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Eight million Canadians who tried to speak to a federal official to obtain information on government services were forced to hang up or told to go to a website or call back later, according to a report by the Office of the Auditor-General.

Replacing Michael Ferguson, who died last February, interim Auditor-General Sylvain Ricard looked at what happened to 16 million calls made to call centres operated by three departments within different periods in 2017 and 2018. These callers were seeking information on employment insurance benefits, the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security, immigration matters and services to veterans.

The report found that approximately seven million callers were sent to an automated response system, told to visit a website or to call back later, while one million Canadians who did get into a queue to wait for an agent hung up before being connected.

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Also: Refugee system not equipped to deal with surge in asylum seekers at Canada-U.S. border, Auditor-General says

The call centres have the objective of putting Canadians in touch with a federal agent within a time frame of two to 10 minutes, but typical wait times often exceeded 30 minutes for those who were placed in a queue.

The average wait time to reach an agent at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada was 32 minutes. At Employment and Social Development Canada, average wait times were in the five- to eight-minute range, but the call centres still failed to answer 49 per cent of the calls within 10 minutes. At Veterans Affairs, the average wait time was five minutes.

The report found the problems that were encountered are unlikely to be solved in the short term as only eight of 221 call centres have been modernized to date.

In a separate chapter on the sale of foreign digital products and services in Canada, the Auditor-General found the federal government failed to collect an estimated $169-million in GST in 2017. The money could have been collected on the sale of movies and music that is sold in Canada by foreign companies such as Netflix and Spotify. Given that Canadian companies that operate in similar markets collect sales taxes, the report said the current situation placed them “at an unfair disadvantage in relation to foreign vendors.”

The Auditor-General said the Canada Revenue Agency has done little to ensure that e-commerce vendors, such as Airbnb, are registered to collect and remit sales taxes to the federal government.

In a chapter on the RCMP, the report found that not all officers “had access to the equipment they needed to respond to an active shooter situation.” The issue was not a lack of hard body armour, but the fact that “distribution across divisions left some officers without access to it.”

On the issue of semi-automatic carbines, the report found that “the RCMP did not set a national standard to manage the acquisition and distribution of carbines, including how many carbines were needed to equip officers.”

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“As a result, the RCMP did not know whether it had provided carbines to all of the officers who needed them,” the report said.

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