Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to the motion moved by our official opposition colleagues requiring that the Auditor General audit the payments, contracts and subcontracts for the ArriveCAN app.
I will reiterate what my Bloc Québécois colleagues said earlier. It is quite rich to make a link between, according to the wording of the Conservative motion, the money funnelled into ArriveCAN and general inflation. I find that rather rich, and I think that we will agree on that. Unfortunately, it is perhaps the Conservatives' rhetoric that is inflated.
The Bloc Québécois will nevertheless vote in favour of the motion because it supports the objective. The money spent on implementing and managing the ArriveCAN app must be scrutinized.
The Standing Committee on International Trade, of which I am a member, conducted a study on the ArriveCAN app. We were able to receive a good number of witnesses, including the customs union, who explained to us how disastrous the situation was, especially in the context of a labour shortage. The customs union told us that customs officers were already having a hard time completing regular tasks and the imposition of a new task, digitizing one more document, was really problematic. In a situation where Ottawa did nothing to fix the customs labour shortage problem, it certainly was reckless to make the ArriveCAN app mandatory.
Last summer, I was able to replace my colleague from Pierre-Boucher—Les Patriotes—Verchères at the emergency meeting of the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities to call for an inquiry into the delays at the airports, an inquiry that would force the Minister of Transport, who has to be responsible, to come testify. We saw last summer how disastrous travel management or travel in general was from beginning to end. From issuing passports to chaos at the airports, Ottawa did not consider that after two and a half years of pandemic, people might, and I mean might, just have a slight hankering to travel somewhere.
What happened was not pretty. Members will recall that we heard from children who had to wait 24 hours. Sometimes those 24 hours are double the time spent on a long flight to go to certain parts of Asia. Twenty‑four hours is a long time.
Our transportation industry did not receive the support provided to the industry in the United States and Europe. From the outset of the pandemic, a change in ministers was needed to get things going. There were many irritants, made worse by the fact that carriers are not required to refund tickets in the event of flight cancellations.
When a citizen fulfills their part of the contract, that is takes their hard-earned money and purchases a ticket, it seems to me that the minimum standard would be that they obtain the service they paid for. There is a loophole in the act in that regard. In the United States and Europe, it is not complicated. If a carrier refuses to provide a refund, they are fined. The air passenger bill of rights also does not apply to federal ports and airports. That is another major problem.
The situation was clearly made worse by the fact that Ottawa consistently refused to disclose a plan for lifting restrictions, a detailed plan, a plan that set out a step-by-step process for lifting restrictions and explaining the reason for each step. A plan is about predictability. Perhaps we could have avoided all that chaos had we had a plan.
For us, the use of the ArriveCAN app was mandatory, but other countries in the world took different approaches. For example, in Europe, people had to complete an online declaration at home before their trip. Let us be clear. The debate about ArriveCAN is not a debate about providing proof of vaccination at the border. It is about something else. We could always make arrangements to debate that issue if we wanted to, but this debate is not on that subject. Citizens did not need to use that app to show proof of vaccination at the border.
This summer, I heard from people who had to quarantine for 14 days because they failed to answer certain questions on the ArriveCAN questionnaire. Perhaps an 85-year-old woman might not be entirely comfortable with technology. Could that be the case?
ArriveCAN needed to be suspended. We are very happy that it is now optional.
Now it is time to take stock, but we know that the Liberals do not like investigations and research into how they award contracts. We have seen this time and time again. ArriveCAN was supposed to cost $80,000 to develop. In total, it ended up costing $54 million. That is quite something.
In fact, the customs union believes that the money spent on ArriveCAN would have been much better spent—and may I say that is an understatement—on equipment for border crossings or hiring staff because the government was already asking customs officers to manage ArriveCAN forms as well as work overtime. How does an $80,000 target turn into a $54 million invoice?
The process of awarding contracts was chaotic. The company that was awarded the contract, without a call for tenders, is called GC strategies. It is a company with only two employees. The two partners, Kristian Firth and Darren Anthony, already had numerous partnerships with the federal government, including the COVID Alert app that turned out to be completely useless.
The company says that it worked for TD Bank, CBC, the City of Ottawa, the LCBO and several federal government services. The partners act as intermediaries: The government provides them the requirements, then GC Strategies finds the necessary subcontractors to meet the requirements, but the Canadian government is in charge of project management, scope, budget and cost control. GC Strategies also uses a residential address and the company earned a commission of 15% to 30% according to the evidence that its officials provided in committee.
The Canadian government contacted them directly and they are not the ones who approached the government for this project. GC Strategies billed the government $9 million over the course of two years for all the work done for ArriveCAN, but that amount was for time, material and the commitment. The profit margin was 15% to 30%, or somewhere between $1.3 million and $2.7 million.
GC Strategies says it always met the government's deadlines and never missed a deadline even though it made 150 updates in two years.
In response to a question from my colleague from Beauport—Limoilou who asked how many contractors worked for GC Strategies, the company responded that the size of the team varied over time between 17 and 18 people and 25 to 30 people.
A bunch of questions remain unanswered and the government is responsible. It has to be accountable. The government is supposed to be accountable to Parliament, a victory of the patriotes of 1837-38. It has to prove how an app like ArriveCAN went from an estimated $80,000 to develop to a final cost of $54 million. The contracts, the payments and the outsourcing all have to be looked at by the Auditor General. It is a matter of basic transparency.