2021 Reports 12 to 15 of the Auditor General of Canada to the Parliament of Canada—Auditor General of Canada’s Opening Statement to the news conference

2021 Reports 12 to 15 of the Auditor General of Canada to the Parliament of CanadaAuditor General of Canada’s Opening Statement to the news conference

Good afternoon. I wish to acknowledge that the lands on which we are gathered are part of the traditional unceded territory of the Anishinaabeg People. I am pleased to be here today to discuss the results of 4 additional audits that we have completed on the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the reports I released earlier this year, this brings to 9 the total number of audits that we’ve undertaken in this area.

Turning first to our report on quarantine enforcement. This audit focused on whether the Public Health Agency of Canada improved its administration of mandatory quarantine orders meant to limit the introduction into Canada of the COVID-19 virus and its variants. The audit also examined how the Agency implemented and enforced additional border control measures introduced in early 2021, including COVID-19 testing and the quarantine of air travellers at government-authorized hotels.

Overall, we found that the Agency improved its administration of the 14-day quarantine orders. With the move to collecting travellers’ contact information electronically rather than on paper, the Agency was better able to follow up with travellers. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Agency was unable to confirm quarantine compliance for 66% of travellers arriving in Canada. Although we found that the percentage had dropped to 37%, this is not a success story: the Agency’s inability to confirm whether more than a third of travellers complied with quarantine orders remains a significant problem.

When it came to the new border measures, we found that the Agency was either missing or unable to match 30% of COVID-19 test results to incoming travellers. And, since the Agency lacked records of stay for 75% of travellers who flew into Canada, it did not know whether travellers who were required to quarantine at authorized hotels did so.

With travel increasing and new variants continuing to emerge, the Agency needs to improve the way it manages and enforces border control measures that are meant to limit the introduction of the COVID-19 virus and its variants into Canada.

Our second audit looked at Employment and Social Development Canada’s inspections of quarantine and other measures meant to protect temporary foreign workers in Canada’s agricultural sector during the pandemic.

Overall, we found that the Department’s inspections—whether they targeted quarantine, outbreaks or basic accommodation requirements—provided little assurance that the health and safety of temporary foreign agricultural workers were protected during the 2020 and 2021 growing seasons. We found that inspectors assessed almost all employers as compliant on both COVID-19 requirements and basic living conditions without gathering sufficient evidence.

We started our audit work in this area in 2020. In December of that year, we decided to extend our audit to cover the 2021 season, and we shared our early and concerning findings with Employment and Social Development Canada.

Our audit work in 2021 found that the quality of inspections had worsened, with 88% of quarantine inspections showing significant problems with quality and rigour, compared to 73% the year before. Timeliness was also a concern, with many quarantine inspections still incomplete long after the end of workers’ mandatory 14-day quarantine period. We also found that outbreak inspections provided little assurance that employers were providing sick or symptomatic workers with accommodations where they could isolate properly, or even that basic living conditions were otherwise maintained.

Twice during the pandemic, Employment and Social Development Canada committed to changing its program to improve living conditions for temporary foreign workers–something it has been committing to since 2018–yet we saw no progress on this commitment.

These findings point to a systemic problem in the department’s inspection regime that needs immediate attention. Concerns about the living conditions of temporary foreign workers in the agriculture sector aren’t new. COVID-19 provides another example of why the department needs to prioritize the health and safety of temporary foreign workers, and deal with accommodations that are overcrowded or otherwise inadequate. It’s long past time to fix the situation for temporary foreign workers who come to Canada.

I’m going to turn now to our third audit which looked at programs meant to reduce food insecurity and support resilience in Canada’s food processing sector during the pandemic. Overall, we found that these emergency programs helped mitigate some of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on elements of Canada’s food system.

The departments and agencies drew on existing programs and mechanisms, consulted broadly, implemented oversight controls and monitored funding to expedite emergency measures. However, we found a few cases where inconsistencies in program design resulted in unfair treatment of applicants and recipients across regions. In addition, due to problems with data and performance measurement, departments and agencies did not know whether the programs achieved all of their outcomes for reducing food insecurity or supporting the resilience of food processors.

Though the government identified food as a critical infrastructure sector in 2009, it had not developed a national plan to respond to a crisis affecting Canada’s entire food system. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada should work with its partners and stakeholders to address this gap.

Let’s go now to the last of the reports I’m releasing today. This audit focused on the Regional Relief and Recovery Fund, a two billion dollar program that delivered last-resort assistance to thousands of businesses and organizations affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Regional development agencies leveraged their experience, systems, and knowledge to quickly deliver funding.

However, the management of the program was weakened by a lack of efficiency, fairness, and transparency that may have resulted from the efforts to deliver the program quickly. We found instances where funding was awarded to applicants who did not meet all of the eligibility criteria or where ineligible expenses were funded. We also found that applicants from different regions of the country faced different requirements to access funding because of regional development agencies’ different approaches and interpretations of the eligibility criteria.

In addition, because of weaknesses in reporting, the full impact of the program will not be known for a few years. In particular, the number of jobs maintained will be difficult to measure because of the poor quality of data. Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada should work with regional development agencies to improve the measurement and reporting of results for future funding programs, so that progress against objectives can be tracked and shared.

Our audits also aim to assess impact on people and the economy. In many cases, departments lacked basic indicators and targets against which to collect data and assess their impact over the longer term. This could be chalked up to incomplete planning due to the speed of the government’s response, but it does point to some basic gaps in coordinating, monitoring, and reporting. It also presents an accountability challenge for governments when they are asked by their citizens to demonstrate value for money spent.

The COVID-19 audits we’ve released so far have shown that even when plans and processes are in place, as was the case in our audit of temporary foreign workers, it remains that the federal government must never lose sight of its duty to protect the health and safety of vulnerable populations and of all Canadians in general.

Thank you, I am now ready for your questions.