A Common Priority: A Space Security Policy for Canada

Tasneem Jamal

Jessica West

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2008 Volume 29 Issue 4

On October 14 a new minority Conservative government was elected. To achieve a constructive agenda for Parliament it becomes important to identify policy priorities that could gain the support of all political parties. One area of concern, which is of interest to all government departments and touches all Canadians, is outer space.

Canada does not have an overarching policy on space. The need for such a policy is urgent. The recently released report Space Security 2008 demonstrates why space and space policy are so critical. Space applications have become central to modern life around the world, enabling communications, aviation, disaster early warning and response, search and rescue, banking, agriculture, mining, forestry, national defence, military and peace operations, disarmament verification, and much more. Space-related industries are a hallmark of advanced economies, and contribute to rapidly expanding technological developments and expertise.

But despite all the ways in which we now depend on the accessibility and use of outer space, its access and use are not guaranteed. Space is a fragile environment threatened by growing debris and potential weaponization. It is at risk of becoming a flashpoint for international conflict—and thus a pressing global security issue—precisely because we are so dependent on it.

Canada is a “has been” in space. Canada has been a leader on many fronts in the past, but its current direction is not clear. While some commentators lament the modest budgetary resources committed to space in Canada, more money by itself won’t provide a quick fix. Canada ranks in the middle among G8 members and other major space states in public funding for civil space programs as a percentage of GDP at 0.025 per cent (OECD 2007, p. 35) or roughly $300-million a year. But Canada is one of the only major spacefaring nations without an overarching space policy to govern spending. This is a problem that cries out for leadership and vision.

From stovepipe to umbrella

Canada does have policies that deal with space, but they are stovepipes—“systems procured and developed to solve a specific problem, characterized by a limited focus and functionality, and containing data that cannot be easily shared with other systems” (Wikipedia).

Federal responsibilities are split among the Canadian Space Agency (under the mandate of Industry Canada), the Department of National Defence, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Missing is an overarching policy on space that fits the individual pieces into a coordinated whole.

This problem crystallized when Canadians faced the prospect in early 2008 that the space side of MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA), including the government-funded Radarsat-2 satellite, would be sold to a US company. Although the sale was eventually disallowed by the Canadian Government, the possibility created a groundswell of concern. Described by Ron Buckingham as “a galvanizing moment” that roused “public and political attention about the importance of space” (David & Rains 2008, p. 6), it renewed public debate on what Canada should be doing in space, and how.

At that time several calls were issued for a Canadian space policy, but they focused almost exclusively on the commercial side of the space industry. The Rideau Institute together with the Canadian Auto Workers issued an appeal for a national policy, stressing the need for new investments to strengthen this high tech sector (Macdonald 2008). John Keating, the chief executive director of ComDev in Cambridge, Ontario, lamented that Canada does not have a national strategy for industry in space (David & Rains 2008, p. 6). Jim Prentice, then Industry Minister, created an Advisory Committee on the Canadian Space Agency focused on industry to provide strategic advice on space, which produced a report titled “The Way Forward.”

Industry is essential for activities in space and for decades it has been a partner in Canada’s achievements, but investments in industry do not substitute for a comprehensive policy on space, which would lay out the principles of how Canada would operate in space to meet its needs and goals while sharing this fragile environment with other governments, militaries, and commercial space interests. In other words, Canada needs a national policy to coordinate its civil, military, and commercial interests with space security.

Space security is the secure and sustainable access to and use of space and freedom from space-based threats. This definition encapsulates the commitment to peaceful uses enshrined in the Outer Space Treaty. It means that all states have a right to gain access to outer space and to use outer space peacefully. It means that all states have a responsibility to ensure that the space environment remains sustainable for the future. And it means that no states have the right to use outer space in a way that threatens the use by others, or that threatens Earth. Space is a global commons for all to use and for all to protect.

A national policy on space security would form an umbrella over current stovepipe policies. Such a policy would not require a radical change in policy, but would represent the domestic institutionalization of Canada’s current international commitments in outer space. And a national policy on space security would serve many practical benefits.

A practical policy

A national space policy based on the principles of space security must include specific elements that satisfy both Canada’s domestic interests in space and its international responsibilities. On the domestic side, such a policy will require the government to establish priorities on future peaceful uses of space that encompass all critical users. Canada will also have to consider how it intends to secure access to space over the long term. Is Canadian industry to be a resource, a partner, or a leader of Canadian space activities? Will Canadian industry receive preferential treatment? Will it be subsidized? It will be critical to review international partnerships as a means of gaining access to both the hardware of space systems and vehicles to launch them and to decide whether Canada could or should launch its own satellites.

Perhaps more importantly, however, each of these issues must take into account Canada’s responsibilities and obligations to the space environment and the international community. For instance, a comprehensive space security policy would require a commitment by all Canadian users in space to minimize the creation of space debris and to cooperate with others in maintaining safe operations. It would require Canada to reconfirm its commitment to the non-weaponization of space now and in the future by, among other things, refusing to participate in programs with ground or space systems intended to strike satellites, as well as systems intended to strike Earth objects from space. Such systems could create large masses of debris and jeopardize the right of all states to access and use space for peaceful purposes.

Several of the benefits of such a policy are particularly important:

  • A national space policy that includes a clear commitment to the non-weaponization of space would serve to permanently close controversial debate on Canada’s participation in ballistic missile defence systems that include or have plans for a space-based layer, such as the current US system. The US Missile Defense Agency continues to envision a tri-layer system, including space-based interceptors, and to request funding for a test bed to study this option, which has been repeatedly blocked in Congress by those hesitant to weaponize space. But it is not clear how long this stalemate will last, and which side might win the day. Canada has opted out of participation in ballistic missile defence, but not permanently locked the door.
  • A national space security policy could help to facilitate the legitimate military applications of space systems by defining the term “peaceful uses.” The weaponization of space is not the same as the militarization of space, but the two are often confused. This conflation of military space programs with weapons ignores the legitimate needs of Canada’s military and security forces for such services as communications and surveillance. As well, many military space systems also support civilian and commercial uses, such as GPS, which guides bombs and lost tourists alike.

A policy that defines peaceful uses as non-aggressive or not involving the use of force against another object (meaning the satellite itself, not the end use of its data), is consistent with applications of international law. This definition combined with a clear commitment to the non-weaponization of space would help to validate spending and long-term planning for Canada’s military needs in space, or increased dual-use military-civilian applications.

  • A clear national space security policy would signal to the international community Canada’s continuing leadership as a responsible spacefaring nation. Outer space is like the Antarctic: an environment and a resource shared by all countries. It requires responsible stewardship by every country to remain accessible for peaceful use by all—today and in the future. Sustainability of this environment requires a commitment to safe operational practices that do not endanger other spacecraft, that do not pollute with irretrievable space debris, and that do not allow outer space to become a theatre of violent conflict.

Seize the moment

Canada needs a coherent vision for its future in space, and now is an opportune time to create one based on the principles of space security. Several pieces of Canada’s patchwork of space policies are currently under review. In September 2008 then Industry Minister Jim Prentice appointed former astronaut Steve MacLean the new president of the Canadian Space Agency, assigning him the task of developing the fourth in a series of Long-Term Space Plans, due in early November (Prentice 2008; The Gazette 2008). The 1998 space policy developed by the Department of National Defence is currently under internal review and a new directorate is developing a long-term plan for military space capabilities (David & Rains 2008).

A national space policy is an agenda item that all federal political parties could support. Former astronaut and head of the Canadian Space Agency, Marc Garneau, is now a member of the Liberal caucus. He has publicly called for a national space policy. The NDP and Bloc Quebecois also have been vocal on Canada’s interests in space, including the proposed MDA sale. And perhaps most significantly, the Conservative Party signaled the importance of space by establishing a Conservative Space Industry Caucus chaired by Gary Goodyear in the last parliament. In the new government Goodyear is the Secretary of State for Science and Technology.

Reaffirming Canada’s commitment to peaceful uses and the non-weaponization of space is a good foundation for a space security policy. Not only are these principles already the basis of the current patchwork of space policies, but they offer all political parties a starting point with which they are already in agreement.



David, Leonard & Lon Rains. 2008. Canada ponders its space future after collapse of MDA sale to ATK. Space News, May 12.

Macdonald, David. 2008. Flying High: A Plan to Rebuild Canada’s Space Capabilities. Canadian Auto Workers, Rideau Institute.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 2007. The Space Economy at a Glance.

Prentice, Jim. 2008. Speaking Points, The Honourable Jim Prentice, PC, QC, MP, Minister of Industry, “Canadian Space Policy,” Cambridge, Ontario, September 2.

The Gazette. 2008. New head of space agency to develop policy. September 3.

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