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House admonishes ArriveCan contractor in rare parliamentary show of power

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MPs enacted an extraordinary, rarely used parliamentary power on Wednesday, summonsing an ArriveCan contractor to appear before the House of Commons where he was admonished publicly and forced to provide answers to the questions MPs said he'd previously evaded.

The all-party decision to force GC Strategies partner Kristian Firth to appear before the bar of the House of Commons – the brass rod extending across the floor of the Chamber barring those uninvited from passing – was made last week after some procedural deliberation and collaboration.

Firth took his place on the periphery of the House of Commons after question period, and was admonished by the Speaker for what MPs have deemed to be his "prevaricating" testimony before the committee probing the controversy surrounding the ArriveCan application.

A series of questions have been raised, damning reports issued, and further investigations have been sparked regarding improper contracting and management practices in connection with the contentious COVID-19-era border app.

GC Strategies was awarded the initial ArriveCan contract, and it has been reported that the company then went on to subcontract other companies to work on the app, while keeping a commission.

Firth, appearing before a House committee last month, testified that the heightened scrutiny, and what he alleged was inaccurate reporting about his company's involvement with the ArriveCan app, had led to threats against him and his family.

Just as successive rounds of questioning by MPs from all parties was to begin, acrimony arose over whether Firth, accompanied by his lawyer, was medically cleared to face questioning.

After Firth cited "mental health flare-ups," Government House Leader Steven MacKinnon said Liberals didn't think it was appropriate to question him, but ultimately, proceedings continued with an understanding that the House would allow occasional pauses, if required.

The Liberals, Conservatives, Bloc Quebecois and NDP each had two 10-minute rounds, followed by a third round of five-minute questioning periods, including the Green MPs. However, the Liberals opted out, citing concerns over Firth's mental health.

"On this side of the House, we do not believe that it is appropriate," MacKinnon said. Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet also expressed some misgivings about the partisan nature of some of the Conservatives' questions.

MPs summonsed Firth with the intent of eliciting the information they feel he has, to-date, failed to provide, in part out of his refusal to answer certain questions, citing other ongoing probes.

On Wednesday, Firth acknowledged he may not have previously answered questions "correctly," and that some of his responses "may have been obtuse," but he was not intentionally trying to evade MPs.

"Acknowledging the fact that I'm being admonished, making history right now, I think I have acknowledged the fact that I made mistakes in previous committees," he said.

He also disclosed that GC Strategies has not been asked to pay any money back.

Auditor General Karen Hogan has said Canadians "paid too much" for the app, even though she could not establish whether the estimated $59.5-million price tag amounts to the true cost, on account of poor record keeping by the various departments involved.

In that report, Hogan also raised questions about GC Strategies' involvement in setting the requirements used for a contract, valued at $25 million, that was later awarded to Firth's firm.

Firth offered some names in relation to this, and disclosed that he does socialize with federal workers, while stating he does not think he influenced the awarding of any contracts.

As attendance in the House whittled, ultimately, his final exchange may have been the most telling.

"Aren't you ashamed?" asked the Green party's Elizabeth May.

"Mr. Speaker, do I have to answer that?" Firth asked.

"Yes, yes you do," Fergus replied.

In his final words to the House before being escorted out by the Sergeant-at-Arms, Firth said "no, I am not ashamed."

RCMP confirms search warrant

The questioning took place just as the RCMP confirmed to media that the day prior it had executed a search warrant at an address registered to Firth.

The search warrant was executed Tuesday by the RCMP's Sensitive and International Investigations unit, at a home in Woodlawn, Ont., west of Ottawa.

An RCMP spokesperson said the search was not related to an ongoing ArriveCan investigation, and that the national police force would not provide the name of the business or people involved to protect the privacy of the persons at the residence.

"As the investigation is ongoing and there are no charges at this time, there will be no further information provided," the RCMP spokesperson said.

The RCMP has previously confirmed it is "investigating a matter referred from the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) that is based on allegations brought to their attention by Botler AI," a firm that did not work on ArriveCan, but raised flags about related contracting practices.

However, RCMP Commissioner Mike Duheme has indicated that the ArriveCan investigation is an expansion of the initial matter referred to them by the CBSA. 

Conservative MP Michael Barrett asked Firth about the RCMP probes, to which he said that he had only been contacted by the police regarding the Botler AI matter.

Firth said that in regards to the search, there was a warrant "for my property to obtain electronic goods surrounding the Botler allegations," and that while he was aware of the search, he was not on the premises when it was done and is unaware of what material may have been taken.

"We encourage the RCMP, their investigation into the Botler [AI] allegations … because we believe it is going to exonerate us," Firth said.

Everything Firth said as part of Wednesday's proceedings is protected by parliamentary privilege and cannot be used against him in any other forums.

First in more than 100 years

MPs agreeing to find Firth in contempt of Parliament and ordering him to both appear and face questions will go down in the history books, as it's a measure that has so seldom been used.

The last time MPs summonsed an individual was in 2021, when the then-head of the Public Health Agency of Canada was scolded for failing to turn over documents related to the Winnipeg lab affair.

Prior to that, according to the House of Commons, the last time a private citizen was admonished and questioned under the authority of the House was more than 100 years ago.

In 1913, R.C. Miller – a witness before the public accounts committee – refused to answer questions related to allegations about bribes for government contracts. Ultimately, MPs in Miller's case ordered that he should be imprisoned.

In a brief statement off the top, House of Commons Speaker Greg Fergus reflected on the historic nature of this moment.

"The privileges of the House of Commons are enshrined… This includes the right to institute inquiries and to require the attendance of witnesses," Fergus said.

"These privileges, enjoyed by the House collectively and by members individually, are essential in the discharge of our duties. The House has the power, and indeed the obligation, to reaffirm them when obstruction or interference impedes the House's proceedings… For all these reasons, on behalf of the House of Commons, I admonish you."

The motion adjudicating Wednesday's admonishment notes that following his grilling, the government operations committee will be tasked with reviewing Firth's testimony and "if necessary, recommend further action." 

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