The federal government’s chief technology officer, Minh Doan, denied threatening a senior public service colleague and insisted he still doesn’t know who hired GCStrategies to work on the ArriveCan app.
Mr. Doan, who was vice-president and chief information officer at the Canada Border Services Agency during the height of the pandemic, spoke publicly for the first time since he was accused of threats and lying to MPs by another high-ranking public servant.
Mr. Doan appeared before the government operations committee, which is studying how the cost of the ArriveCan app for international travellers grew to exceed $54-million. The hearings have focused on the CBSA’s use of private IT staffing firms, including GCStrategies, which received more than $11-million in contract work for the app.
Last week, Cameron MacDonald, an assistant deputy minister at Health Canada who previously worked on ArriveCan at the CBSA under Mr. Doan, said it was ultimately Mr. Doan who decided to hire two-person company GCStrategies to play a major role in building and updating the app. Mr. MacDonald said that when the cost of the app first became a major political issue in October, 2022, Mr. Doan threatened him, saying he intended to tell MPs it was Mr. MacDonald’s decision to hire GCStrategies.
Mr. Doan appeared before the same committee on Oct. 24 this year alongside current CBSA president Erin O’Gorman and former president John Ossowski. During that meeting, Mr. Doan told MPs that “my team” made the decision to hire GCStrategies, but that “I was not personally involved in that decision.”
Committee members took the unusual step of having Mr. Doan swear an oath at the start of Tuesday’s hearing, which was extended to nearly 2½ hours.
While Mr. Doan did not directly accuse Mr. MacDonald of lying, he frequently provided MPs with versions of events that were at odds with what Mr. MacDonald told them last week. He also said he was personally hurt by his former colleague’s testimony.
“I had a lot of trust in Mr. MacDonald. He got a lot done over many years and he put us on a path that allowed us to do ArriveCan. I was very disappointed and hurt and personally affected and my career has been affected by some of the testimony that was provided,” he said.
With respect to ArriveCan, Mr. Doan told MPs that he was presented in the early days of the pandemic with a choice between a fully outsourced option in which Deloitte would build the app or a “hybrid” option in which CBSA staff would build the app with “staff augmentation” using private contractors. He said he selected the second option, but at no time was he made aware of GCStrategies’ involvement.
He compared it to asking someone if they would like to go to Europe or South America for a trip. “You respond ‘Europe.’ And I say, ‘Well, you decided Paris,’” he said. “I did not know that GCStrategies was involved in that strategic direction.”
When Mr. MacDonald spoke to MPs last week, he was asked about Mr. Doan’s Oct. 24 explanation that he was not personally involved in the decision to select GCStrategies.
“It was a lie that was told to this committee. Everyone knows it,” Mr. MacDonald replied. He also said some of his former colleagues attended that hearing to support him.
Mr. MacDonald also said Mr. Doan had asked him for advice on how to answer questions from MPs last year about how the cost of the app had grown and who selected GCStrategies.
“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.
Mr. Doan acknowledged a discussion took place, but denied uttering a threat. He pointed out that Mr. MacDonald followed up with prepared talking points for Mr. Doan to tell MPs.
“In evidence, and as posted on the Globe and Mail, in his own handwriting, he writes, ‘I did not make that decision, nor was I even familiar with the company,’” Mr. Doan said, suggesting it contradicts Mr. MacDonald’s claim that Mr. Doan knew of, or selected, GCStrategies.
In the opening of that seven-page Oct. 29, 2022, e-mail, Mr. MacDonald had also written that “we are all grappling with ‘who selected GCStrategies.’”
Mr. MacDonald told MPs last week that he wrote that after the call with Mr. Doan, in which he had said his former superior was at times “almost crying” and “almost yelling,” and warned him that “somebody’s head was going to be on a platter.”
“I wrote that e-mail to Minh Doan after I had been threatened. I wrote that e-mail trying to give Minh Doan words that he could use at this committee,” Mr. MacDonald explained.
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 separate 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.
Botler did not work on ArriveCan, but it interacted with many of the same IT staffing companies and public servants who were directly involved with ArriveCan.
After receiving a report from Botler in November, 2022, Ms. O’Gorman, the CBSA president, approved internal audits and investigations and referred the matter to the RCMP. The RCMP has confirmed that it is investigating the allegations.
Botler’s software is a chat bot that guides people who may have experienced sexual harassment. GCStrategies managing partner Kristian Firth contacted Botler co-founders Ritika Dutt and Amir Morv in late 2019 saying a “client” at the CBSA was interested in their software, whom he later described as Mr. MacDonald. Mr. Firth arranged meetings for Botler with several government departments and a project with the CBSA was approved in September, 2020.
Botler’s November, 2022, report had raised questions about the relationship between Mr. MacDonald and Mr. Firth.
As to the origins of the Botler project, Mr. Firth told MPs earlier this month that “I was approached by the CBSA” as to whether a technology solution could be found to address workplace harassment and that he personally “identified Botler” through an online search and reached out to them.
Mr. MacDonald told MPs that he received “an unsolicited, jointly-branded” proposal from GCStrategies and Botler.
Mr. Doan told MPs Tuesday his records show Mr. MacDonald at least twice claimed he had found Botler. Mr. Doan said he found Botler’s solution to be “very promising.”
Botler has said its contract work suddenly ended after it raised contracting concerns with the agency in September, 2021. Mr. MacDonald had told MPs that Botler’s work went beyond the original scope into a pilot project, rather than a more limited feasibility study. “The Crown wouldn’t pay for that,” he said.
Mr. Doan said that the terms pilot and feasibility study are “used interchangeably.” He said his understanding is the Botler project was shelved because the CBSA did not have enough staff to work on it because of pandemic pressures.