ArriveCan app could have use beyond pandemic, public safety minister says

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said the much-criticized ArriveCan app could help speed up border bottlenecks and may have uses beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

Marco Mendicino visited a Windsor, Ont. customs crossing Tuesday, promoting gun safety bill

Two men stand in front of a vehicle inspecting a small package.
During a visit to Windsor, Ont., Tuesday, Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino saw a demonstration of technologies used by border officers to detect and seize illicit firearms and goods before entering the country. He said the ArriveCan app has a role to play at the border. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said the much-criticized ArriveCan app could help speed up border bottlenecks and may have uses beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a tour at a customs checkpoint in Windsor, Ont. Tuesday, Mendicino said the ArriveCan app — the COVID-19 screening tool border city mayors have asked the government to scrap — could be a useful technology moving forward. 

"ArriveCan was originally created for the purposes of COVID-19 but it has technological capacity beyond that to really shrink the amount of time that is required when you're getting screened at the border," he said. 

"So that's the vision is really to utilize the platform to decrease the amount of time, so CBSA officers can really focus on the problem areas, like if you're trying to smuggle a gun or trying to smuggle drugs."

The app was introduced during the pandemic to allow travellers to report their trips and vaccination status. Ottawa requires that travellers use the ArriveCan mobile app, or its desktop version, to submit their travel and COVID-19-related health information before arriving in Canada.

Travellers who fail to do so can face a 14-day quarantine and even a $5,000 fine.

Border city mayors say the tool is a barrier for tourists looking to enter Canada, and for trade

Chief says to eliminate the app

Some Indigenous people have issues with it, too.

"We have issues with the ArriveCan," Chief Charles Sampson of Walpole Island First Nation told CBC News.

"In particular, our people in many instances don't have the technology to download the app and don't have the necessary iPhones to go back and forth and take with them to their trips to the United States."

Chief Charles Sampson of Walpole Island First Nation said the ArriveCAN app is a barrier for those in his community to cross the border. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

Sampson said he was part of a meeting Tuesday morning with the minister's office, saying he told them outright to eliminate the app for his community and all Canadians. 

"In terms of the Jay Treaty [an agreement signed in 1794 by the U.K. and the U.S.], one of the articles in there says that we have free access to go back and forth across the border unmolested," Sampson said at the annual Jay Treaty Border Alliance conference, held in Windsor and Detroit this week and attended by Mendicino. 

"We recognize that and interpret that in modern terms to go back and forth across the border to do our business and come back into Canada without the obstacles and technological issues we have to face." 

Sampson said he believes the app is "redundant" and "unnecessary." 

Mendicino said his government is working to streamline the technology. He said he is "responsive" to border mayors and stakeholders and has made himself available to talk about their concerns.

The Canada Border Services Agency's HCV Mobile vehicle is used to X-ray the contents of entire transport trucks, without the removal of all the goods inside. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

Mendicino was in Windsor to tout his government's new gun control legislation, Bill C-21.

He saw a demonstration in Windsor of technologies used by Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers in efforts to seize illegal firearms and goods from entering the country. The technologies included a sniffer dog and a vehicle that can X-ray full transport trucks.

"One of the ways we're going to make sure travellers have a smooth experience at the border is to introduce technologies like the one you saw right here," Mendicino said, speaking to reporters following the demonstration.

"So if you can scan a truck in minutes as opposed to hours you're actually saving time, you're saving resources so that we can reserve other support and personnel for those travel volumes which are coming back."

Customs officer union demands thousands more hires

Mendicino's comments come a day after the union representing customs officers criticized the CBSA for not hiring enough staff to fill shortages amid a busy travel season, and demanded the agency hire 1,000 to 3,000 more staff. 

"With no end in sight to delays affecting travellers at airports and border crossings across the country, it's clear the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has no plan to get travel back on track any time soon," the Customs and Immigration Union said in a release Monday.

The federal government has been scrambling to respond to scenes of endless lines, flight delays and daily turmoil at airports, a problem the aviation industry — and now unions — blame on a shortage of federal security and customs agents.

"Summer is a season, it's not an emergency. We don't understand how the situation we have now wasn't entirely predictable and not addressed before we get to this kind of desperate situation," said union president Mark Weber. 

The Ambassador Bridge linking Detroit to Windsor, Ont., is pictured in this file photo. The head of the union representing CBSA workers said air and land border wait times are growing amid the busy summer travel season. (Carlos Osorio/The Associated Press)

The bottlenecks are mounting despite passenger volumes at land crossings and airport customs sitting at about three-quarters of pre-pandemic levels, said Weber.

Land checkpoints are not exempt from the delays hitting Canada's biggest airports, with "significant wait times" at busy crossings,he added.

"At our busiest ports, somewhere like Windsor, it's not rare to see two-, three-hour wait times for cars to get through."

The CBSA has said it is making more workers and student officers available, along with additional automated kiosks in Toronto's busy Pearson airport customs area.

"In response to the recent delays related to the increase in travel during the spring and summer, the CBSA is marking significant additional efforts and adding resources to plan and prepare for various peak periods. Considerable analysis is done to inform the need for resources that will be required to address projected trends and patterns," Audrey Champoux, a spokesperson for the public safety minister, said in an email.

With files from CBC's Dale Molnar and The Canadian Press