Ottawa is making plans to expand the capabilities of its ArriveCAN app even as criticism continues to mount over the mandatory online data-entry system for travellers entering the country.
Earlier this week, Transport Canada gave an update on its plans to improve the app, including by adding an optional, online advance CBSA declaration feature for people going to the Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Billy Bishop Toronto City, Ottawa, Québec City and Halifax international airports.
The feature, which Transport Canada says cuts the amount of time travellers spend at a Canada Border Services Agency kiosk by a third, is currently only available to those passing through Toronto Pearson, Vancouver or Montreal-Trudeau international airports.
"With the thousands of travellers arriving in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal airports each day, the use of the optional advance CBSA declaration has the potential to save hours in wait time," according to Transport Canada's release.
With Ottawa signalling no plans to do away with the app, here's a refresher on how it works, why it's in place — and who's for and against its continued use.
Why was it put in place?
Though the app was introduced earlier in the pandemic, the version of ArriveCAN people are familiar with today launched in July 2021, when Canada began easing public health restrictions on people coming into Canada. Fully vaccinated Canadians and permanent residents crossing the border were no longer required to quarantine upon their return.
But Canada still wanted a way to account for people's vaccination statuses and COVID-19 results from a recent test. The app allowed travellers to take a photo or upload a snapshot of their vaccine documentation into the app before going through customs.
How does it work today?
Canada has lifted most of its travel restrictions for fully vaccinated travellers, including the need for domestic travellers to show proof of vaccination while travelling by train or plane.
But regardless of vaccination status, all travellers coming into Canada are required to submit their information to the ArriveCAN app — or the website version if they don't have a smartphone — up to 72 hours before entering Canada.
When travellers finish inputting their information, they're emailed a receipt to show a Canadian border officer upon arrival, along with their COVID-19 test results and any vaccination documents.
The app has not been without its issues. Last month, the CBSA acknowledged a glitch that incorrectly informed travellers to quarantine when in fact they didn't have to, affecting around 10,200 people.
What are the potential penalties for non-compliance?
Canadians who fail to provide the required information through ArriveCAN won't be denied entry but may face a 14-day quarantine, the need to take a COVID-19 test on arrival and a followup test eight days later.
They may also be fined $5,000 and face "additional delays at the border for public health questioning," according to Canada's main ArriveCAN information page.
Is anyone exempt from using ArriveCAN?
Yes, including people who can't access the app or website because of cognitive or physical impairments.
Instead, they may provide the information verbally at the border or by completing a paper form.
The exemption also applies to people who can't fill out the information online because of a natural disaster, censorship, lack of access to internet or an ArriveCAN outage.
There is a degree of leeway for some people at land border crossings too.
As of May 24, "to allow for more flexibility," the Canada Border Services Agency began letting fully vaccinated Canadian land travellers off with a warning the first time they neglect to fill out the app if they had no prior history of non-compliance.
The agency told Radio-Canada on Friday that since late July, fully vaccinated foreign travellers entering Canada by land have also been able to avail themselves of the one-time exemption.
The union representing border workers told CBC News last month that between 30 and 40 per cent of travellers entering into Canada in Windsor, Ont., weren't completing the app before arriving.
Who's against it?
Border city mayors have said the app is a barrier for tourists looking to enter Canada, and for trade.
Other politicians — including Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidates Jean Charest, Pierre Poilievre, Leslyn Lewis and Scott Aitchison — have called for the app to be scrapped, saying it creates headaches for some travellers and and contributes to delays at airports.
In a tweet last month, Poilievre called on Canada to "stop forcing ArriveCAN on people" and "restore sanity to our airports." The tweet included video, which CBC News has not verified, of an elderly person without a cell phone calling the app "bureaucracy run amok" while at a Toronto airport.
Lewis more recently called the app a "surveillance experiment" that needs to end.
Who wants the app to stay?
MP Taylor Bachrach, the New Democrats' transport critic, said ArriveCAN continues to play "an important role" in helping screen international arrivals for new variants and for verifying that visitors to Canada are fully vaccinated to protect the country's health care system.
"But the government must make the app work as intended so it can reduce wait times at airports and border crossings as promised," Bachrach said in a statement.
The government also needs to better address people who can't use the online app for accessibility reasons, he added.
"It is totally inappropriate for customs agents to be acting as IT technicians as they troubleshoot travellers' technology challenges" he said.
Green Party MP Elizabeth May said she has found the app helpful and easy to use during her travels.
"The recent glitch, on the other hand, demonstrates a serious problem in terms of privacy breaches," she said in a statement.
What does the government have to say about it?
In its release earlier this week, Transport Canada said 1,600 security screening officers with the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority have been hired across Canada since April, while 30 new customs inspection kiosks have been recently added at Toronto Pearson International Airport.
In its own statement to CBC News, the CBSA said 99.53 per cent of air travellers used ArriveCAN in the week ending July 17, according to the most recently available data.
Millions of people have used the app without issue, the spokesperson added.
"Without ArriveCAN, processing times for travellers would increase significantly, as these public health functions would need to be completed manually for each traveller by CBSA officers at the port of entry."