Conservative, Bloc Québécois and NDP MPs are planning to force a committee investigation into the $54-million cost of the ArriveCan app.
With all three opposition parties on board, the MPs have the numbers to win a vote even if the study is opposed by Liberal MPs.
Canadian tech leaders have been expressing outrage after The Globe and Mail reported that total spending on the ArriveCan app is on pace to reach in excess of $54-million this year. Two tech companies announced this week that they recreated clone versions of the app over the Thanksgiving weekend as a way of illustrating that the government overpaid.
Opposition parties plan to call representatives of the company that received the most contract-related work, GCstrategies, to testify. The Globe has reported that GCstrategies has fewer than five employees, no standalone office and is currently relying on more than 75 subcontractors to deliver on contracts with over a dozen federal government departments. Neither the company nor the government will identify these subcontractors, saying it is confidential third-party information.
Conservative MP Kelly McCauley served formal notice Wednesday of a motion calling on the government operations committee to hold a minimum of six days of hearings. Mr. McCauley is proposing a witness list that includes cabinet ministers such as Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, as well as senior public servants and various tech leaders who have spoken out about the app’s cost.
Mr. McCauley said he also wants the committee to use its powers to obtain contracts and other documents related to the ArriveCan app.
“This is an absolute waste of taxpayers’ money, with absolutely no oversight, no accountability, and no sense of caring from the government that this money could have been better used elsewhere,” Mr. McCauley told The Globe Wednesday. The motion could be put to a committee vote as soon as Monday.
Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, who is a member of the committee and also the parliamentary secretary to Public Services and Procurement Minister Helena Jaczek, said in an interview that he will review the motion before deciding how he will vote.
Mr. Housefather also said he believes there has been a lot of misunderstanding with respect to ArriveCan’s price.
“I think we’re conflating many different costs here,” he said. Specifically, he said it includes items such as call centres to support ArriveCan and primary reporting kiosks.
“And not all apps are the same. ArriveCan is not a simple information sharing app. It’s a secure transactional tool that used artificial intelligence to verify proof of vaccination,” he said.
When asked about transparency concerns, Mr. Housefather said the goal is always to be as transparent as possible.
“Normally subcontractors are third-party information that we wouldn’t be able to disclose,” he said.
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.
Federal departments recently provided a report to Parliament showing that as of March 31, 2022, Ottawa had awarded 27 contracts involving 23 unique companies related to ArriveCan.
GCstrategies received the most funding, at $9-million, but that total is likely to increase given that the company was later awarded a large new contract during the current fiscal year that started April 1. The Canada Border Services Agency told The Globe that GCstrategies initially received a sole-sourced contract in April, 2020, worth $2.3-million for work that included ArriveCan. It was also awarded a second contract worth $5.9-million that began on Dec. 20, 2020. Through amendments, the maximum potential value of the first contract grew to $13.9-million.
The CBSA said the first two contracts were replaced by a new $25.4-million contract that GCstrategies won through a competitive process on May 16, 2022. The total potential value of the three GCstrategies contracts is $45.2-million, which would include a mix of work that is both related and unrelated to ArriveCan.
The Globe has also analyzed the total value of federal government payments to GCstrategies as recorded in the public accounts. The public accounts for the 2021-22 fiscal year have not yet been tabled in Parliament, meaning the most current public accounts only cover spending up to March 31, 2021.
Over the five fiscal years from 2016-17 to 2020-21, GCstrategies received $28.3-million from 18 different federal departments and agencies.
GCstrategies managing partner Kristian Firth said in an e-mail Wednesday that his company follows all federal security screening requirements for contracting and subcontracting.
“While I am not going to comment on the political process, GCstrategies is a qualified vendor to provide services to the Government of Canada,” he said.
In a statement to The Globe, the CBSA said it is “satisfied that GCstrategies fully met the requirements and deliverables” outlined in its ArriveCan-related contracting.
Bloc MP and committee vice-chair Julie Vignola told The Globe Wednesday that her party is “certainly in favour” of hearings into ArriveCan.
NDP MP and committee member Gord Johns said he supports a committee study into ArriveCan and would also like MPs to call on the Auditor-General to review the Liberal government’s approach to outsourcing.
“There’s no transparency and it’s out of control. You’ve got expensive consultants that are hiring expensive consultants to deliver services,” he said. “This is just absurd.”