Pandemic Was No Excuse for ArriveCan Scandal, Information Commissioner Says

Pandemic Was No Excuse for ArriveCan Scandal, Information Commissioner Says
Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard prepares to appear at the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, in Ottawa, on March 7, 2023. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)
Matthew Horwood

Canada’s Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard said she was “dismayed” by the auditor general’s recent report detailing how the Canada Border Services Agency handled the development of the ArriveCan app, adding she rejected excuses given by the agency.

“I reject any suggestion that in retrospect, a failure of this nature was justifiable or even understandable, given the circumstances that arose from the pandemic. I also take issue with the notion that this type of outcome could not have been foreseen,” Ms. Maynard told the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates (OGGO) on Feb. 21.

Ms. Maynard, whose office investigates complaints about the processing of access to information requests by government institutions, said she had received complaints about requests related to “various contracts awarded by institutions during the pandemic,” including the ArriveCan app.

Ms. Maynard alluded to a statement she published back in April 2020 during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when she said measures to promote transparency within government institutions needed to be built retroactively to ensure there would be a “full accounting of the measures taken and the vast financial resources committed by the government” during the emergency.

“As I have demonstrated, I was acutely aware of the possibility of this type of scenario; that it could happen, and that it has been consistently and repeatedly issued after issuing warnings to that effect,” Ms. Maynard told OGGO. She added that the circumstances of the pandemic had not “suspended the right of access to information,” nor did it “absolve institutions of the duty to document.”

Ms. Maynard also told OGGO that the CBSA was the government department with the most complaints from her office, with 654 complaints levied against the department in 2024 alone.

“They are having issues responding on time to requests and they also have a lot of files with respect to refusal and the application of exemptions to files,” she said.

Auditor General Karen Hogan’s Feb. 12 report on ArriveCan, an app used to check the COVID-19 vaccination status of travellers entering Canada, found that government agencies did not follow proper management and contracting practices when it came to the app’s development. Additionally, key records around the app’s development processes and financial decisions were also missing, an issue Ms. Hogan said she was “deeply concerned” by.

On Feb. 13, CBSA President Erin O'Gorman told MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee that she shared Canadians’ concerns around how ArriveCan was developed. She said while her agency had been working “as quickly as possible” to build the app for the Public Health Agency of Canada, the failure to document decisions around the app were not acceptable.

While many Liberal ministers have acknowledged that the procurement and development process around the estimated $59.5 million app was flawed, they have repeatedly said that the app was necessary to speed up the processing of people crossing the Canada-U.S. border.

“Let us remember that during the pandemic, we were reaching out to try and keep people safe, keep people alive,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said of the app on Feb. 20.