Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Canada Border Services Agency President Erin O'Gorman appears at a House of Commons standing committee on Public Accounts on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 13.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canada Border Services Agency president Erin O’Gorman said inadequate oversight of government spending is “completely unacceptable” and vowed to fix the issue after the Auditor-General sharply criticized her department over its poor management and record keeping as the cost of the ArriveCan app grew to nearly $60-million.

Auditor-General Karen Hogan’s Monday report raised several strong concerns, including questioning why border agency officials approved invoices and time sheets from contractors in cases where details of work performed were often missing.

Ms. O’Gorman and Ms. Hogan appeared together Tuesday afternoon before the House of Commons committee on public accounts to discuss the audit report.

“I have to say that I am deeply concerned by what this audit didn’t find,” Ms. Hogan told MPs. “We didn’t find records to accurately show how much was spent on what, who did the work, or how and why contracting decisions were made. And that paper trail should have existed.”

The report also raised red flags about agency employees involved with the ArriveCan project being invited to dinners and other activities by private vendors. The report said the agency’s code of conduct requires employees to advise their superiors of all offers of gifts or hospitality, yet the auditors found no evidence that supervisors were informed.

Ms. O’Gorman is a former senior Treasury Board official who was brought in to lead the border agency in July, 2022, after the retirement of John Ossowski, meaning she was not at the agency when the ArriveCan app was launched and updated.

“It’s absolutely unacceptable,” Ms. O’Gorman told MPs Tuesday in reference to the report’s findings. “The lack of documentation is what’s giving rise to all of these questions that we can’t answer.”

At one point, she said she was not entirely surprised by the report’s conclusions, because she has also been finding issues since joining the agency.

Ms. O’Gorman said she shares the concerns related to the audit’s findings and expressed hope that they don’t put at risk the trust Canadians have for border officials working across the country and around the world.

“We are fixing this and we are troubled by this,” she said.

The ArriveCan app for international travellers was launched at the onset of the pandemic in April, 2020, and required numerous updates.

Earlier in the day, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre sent a letter to RCMP Commissioner Mike Duheme asking the national police force to expand its existing investigation into contracting issues at the CBSA to include the Auditor-General’s findings.

Mr. Poilievre wrote that Monday’s report “exposed corruption, mismanagement, and misconduct on a massive scale.”

Ms. Hogan has not used the word corruption to describe what she found. She said questions of potential criminality are best answered by the police, a view she repeated Tuesday.

The Auditor-General repeated her assertion Tuesday that her audit “shows a glaring disregard for basic management and contracting practices throughout ArriveCan’s development and implementation.”

Her report said officials paid invoices that lacked descriptions of the services provided and said private IT staffing company GCStrategies was directly involved in writing the narrowly worded terms for a contract that it ultimately won.

The Auditor-General found federal departments spent about $59.5-million on outsourcing work with private contractors related to ArriveCan, but Ms. Hogan said the lack of clear records of spending and decisions means the true cost could be higher or lower.

In his letter, Mr. Poilievre focuses on Ms. Hogan’s findings related to interactions between vendors and public servants.

“There were also severe violations of the CBSA code of conduct, including failure to disclose whisky tastings and extravagant dinners paid for by lobbyists and private interests,” he wrote, adding it “is completely unacceptable.”

Mr. Poilievre raised his letter during Tuesday afternoon’s Question Period, asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau whether he will “stay out of the way” and allow the RCMP to investigate Ms. Hogan’s findings.

In his first public comments on the Auditor-General’s report, Mr. Trudeau said the COVID-19 pandemic was a “once-in-a century-occurrence” and every decision the government made was designed to protect Canadians.

“At the same time, Mr. Speaker, even in a situation like that, there are rules that need to be followed and we expect – all Canadians expect – public servants to follow those rules. And we will of course encourage the RCMP to do its work. But it doesn’t take politicians, even leaders of the opposition, to tell the RCMP to do their job. They do their job, Mr. Speaker, and they do it well,” he said.

Monday’s audit report was produced in response to a motion put forward by Mr. Poilievre and approved in the House of Commons in November, 2022, shortly after The Globe and Mail first revealed that the cost of the pandemic-era app had climbed to at least $54-million.

The motion passed over the objections of Liberal and Green Party MPs.

On Oct. 4, 2023, The Globe reported the RCMP was investigating allegations of contracting-related misconduct involving an outsourced IT project at the border agency. The allegations were brought forward by Montreal software company Botler, which did not work on ArriveCan but did work with GCStrategies managing partner Kristian Firth and CBSA officials who worked on ArriveCan.

The two Botler co-founders alleged that their résumés were inflated in contracting documents and expressed concerns about cozy ties between public servants and private contractors.

The RCMP confirmed last year that it was investigating Botler’s allegations but also indicated it was not investigating ArriveCan. The RCMP did not immediately respond to a request for comment this week on the Auditor-General’s report.

Ms. O’Gorman told MPs Tuesday that the agency is improving its “challenge function” with respect to contracting.

The agency responded to the audit report by saying it has centralized its procurement decisions into a single Procurement Directorate and clarified the rules related to invoicing. This office will act as a “single window” for interactions between the agency and vendors.

It is also creating a new contract review board that will approve contracts and related task authorizations. Beginning March 31, all agency staff will be required to report all interactions with private vendors.

Public Services and Procurement Canada, the department responsible for government-wide contracting, said it has updated its guidelines to procurement staff to ensure contracting-related documents include clear descriptions of what work has been provided.

Mahmood Nanji, fellow at the Ivey Business School at Western University, told The Globe that it is reasonable to ask the RCMP to review the issues raised in the Auditor-General’s report.

“If I was leading that organization and there was information there that suggested that there was some real compromise of the code of conduct, there may have been criminality, I’d be the first one to say we need to let the police investigate this matter. So I don’t think it’s outrageous,” said Mr. Nanji, who is a former associate deputy minister of finance in the Ontario public service and who also worked at the federal Treasury Board.

Mr. Nanji said the CBSA’s policy responses appear to be serious, but he also questioned why such oversight was not already in place.

“What I found in this report, which I think is a very damning report, is that some just basic things were not done here.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe