry standard. He also said neither he nor Mr. Anthony personally do the IT work.
“We’re not in the trenches,” he said. He also said the team only provided certain requirements related to the app.
“We did not build ArriveCan,” he said.
Mr. Firth said neither the company nor its subcontractors have any connections to the Liberal Party and all subcontractors are based in Canada and approved by the government. He said the public service approached GCstrategies because it has a proven track record of providing similar services.
During the meeting, the committee approved an NDP motion calling on Auditor-General Karen Hogan to launch an investigation into the federal government’s outsourcing practices. It also approved a Conservative motion calling on GCstrategies to provide the committee with an extensive list of documents related to its ArriveCan work.
The committee approved a similar motion earlier this week calling on government departments to provide the list of contractors and subcontractors, the breakdown of the costs, the list of contracts and all requests for proposals and invoices related to the app.
Mr. Firth said its subcontractors are subject to non-disclosure agreements.
The ranking of ArriveCan-related contract work is based on information tabled last month in Parliament by the CBSA. The agency said ThinkOn received contract work valued at $1,183,432 related to ArriveCan between Jan. 21, 2020, and March 31, 2022. The CBSA specifically said that ThinkOn provided “experimentation of mobile QR code scanning and verification.”
Mr. McLellan, the ThinkOn chief executive, said QR code scanning is not a service his company provides.
“We’re not even remotely in that space,” he said.
In response to questions from The Globe, a spokesperson for the CBSA said they would look into the issue and respond as soon as possible but didn’t provide a comment before The Globe’s deadline.
Conservative MP Michael Barrett raised the issue in Question Period, describing the app’s cost as a boondoggle.
“For the opposition to call the ArriveCan app a boondoggle when it was developed to keep Canadians safe is appalling,” said Liberal MP Pam Damoff, parliamentary secretary to Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, who is responsible for the CBSA. “CBSA is aware of issues with the contract, and they are looking into them.”
ThinkOn is a Canadian company that competes with large multinationals such as Amazon Web Services to provide cloud computing. Amazon Web Services is listed as the third company on the CBSA’s list, with a reported value of $4.29-million in contract work on ArriveCan.
After The Globe published the list of ArriveCan contractors, Mr. McLellan said he began receiving calls from colleagues in the tech sector asking about his inclusion.
“It caught me by surprise,” he said. “I think the amount of money they attributed to us was probably more than our total revenue generated within the federal government in the last fiscal year.”
Mr. McLellan said his company is contracted to offer cloud computing services to Shared Services Canada, but it has no current contracting relationship with the CBSA. He said none of his company’s existing work could be connected to ArriveCan in any way.
“I really can’t imagine how we could have been attributed to it,” he said.
Mr. McLellan wrote to the CBSA on Wednesday asking for an explanation as to how his company ended up on the list of ArriveCan suppliers. As of Thursday evening, he had not received a response.
Late Thursday, a spokesperson for Ernst & Young – ranked 17th on the list – told The Globe that the government’s reference to the company receiving $120,000 in ArriveCan work “appears to be an error.”
“EY was not involved with the ArriveCan app,” said spokesperson Victoria McQueen in an e-mail.
The CBSA provided new information to The Globe earlier this week showing that the app began as an $80,000 expense at the onset of the pandemic, before growing to $54-million this year over the course of more than 70 updates.
ArriveCan was initially created as a way for travellers to upload mandatory health information related to COVID-19. It has since been expanded to allow users to answer customs and immigration questions. The app is no longer mandatory as of Sept. 30, but it continues as a voluntary option.
The committee also heard Thursday from Customs and Immigration Union national president Mark Weber, who represents federal border staff. He said the app continues to be an unnecessary waste of tax dollars that could have been put to much better use.
“All we were doing at the border was verifying if someone was vaccinated. That could have been done simply by having a traveller show you their phone,” he said. “We spent all our time almost acting as IT consultants helping people complete the application.”
Mr. Weber said border guards are extremely short staffed and $54-million could have paid for hundreds of much needed new hires.