Trudeau says decision to contract out ArriveCAN app development was 'illogical'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday he's asked the country's top civil servant to look into the contracting practices of his government. (The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn - image credit)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday he's asked the country's top civil servant to look into the contracting practices of his government. (The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn - image credit)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday it was "illogical and inefficient" for the public service to give millions of dollars in contracts to a two-person firm that subcontracted out its work on the ArriveCAN app.

Trudeau said he has asked Canada's top bureaucrat to probe the matter.

Trudeau made the remarks after a report by the Globe and Mail said that GCstrategies subcontracted out $8.3 million of $9 million in federal contracts related to the app's development to six outside companies.

Trudeau was asked why the public service couldn't hire those subcontractors or perform the work itself. "That's exactly the question that I just asked the public service," he said.

"Obviously, this is a practice that seems highly illogical and inefficient and I have made sure that the clerk of the Privy Council is looking into procurement practices to make sure that we are getting value for money and that we are doing things in a smart and logical way," he added.

"Of course, during the pandemic speed was at an essence, helping people quickly was at an essence, but there are principles that we make sure are sound moving forward."

The comments mark the second time in recent weeks the prime minister has deflected blame for contracting decisions to the public service.

Last month, CBC News revealed that Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) awarded Sinclair Technologies a contract worth $549,637 in 2021 to build and maintain a radio frequency (RF) filtering system for the RCMP.

While Sinclair is based in Ontario, its parent company, Norsat International, has been owned by Chinese telecommunications firm Hytera since 2017. The Chinese government owns about 10 per cent of Hytera through an investment fund.

Watch: PM says he has asked the Clerk of the Privy Council to investigate procurement practices:

At the time, Trudeau promised to look into how the contract was awarded and pledged to ensure that "Canada is not signing contracts with the lowest bidder that then turn around and leave us exposed to security flaws."

"We will have some real questions for the independent public service that signed these contracts, and we'll make sure that this is changed going forward," he said. "It's high time that happens."

ArriveCAN no longer mandatory

The Globe and Mail reports the six companies that received the ArrriveCan contracts include Distill Mobile Inc., which was paid $5.1 million, and Macadamian Technologies Inc., which got $1.8 million. The other firms, which received much smaller amounts, are BDO Canada LLP, Optiv Security Inc./Optiv Canada Inc., KPMG LLP and Level Access.

The Canada Border Services Agency says $54 million has been budgeted for the operation and development of the ArriveCAN app up to this coming March.

The app was launched during the pandemic as a communication and screening tool to ensure travellers arriving in Canada complied with pandemic border measures. It later became a way for travellers to show their vaccination status.

The app was made optional in October. Travellers no longer need to use it to report their vaccination information — but many of them can still use a feature of the app that allows them to fill out a Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) declaration form before arriving at customs.

Few travellers used the advance declaration tool at the airports where it was available during the month of October.

CBSA provided CBC News with the number of air passengers who used the app in Montreal's Trudeau airport, Toronto's Pearson airport and Vancouver's international airport — the only airports where the advance declaration feature was available at the beginning of October. CBC cross-referenced those numbers with the number of international arrivals at those airports for the same month.

Out of the roughly 2.4 million arrivals at those airports, just over 320,000 travellers — roughly 13 per cent —  used the app.