CBSA 'misled' Procurement Canada on ArriveCAN contract details: internal documents

CBSA provided contradictory responses on how many companies worked on ArriveCAN, with 27 contracts tabled to 23 unique companies. They initially reported only five companies had worked on the app.

CBSA 'misled' Procurement Canada on ArriveCAN contract details: internal documents
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According to internal documents, the astronomical costs of the ArriveCAN app prompted weeks of turmoil and finger-pointing among government officials.

Public Services and Procurement Canada privately vented their frustrations with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) over sending insufficient contracting deals on ArriveCAN.

On October 6, The Globe first reported that total spending on the project stood at $54 million, doubling initial government projections.

Parliament launched the expensive ArriveCAN app in April 2020 as an alleged pandemic management tool for travellers to upload mandatory health information, such as vaccination status, at border crossings.

"We know this was a huge waste of our money," said Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre. "The government spent $54 million on an app that could have been developed over a single weekend for $250,000."

At a committee appearance last October 20, the two partners of GCstrategies, the Ottawa-based company that earned the contract, confirmed they subcontracted the IT work to several companies, charging between a 15% and 30% commission rate. The firm billed Ottawa for the project between $1,000 to $1,500 per worker daily.

Over the past two years, GCstrategies has invoiced $44 million in federal work with more than 20 departments.

The Globe also learned that CBSA provided contradictory responses on how many companies worked on ArriveCAN, with 27 contracts tabled to 23 unique companies. They initially reported only five companies had worked on the app.

Also, on October 20, CBSA wrongly listed Canadian tech company ThinkOn Inc. as having received $1.2 million for ArriveCAN work, only to correct the record a week later, claiming it was with Microsoft.

Among the documents The Globe obtained through an access to information request, the publication learned that one procurement officer questioned if CBSA had even followed federal rules when they awarded GCstrategies the contract.

"Since the contracts with GCStrategies were sole-sourced and were valued at more than $1 million, at a minimum, the officer should have consulted with a price analyst as per policy," wrote Jeremie Mageau-David, a procurement official.

Two days later, he raised this concern with Ron Cormier, director general of business technology solutions at Public Services and Procurement Canada.

"I am worried that the team did not take all the necessary steps normally required with respect to cost and profit analysis for the ArriveCan contract," he penned in an October 28 email.

Cormier responded: "As I understand things, we issued the first contract quickly, and the urgency didn't allow for a costing review at that time."

PSPC spokesperson Michèle LaRose told The Globe they hired GCStrategies to meet an 'urgent need' at the onset of the COVID pandemic.

"We can confirm all policies and directives were followed during this procurement," she said.

CBSA spokesperson Guillaume Bérubé told the publication they worked collaboratively with other departments for committee appearances.

"The CBSA was guided by the Government of Canada's contracting regulations while developing ArriveCan during an extraordinary time and on an emergency basis," he said when asked about the documents.

The internal documents show that as late as November 9, procurement department officials expressed frustration at the lack of clear information from the border agency as they prepared to explain the situation at a coming committee hearing.

On November 9, another procurement officer expressed frustration over not knowing the total number of contracts dished out for ArriveCAN. Senior Director Laura Medeiros understood that number to be 19 contracts.

On November 14, Michael Mills, an assistant deputy minister, urged colleagues not to provide MPs with updated accounting at an upcoming Commons hearing, citing a "lack of clarity."

As of March 3, Public Services and Procurement Canada pegged the costs for the app at $55 million. Results on a special spending audit for ArriveCAN remain pending.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked the Clerk of the Privy Council earlier this year to review the ArriveCAN contracts and subcontracts tied to GCstrategies, after facing questions on why the federal government couldn't hire these IT companies directly.

"That's exactly the question I asked of the public service," he said. "This is a practice that seems highly illogical and inefficient." 

In February, Federal Auditor General Karen Hogan announced an independent audit of the government's management of the ArriveCAN app.

Opposition MPs voted 174-149 last November to investigate all payments and contracts associated with creating and maintaining the app.

Since last October 1, only a tenth of Canadian air travellers have used the 'highly illogical' ArriveCAN app to provide proof of vaccination when it became an optional requirement for travel.

In an Inquiry by Ministry tabled in the Commons, Public Safety Canada disclosed that of 9.97 million air travellers who entered Canada in the first quarter of the year, only 1.13 million (11%) used the ArriveCAN app.

CBSA told The Globe that further contract cost information will be presented to Parliament later this year.

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