Border mayors call on federal government to scrap the ArriveCAN app

·7 min read
Travellers return through a CBSA entry point at the Canada-U.S. international border crossing in Surrey, British Columbia. Border city mayors say the federal government's ArriveCAN app for tracking cross-border COVID cases is undermining their economies. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Travellers return through a CBSA entry point at the Canada-U.S. international border crossing in Surrey, British Columbia. Border city mayors say the federal government's ArriveCAN app for tracking cross-border COVID cases is undermining their economies. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

A group of mayors and businesses in communities along the Canada-U.S. border is calling on the federal government to end the ArriveCAN app, saying it is discouraging Americans from visiting and shopping in Canada.

Mayor Mike Bradley, of Sarnia, Ont., said the app has been a disaster and is no longer needed.

"When you're riding a dead horse, dismount," he said. "That's what the federal government needs to do."

In an interview with CBC News Network, Bradley said he doesn't feel the government is listening to his concerns about the app and its effect on tourism in border communities, even though the government is dropping other public health measures.

"All the other things are disappearing, yet here we are, the prime entry points to Canada, and we're still being dismissed," he said.

Peter Power/The Canadian Press
Peter Power/The Canadian Press

Bradley further said he'd recently heard from American tourists who'd cancelled a trip to Canada because the app is still required to cross the border.

Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati said his community depends on tourism and the 10 million people who used to cross the border each year prior to the pandemic.

"We typically have a log jam," Diodati told reporters. "This year, with this uncertainty and the confusion and the labyrinth of rules at the border with this ArriveCAN app, it is going to be a disaster at the border if the Americans even choose to come."

The ArriveCAN app was introduced during the pandemic to allow travellers to report their trips and vaccination status. Ottawa requires that travellers use the ArriveCAN mobile app, or its desktop version, to submit their travel and COVID-19-related health information before arriving in Canada.

Travellers who fail to do so can face a 14-day quarantine and even a $5,000 fine.

The calls to drop the app come a day after the federal government announced that it is easing a number of restrictions introduced during the pandemic. It did not announce it was eliminating the ArriveCAN app.

NDP MP Richard Cannings, whose British Columbia riding of South Okanagan-West Kootenay includes six border crossings, said trade is down 95 per cent for some of the businesses in his riding.

"We really depend, in normal times, on that cross-border traffic," he said.

Cannings said he would like to see the government build a system that keeps Canadians safe while allowing businesses to keep going.

Cannings said some of his constituents find the ArriveCAN app difficult to use.

"My constituents are very concerned because a lot of seniors don't have phones, don't know what an app is and yet they have to produce that when they come back into Canada," he said.

Government has 'punished border communities': critic

Barbara Barrett is executive director of the Frontier Duty Free Association, the industry association for Canada's land border duty free shops. She said border communities are "the hardest hit of the hardest hit."

"Border communities during the pandemic have been penalized by severe federal measures that have not been applied to either air travel or domestic travel," she said. "Inexplicably, this federal government has punished border communities with inconsistent and incoherent border travel rules."

Barrett said Tuesday's "timid" government announcement showed that Ottawa doesn't understand the plight of border communities.

"Border businesses that depend on U.S. tourism are still 50 per cent down from 2019," she said.

Diodati said the last two years have been devastating for tourism in the Niagara area.

WATCH | Border communities call on Ottawa to get rid of ArriveCAN:

He called on the government to take the additional money it is planning to spend on the ArriveCAN app and give it to municipalities to help them attract tourists.

"What is happening right now is that Americans are showing up in their minivan with their family at the border with no knowledge of the ArriveCAN app," said Diodati. "They don't have roaming, they can't download the app, there's a line-up of cars behind them, they can't get into the country.

"If you upset your customers, they go back and tell all their friends and many people are bypassing Canada and that is going to have long-lasting effects on this country."

Diodati said he regularly talks with mayors across the border in the U.S.

U.S. businesses have the advantage now: mayor

"They're loving the situation right now," he said. "Canadians can easily and freely go to the U.S. and spend all of our hard-earned disposable income. And with the latest measure removing vaccine mandates for not-vaccinated Canadians to travel to the U.S., again, it gives us a chance to spend all of our money in the U.S. but we're not being reciprocated."

Pauline Quinlan, former mayor of the Quebec town of Bromont, said the app is unnecessary and is discouraging tourism in her area.

Bradley said mayors of border communities used to meet regularly with the federal government during the pandemic. Now, he said, they're not being consulted and the government isn't responding to their needs.

"It's like a boa constrictor on our communities that is just squeezing the economy when we should be going in the other direction," he said.

U.S. Congressman Brian Higgins, whose district includes Buffalo and Niagara Falls, echoed the call to scrap the ArriveCAN app.

"The ArriveCAN app and other restrictions continue to be a barrier to the free flow of people across the northern border," Higgins said in a media statement.

"My office regularly receives calls from western New Yorkers frustrated and confused by the technology and frequently changing, disjointed requirements for crossing between the U.S. and Canada. Consequently, to bypass the uncertainty and hassle it creates, many are avoiding making the trip across the border entirely."

Appearing before the House of Commons international trade committee, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) vice-president Denis Vinette said the ArriveCAN app has allowed his officers to verify passengers faster than the old paper system permitted. He said the app has improved flow across the border and minimized delays.

As of May 2, over 99 per cent of air travellers and 94 per cent of people crossing at land borders used the ArriveCAN app, Vinette said.

The CBSA says it plans to add customs declarations to the ArriveCAN app.

"Later this month we will be rolling out, within the ArriveCAN application, advanced declarations where someone coming to the border will be able to pre-submit their customs and immigration declaration," Vinette told the committee.

Marie-Hélène Lévesque, director general for compliance and enforcement at the Public Health Agency of Canada, described the app as a valuable tool that has helped mitigate the risks of COVID-19 in international travel. While she acknowledged the delays at the border, she said it wasn't because of the app.

App not effective against COVID: tourism industry leader

Testifying before the trade committee Wednesday, Beth Potter, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada (TIAC), said the app is a hassle for travellers and has failed to significantly reduce COVID-19 transmission.

"I would argue that the mandatory use of ArriveCAN is no longer needed for COVID-related purposes," she told the committee.

"ArriveCAN has not been proven to be the effective tool to stop COVID. It is largely viewed as a hindrance to travel and it is causing significant delays upon arrival in Canada."

CBC
CBC

Potter said the app is particularly difficult for American day travellers to Canada to use because they can't always fill out the sections that ask for the address they're travelling to, for example, or a location where they can quarantine.

Mark Weber, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union, said the app has CBSA officers acting as "IT consultants" for travellers.

"It's an incredible drain on resources. It's a drain on time," he told committee members.

But Weber said the app isn't the only thing causing delays at points of entry. Inadequate staffing is a problem too, he said.

"Even if the decision is to no longer use the app, the lack of personnel that we have at the frontline will still cause delays. That's something that has to be addressed as well," he said.

Windsor West NDP MP Brian Masse didn't mince his words on ArriveCAN.

"I can assure you that if every time Parliamentarians had to return to the [Parliamentary] Precinct and use ArriveCAN, we wouldn't have this app," he said at committee.

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