Five tweets on the ArriveCan app spending scandal

People wait in line to check in at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press.

The federal government is in hot water after a major Auditor General’s report this week revealed that the COVID-era ArriveCan app may have cost Canadian taxpayers a whopping $60 million dollars to build and run. The initial contract was valued at a mere $2.4 million.

The app’s development involved numerous suspicious sole-sourced (no competitive bidding) external contractors, limited user testing, and lacked any real budget or record keeping. 

Launched in 2020, the smartphone app was meant to track the vaccinations and contact information of travellers entering and leaving Canada; digitizing customs procedures in an effort to track travel and reduce the virus’ spread. It would eventually become mandatory. While the technology streamlined certain parts of the travel screening process, it was later criticized for creating long lines at airports, for breaching the privacy of Canadians, and for glitches when it ordered fully vaccinated travellers to quarantine. 

Most galling was the app’s price tag, which Auditor General Karen Hogan stated may ultimately be “impossible to determine” due to a lack of record keeping. One single external IT staffing firm GCStrategies, composed of just two employees, became the primary contractor and was awarded more than $19 million dollars. Other firms were doled out millions. In parliamentary hearings, GCStrategies told MPs their work involves locating subcontractors to perform work in exchange for commissions. While the Trudeau government has now suspended all work with the company, it has been paid a total of $258 million dollars in federal contracts across several departments since 2015. 

Here are five tweets reacting to the ArriveCan spending boondoggle:

In Question Period, Pierre Poilievre hammered the government on what his party now calls the “ArriveScam” app.

The Conservative leader described GCStrategies as a company “headquartered in the basement of a tiny cottage.” He added, “They got IT contracts even though they admit they do no work.” “WTF?”

After being called out by the Speaker of the House for unparliamentary language, The Leader of the Official Opposition clarified that the initials stood for “Where’s The Funds?” The party has already turned the phrase into merchandise.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has admitted the decision to use outside contractors to build the ArriveCan app seemed “illogical and efficient”. He previously asked the clerk of the Privy Council to examine procurement practices. His government plans to implement all of the auditor general’s recommendations.

This week, Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc said the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has indicated those responsible for this mismanagement will be held to account. He said the federal government “does not condone that behaviour [identified by the Auditor General] and has taken all the steps to make sure that those circumstances don’t repeat themselves.”

“The lack of documentation is difficult to understand,” admitted CBSA President Erin O’Gorman to parliamentarians when asked why federal financial documents involved in the contracting could not be found. “We have received allegations that emails were deleted.”

The agency is currently conducting an internal investigation. Two former executives have been suspended without pay.

Government agencies involved in ArriveCan have stressed not only that the pandemic meant there was an environment of confusion and uncertainty but that they had to get an app up and running as soon as possible. They have also highlighted that they simply didn’t have the skills or capacity to develop the technology themselves. Some of them even dispute the reported total costs of the contracts.

However, during the pandemic, the secretary of the Treasury Board issued a letter to all public servants indicating that while they need to act fast and reduce processes, they must remember to properly document their key decisions.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh called the affair the “ArriveCan debacle.” He said the money spent on the app came at the expense of Canadians, “who were really squeezed and trying to figure out how they pay their rent or mortgage and put food on the table and pay their bills.”

Finally, Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne bemoaned what he described as this country’s severe lack of accountability measures. 

In terms of potential criminal consequences, the RCMP is now assessing the auditor general’s report into government spending on the ArriveCan app. But, the police force has never said it is investigating ArriveCan directly.

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