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News May 30, 2023

It’s not a secret anymore: Canada Border Services nabs national dis-honour

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has been recognized as the federal winner in the 2022 Code of Silence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy for its failure to disclose basic information about how the controversy-laden ArriveCan app’s cost to taxpayers ballooned beyond figures disclosed in original public cost estimates.

According to an analysis conducted by The Globe and Mail, the pandemic-era public health app cost taxpayers more than $54 million, an amount that was nearly double the amount previously estimated.

“After spending at least ten times what it should have for the ArriveCan app, CBSA provided Canadian media with misinformation about how that happened,” said James L. Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression.

In addition to the lack of clarity regarding the project’s bloated price tag, this year’s jury deemed CBSA to be worthy of this year’s federal Code of Silence Award for the lack of transparency, and conflicting responses, provided by the agency around the awarding of government contracts related to the app.

During the summer of 2022, the CBSA told media outlets there were a total of five companies that had received contracts related to the app. That number skyrocketed to a total of 27 contracts involving 23 unique companies, in documents the agency later submitted to Parliament.

The Globe and Mail found that the contracts contained "several issues related to transparency," including the fact that many of the contracts "are not clearly stated as such when they are posted on the government’s contracting site" and they "can involve a mix of work that includes ArriveCan and other matters, making it challenging to track the spending."

For example, one tech company ThinkOn was said to have received a $1.2 million contract, but its CEO Craig McLellan called on the CBSA to issue a correction, saying his company had never received that money. The CBSA later admitted it had been wrong and launched a review.

A parliamentary committee ordered the CBSA to disclose outsourced invoices related to the app, but it missed the deadline to do so. The agency’s president Erin O’Gorman subsequently told parliamentarians she was unsure when the requests for documents would be fulfilled.

“CBSA missed deadlines in providing answers to Parliament and ultimately said it did not have key information and made no commitment to finding it, a troubling violation of government transparency,” Turk said.  

In addition to the CBSA’s repeated institutional sloppiness, the award’s jury also selected two dis-honourable mentions worthy of recognition.

The first dis-honourable mention was the Trans Mountain Corporation, which is a federal Crown Corporation subject to the Access to Information Act. The jury noted how, despite the fact that the corporation relies on billions of dollars of public money, it has improperly withheld information from Canadians.  

Of particular concern was a March 18, 2022 communiqué by the Office of the Information Commissioner that addressed a complaint alleging the Crown Corporation did not fully disclose documents pertaining to the Trans Mountain Project and other 2019 board meeting affairs.

The second dis-honourable mention of this year’s competition was bestowed on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). For a decade, the department kept secret a scientific study that raised serious questions about the safety of salmon-farming operations in British Columbia.

The Code of Silence Awards are presented annually by the CAJ, the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University (CFE), and the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). The awards intend to call public attention to government or publicly-funded agencies that work hard to hide information to which the public has a right to under access to information legislation.

The remaining 2022 Code of Silence Awards will be handed out bi-weekly.  Earlier this month, the Toronto Police Service was recognized as the winner in the law enforcement category.

This year’s winner in the provincial category will be announced on June 13.

For further information: James Turk, Director, Centre for Free Expression, The Creative School, Toronto Metropolitan University,, 613-277-0488