Thursday,  March 30, 2023  1:40 am

Canada's auditor general to review federal government’s ArriveCAN app

Canada's auditor general to review federal government’s ArriveCAN app
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (left); the ArriveCAN app. (File photos)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Canada's auditor general will be conducting a performance audit of the federal government's contentious ArriveCAN app, according to reports.

The now-optional software came under scrutiny when it was a mandatory tool for entry into Canada during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. And that criticism carried well into 2022.

Last November, opposition MPs teamed up to pass a motion calling for an audit into the app – in particular, its estimated $54 million price tag and the contracts Ottawa awarded to build and maintain it.

Last year’s motion called on the Auditor General of Canada to "conduct a performance audit, including the payments, contracts and sub-contracts for all aspects of the ArriveCan app, and to prioritize this investigation."

READ MORE: Spending on ArriveCAN projected to top $54M – double what Ottawa originally stated

It appears the opposition got its wish – while parliamentarian motions are non-binding, they can influence the type of work Canada's auditor general will take on.

As reported by CTV News, Auditor General Karen Hogan's office confirmed that a probe into ArriveCAN will take place. However, a spokesperson did not say exactly when the findings would be released.

Additionally, the Government Operations and Estimates Committee is currently conducting separate study that has included requesting unredacted government documents related to the planning, contracting, and subcontracting of ArriveCAN, CTV News reported.

Question marks

ArriveCAN was first introduced as a mandatory requirement for entry into Canada in April 2020 and then made optional on Oct. 1, 2022. 

Introduced at the onset of the pandemic, the app originally served as a way to screen inbound travellers to Canada by collecting travel and health-related information, including vaccination status.

READ MORE: T.O.-based tech company holds “hackathon” to rebuild ArriveCAN

Calls to investigate the platform stem from transparency concerns related to Ottawa’s outsourcing tactics – with one company, GC Strategies, being at the centre of it all.

Canada's auditor general will review the ArriveCAN app. (File photo)

Questions are swirling after the Globe and Mail exposed that Ottawa paid millions over two years to GC Strategies, a two-person firm in Ottawa, for work related to building ArriveCAN.

The firm reportedly subcontracted six other companies to do the work, including multinationals like BDO and KPMG, and kept a commission of between 15 and 30 per cent for themselves.

Why did the public service not just hire those firms directly or develop the app in-house?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in January, said he was looking for answers to that exact question.

Speaking to reporters at the time, the PM called the contracting process that went into building ArriveCAN “illogical” and “inefficient.”

ArriveCAN’s soaring costs are also raising eyebrows.

READ MORE: How the ArriveCAN app went from costing $80,000 to $54 million

Last October, it was revealed that the $80,000 it originally cost to create ArriveCAN would balloon to at least $54 million by March 2023, according to a cost breakdown released to media at the time.

Last November, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) missed a key deadline for submitting invoices related to the development of the app.

At the time, GC Strategies’ managing partner, Kristian Firth, said they would have charged the government the industry standard, which he pegged “anywhere from 15 per cent to 30 per cent.”

Firth also confirmed that GC Strategies billed Ottawa $9 million over the two years it was contracted to work on ArriveCAN.

"To be clear, we did not build ArriveCAN. We were approached to provide a team for consideration to fulfil certain ArriveCAN requirements," Firth told a parliamentary committee last October. "We are, however, very proud of the team we gave the Government of Canada, whom they managed and gave direction to throughout the project."

The PM has since asked the Privy Council to look at the government's procurement practices to make sure they were getting good value for the money it spent.

Before it was made optional, ArriveCAN was targeted by border communities, tourism groups, travel agent advocates and Conservative MPs who, for months, argued that the sometimes-glitchy tool was hindering the recovery of Canada’s travel industry.

Since last fall, Ottawa has been promoting the app’s effectiveness, unveiling upgrades to the platform, such as the optional “Advance CBSA Declaration” feature.

This allows travellers to answer customs and immigration questions up to 72 hours in advance of flying into Canada – as a voluntary option.

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