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ArriveCan contracting appears ‘illogical’ and ‘inefficient,’ Trudeau says

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's full press conference on Monday, January 23.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story stated the $44 million in federal contracts to GCstrategies were for the ArriveCan app. The $44 million in contracts were for the ArriveCan app as well as other projects, according to the Canada Border Services Agency. This article has been updated to reflect that information.

The contracting process used to build the ArriveCan app seems “illogical” and “inefficient,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says.

The Globe and Mail first reported on Monday that the Ottawa IT firm GCstrategies, which the government contracted to take on the ArriveCan app and other projects to the tune of $44 million over two years, actually subcontracted the work to build it to six other companies including international firms KPMG and BDO — which then hired the IT workers to actually build the application.

During a press conference on Monday, Trudeau was asked why the government didn’t skip the middle man and contract directly with the companies that hired the IT teams.

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“That’s exactly the question that I just asked of the public service,” Trudeau replied.

“Obviously, this is a practice that seems highly illogical and inefficient.”

Trudeau said he has “made sure” that the Clerk of the Privy Council is “looking into procurement practices” to “make sure that we’re getting value for money, and that we’re doing things in a smart and logical way.”

The contracts are laid out in documents tabled by the House of Commons government operations and estimates committee, which Global News has reviewed.

The documents show that GCstrategies paid the other companies to provide IT “resources,” with almost all employees charging daily rates of more than $1,200 — but many had a day rate of $1,500.

Speaking before the committee in November, GCstrategies’ managing partner, Kristian Firth, said they would have charged the government the industry standard, which he described as “anywhere from 15 per cent to 30 per cent.”

Click to play video: 'Tech Talk: $54 million price tag for ArriveCan App'
Tech Talk: $54 million price tag for ArriveCan App

Firth also confirmed that GCstrategies billed the government $9 million over the two years it was contracted to work on the application.

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An early estimate for the app’s preliminary development put the cost at just $80,000 — but the total price tag has since soared to more than $54 million.

The use of the ArriveCan app, which was introduced early in the pandemic, became mandatory at air and land borders in February 2021. The government announced it would be dropping the requirement in September 2022.

The app provided a screening process for incoming travellers during the COVID-19 pandemic, tracking their vaccination status. During the mandate, refusing to use the app to provide required information could have resulted in a fine of up to $5,000 under the Quarantine Act.

But the ArriveCan app proved a controversial tool fraught with technical setbacks.

A glitch in the app last year sent fully-vaccinated travellers erroneous messages saying they needed to quarantine. The glitch affected more than 10,000 people, according to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

Global News learned it took the government 12 days to notify travellers of the error.

The glitch prompted concerns from both opposition politicians and privacy advocates. The app collected personal data, such as names, telephone numbers, address and vaccination status, which was then used to help public health officials enforce the government’s quarantine rules.

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Concerns about how long this information is stored, and the way data is shared between different government agencies were raised by privacy and legal experts over the past two years.

Click to play video: 'Poilievre presses Liberals to explain ArriveCAN app contract after tech CEO says he never worked on it'
Poilievre presses Liberals to explain ArriveCAN app contract after tech CEO says he never worked on it

In June 2020, a group of federal Conservatives also asked the privacy commissioner to investigate ArriveCan due to concerns they had about the potential misuse of data.

The privacy commissioner responded two months later and said that he reviewed the app’s privacy conditions and that he didn’t have any concerns at the time. However, the watchdog launched a new probe in late July following a fresh complaint.

Despite all the setbacks, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra has defended the ArriveCan app.

“ArriveCan is a useful tool that helps verify the vaccination status of an individual before arriving at our borders,” he said at a committee meeting last summer.

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— with files from The Canadian Press, Global News’ Brian Hill

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