A high-ranking public servant told MPs Tuesday that Minh Doan, the chief technology officer for the federal government, recently lied to them at committee when he testified that he didn’t know who selected GCStrategies to build the ArriveCan app.
Cameron MacDonald, an assistant deputy minister at Health Canada, provided at times emotional testimony Tuesday to the government operations committee, which is holding hearings into how the cost of the app for international travellers grew to exceed $54-million during the pandemic.
He described heated discussions that took place in October, 2022, with Mr. Doan, the Canada Border Services Agency’s then vice-president and chief information officer. Mr. MacDonald had been a director-general at the agency during the early days of the ArriveCan app and Mr. Doan was his former superior.
Mr. Doan has since been promoted to chief technology officer for the federal government as a whole.
The Globe and Mail had reported earlier that month on the cost of the app and CBSA leadership had been called to explain the spending to the government operations committee. Mr. MacDonald said Mr. Doan called him to discuss what agency leadership would say.
“I felt incredibly threatened on that phone call with Minh Doan,” Mr. MacDonald told MPs. He said Mr. Doan told him then-public safety minister Marco Mendicino was not happy with the ArriveCan stories and wanted “somebody’s head on a platter.”
“He just said: ‘You know, Cam, if I have to, I’m going to tell the committee that it was you,’” Mr. MacDonald told MPs. “To which I said, if you do that, I will have to respond. And we ended the conversation.”
Mr. MacDonald told MPs that he had previously advised Mr. Doan to select Deloitte to build the app, but Mr. Doan told him that then-CBSA president John Ossowski had said “no one can work with Deloitte” because of another IT project with that company that wasn’t going well.
Mr. Doan told the same committee on Oct. 24 of this year that while “my team” made the decision to hire GCStrategies, “I was not personally involved in that decision.”
Bloc Québécois MP Julie Vignola asked Mr. MacDonald whether Mr. Doan gave MPs false evidence just a few weeks ago.
“It was a lie that was told to this committee. Everyone knows it,” Mr. MacDonald replied. “We have our team here behind us. Everyone knew it was his decision to make. It wasn’t mine.”
Just before Tuesday’s hearing, the CBSA announced it is suspending all agency contracts with three IT staffing firms that are the subject of contracting misconduct complaints.
The government operations committee recently expanded its ArriveCan study to include a review of new contracting issues after they were first reported by The Globe on Oct. 4. The Globe reported that Montreal software company Botler – which worked on a project for the agency – objected to layers of subcontracting that hid key details about who was getting paid for what and cozy ties between private staffing firms and public servants.
After receiving a report from Botler in November, 2022, CBSA president Erin O’Gorman approved internal audits and investigations and referred the matter to the RCMP. The RCMP has confirmed that it is investigating the allegations. Until now, however, the CBSA had not suspended its contracting relationship with the three IT staffing firms.
Ms. O’Gorman announced the temporary suspensions in a letter to the government operations committee.
Ms. O’Gorman said the decision is being made with the support of Public Services and Procurement Canada, which shares contracting responsibility with the agency.
“On the basis of information available to date, on November 3, 2023, I asked PSPC, and they agreed, to temporarily suspend all CBSA contracts with GCStrategies, CORADIX Technology Consulting Ltd., and DALIAN Enterprises Inc.,” the letter states, describing the suspension as lasting up to 180 days.
“Although these allegations and investigations are not about ArriveCAN, I recognize the ongoing audits and investigations may yield findings relevant to that procurement. I trust you will find this information of assistance in the committee’s ongoing work,” Ms. O’Gorman wrote.
Botler did not work on ArriveCan, but the company’s allegations involve some of the same contractors and public servants who were involved in ArriveCan. The RCMP has said it is investigating Botler’s allegations, but not ArriveCan.
After performing work for the CBSA in 2020 and 2021, Botler raised concerns with the agency about the contracting arrangement in September, 2021, and then submitted a more detailed complaint to Ms. O’Gorman and other top officials in a November, 2022, memo that raised serious concerns about the way they were hired by the agency.
The committee also heard Tuesday from former CBSA official Antonio Utano, who is now a director-general at the Canada Revenue Agency.
Mr. Utano was the recipient of Botler’s September, 2021, e-mail, but he said he would not describe it as a formal report and said Botler chief executive Ritika Dutt seemed satisfied with the CBSA’s response to the fact that they had not been paid.
“I understand the seriousness of ensuring that my actions remain bound to the professionalism demanded of a position in the federal public service. I have always upheld these values,” he said.
Both Mr. Utano and Mr. MacDonald told MPs that they followed all rules with respect to ArriveCan and the Botler file.
“In terms of nefarious activities, and some of the things that have been suggested at this committee, I have never seen that in my entire life,” Mr. MacDonald said.
Botler’s co-founders said they were first approached via LinkedIn in late 2019 by Kristian Firth, managing partner of GCStrategies, who said he was reaching out on behalf of the CBSA. He later said his client was Mr. MacDonald.
GCStrategies – a two-person IT staffing firm based in Ottawa – received more than $11-million to work on ArriveCan, more than any other private contractor. Mr. Firth has said that neither he nor his business partner, Darren Anthony, perform IT work themselves. Instead, they form teams of subcontractors and collect a commission of between 15 per cent and 30 per cent of federal contract values.
Botler co-founders Ms. Dutt and Amir Morv have said they found the CBSA’s outreach via Mr. Firth unusual and began recording their conversations with Mr. Firth and CBSA officials. Those conversations show Mr. MacDonald directed Botler in February, 2020, to “please work with Kristian” and “let Kristian work his magic.”
Mr. Firth also urged the two Botler entrepreneurs to single out Mr. MacDonald for praise when meeting with other senior government officials.
Mr. Firth appeared before the same committee last week. He told MPs he made a mistake in submitting inflated work experience records for Ms. Dutt and Mr. Morv to the government, but played down the significance of the decision.
During the meeting, he originally denied knowing about Mr. MacDonald’s cottage. He later said: “Mr. MacDonald has never referred to it as a cottage. It’s a chalet.”
Mr. MacDonald told MPs that Mr. Firth has never been to his cabin and that his job at the CBSA involved meeting with private-sector IT vendors.
“I’ve only had a professional relationship with Mr. Firth,” he said.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Cameron MacDonald was a director general at the CBSA in October 2022. By that time, he had left the CBSA for another department.