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The MPs on the Commons government operations committee have been trying for a year to find out how a mobile app to track people coming into Canada grew into a $54-million project.Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

If you want to follow the parliamentary hearings where MPs are trying to determine who chose a two-person firm to build the ArriveCan app, it’s best to think of the whole question as a soft, chewy doughnut. As much as you eat around the edges of the truth, there is nothing in the middle.

That might be the only way to retain your sanity while listening to bureaucrats dance around the question. Tuesday’s case in point was the testimony of Minh Doan, now the government’s chief technology officer, who clearly didn’t care for answers as brusque as a yes or no, and, in the end, led MPs back to nowhere.

The MPs on the Commons government operations committee have been trying for a year to find out how a mobile app to track people coming into Canada grew into a $54-million project – and, in particular, who chose to give $11-million of that work to GCStrategies, a two-person firm that wins contracts and collects thick commissions but subcontracts all the IT work.

A bureaucrat points a finger in an ArriveCan whodunnit

But last week, MPs must have thought they were getting close when a senior government official, Cameron MacDonald, pointed the finger at his former boss, Minh Doan.

Mr. MacDonald told the committee that Mr. Doan had called him a year ago, crying and almost yelling, threatening to make Mr. MacDonad the fall guy. Mr. MacDonald said Mr. Doan had lied to the MPs on the committee on Oct 24. Mr. MacDonald said it was Mr. Doan who chose GCStrategies for ArriveCan.

In the quiet world of Ottawa’s public service, that was a shocker. Mr. MacDonald and Mr. Doan, who worked together at the Canada Border Services Agency in 2020 when the ArriveCan project began, have gone on to more senior roles in different government departments. One might have expected Mr. Doan’s testimony to be a turning point. Instead, it led in circles.

At the Nov. 7 hearing, Mr. MacDonald told MPs that his team had been asked to rush together options for a border-entry app in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, contacted half a dozen firms, and came up with two options: One was with GCStrategies and the other a major consulting firm, Deloitte. But he said Mr. Doan told him in a meeting that Deloitte was in the “penalty box” because of difficulties on another contract – and that left only one option: GCStrategies. It was Mr. Doan who made the decision, and employees at CBSA knew it, Mr. MacDonald said.

Mr. Doan had a different interpretation. He said on Tuesday that he was presented with two different options. One was completely outsourcing the app to Deloitte. The other was to develop the app in-house, with help from outside IT workers, provided by a contractor. Mr. Doan said he chose the hybrid model. But he said that decision involved a “strategic direction,” not a contractor. It took lots of questions, and unclear answers, before Mr. Doan indicated that he didn’t know GCStrategies would be the contractor for the hybrid model.

In short, he testified he had made a decision. Just not the one to bring in GCStrategies.

That led to the obvious question: Was Mr. MacDonald lying, or was he? Mr. Doan clearly didn’t want to answer. When Conservative MP Larry Brock asked for a yes-or-no answer about whether Mr. MacDonald had told the truth, Mr. Doan told him it wasn’t a yes-or-no question.

Mr. Doan was nervous, there was no doubt. He was – unusual for such hearings – sworn in as a witness, and when he was accused of being evasive later, he said he was being careful because he was sworn to tell the truth. He made such a habit of restating the questions he was posed, rather than answering directly, that it seemed like he feared answering any question clearly.

But Mr. Doan wanted to make one thing clear. He didn’t choose GCStrategies for ArriveCan. He might have made the decision that led to GCStrategies working on ArriveCan, but he didn’t know it at the time. He said he still doesn’t know who first asked GCStrategies to bid on ArriveCan.

MPs who thought they were working their way in from the edges and zeroing in on who is responsible for choosing GCStrategies were again told there was no one at the centre of the question. Somehow, officials built ArriveCan as an app with a hole in the middle – where the answers are supposed to be.

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