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Canada’s Pride, the Canadarm, Now Has a Massive US Company in Its Orbit

How one firm tapped Mars dreams, patriotism and job hopes to commandeer our national space strategy.

By Melody Ma 10 Apr 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Melody Ma, a Tyee contributing editor, is a culture and neighbourhood advocate and tech worker in Vancouver.

I sat glued to my screen watching Navdeep Bains, the federal minister of innovation, science and economic development, launch Canada’s new space strategy in front of a room full of starry-eyed grade school students.

While the blurry image of Bains explaining gravitational orbits was hardly as dramatic as the moon landing, it was still an exciting announcement for Canada. This was the first national space strategy released in over a decade.

“The centrepiece of the space strategy [is] that Canada is going to the moon,” declared Bains. He was referring to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s earlier announcement that Canada will spend $2 billion on the new space program, with most of the funds going to a robotic arm — “Canadarm 3” — for NASA’s planned Lunar Gateway, a space station that will orbit around the moon. The gateway is a stepping stone to a test colony on the moon, so NASA can prepare for a manned mission to Mars, which they say “could someday be a destination for survival of humankind.”

When I first heard the announcement, I thought NASA’s plan to colonize two celestial bodies with no oxygen and hardly any gravity was a bit spacey.

But what was more perplexing was why Canada’s space strategy centred on building a robotic arm for NASA. With major global powers and private companies rushing into space for military or business reasons, shouldn’t Canada’s space strategy be largely focused on our national interests — in security, communications, climate change, economy — while continuing to champion space as a global commons?

So what might have driven Trudeau to focus on the Canadarm for NASA instead? Particularly given that the company building Canadarm is a subsidiary of a much larger U.S. corporation?

Icons of pride

The Canadarm is an icon of national pride for Canadians. A homegrown space technology company, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (now MDA), built Canadarm models for the space shuttle and the International Space Station. The ethereal white robotic arms painted with Canada’s logo are on $5 bills and stamps, and imprinted in people’s memories.

At Expo 86 in Vancouver, visitors were treated to an exhibition where model “astronauts attached to an enormous Canadarm [moved] slowly across in front of the audience.” Google even helped Canadians celebrate the 31st birthday of Canadarm with a Google Doodle.

As the maker of the two previous Canadarms, MDA will likely benefit the most from the new Canadian space strategy. But as space technology has evolved, so has MDA.

The company was co-founded by UBC engineering graduate and former UNBC Chancellor John S. MacDonald and Vern Dettwiler in 1969.

In 2008, the Conservative-led federal government blocked the sale of its space unit to an American aerospace and defence company called Alliant Techsystems, saying it was not in Canada’s interest.

This setback did not discourage MDA from pursuing its Americanization plan, dubbed the U.S. Access Plan.

Under the Liberal government, it acquired an American space imaging company named DigitalGlobe. It named the combined company Maxar and registered it as a corporation in Delaware. Then-CEO Howard Lance acknowledged Maxar would be a U.S. company and today its headquarters are in Colorado. Maxar’s website says the publicly traded company pulled in revenues of $2.14 billion last year, employing 5,900 people in 30 locations.

Where does that leave MDA? It’s now a Maxar subsidiary, employing 1,900 Canadians in five main locations: Richmond, Brampton, Ottawa, Montreal and Dartmouth.

When it comes to vying for Canadian federal funds, MDA, not Maxar, is the company making the pitch — and it’s a relentless appeal to Canadians’ patriotism. Last year, with a coalition of other space interest groups, MDA led a well-funded lobbying campaign called #DontLetGoCanada designed to tap into national pride.

The campaign called for the public to “help secure Canada’s place in space.” The mascot is a space beaver sporting a red maple leaf on its chest riding through the cosmos on a Canada goose. Both animals wear astronaut helmets with their mouths open as if they’re belting out support for more funding for a space program. Behind them, the future Canadarm 3 orbits the moon.

582px version of DontLetGoSpaceBeaver.jpg
Shrieking in terror, or singing O Canada? Mascots were part of industry public relations campaign. Image from Facebook.

After listing Canada’s lengthy achievements in space, the #DontLetGoCanada’s website shouts “It's Decision Time,” and asserts the “most pressing” decision for Canada’s space program is “whether to participate, or not, in the Lunar Gateway Mission.”

“If Canada does not step forward soon, another country will seize the opportunity.” Visitors were directed to sign two petitions to pressure the federal government to create a new space strategy and commit to Canadarm 3.

The #DontLetGoCanada campaign splashed its appeal to national pride across social media too. Its Instagram account is peppered with photos of the outdoor advertisements, including a photo at Parliament Hill of an astronaut mascot standing in front of a bus with a “The Universe Needs More Canada” ad on its side. Its Reddit account u/DontLetGoCanada frequently shared patriotic posts about Canada’s achievements in space to drum up support from online space nerds.

When other Redditors attempt to call out the campaign for co-opting patriotism for Maxar’s bottom line, the campaign’s account sniped at its opponents.

Flagging the problem

Consider the nationalist emotion sparked by the sight of American astronaut Buzz Aldrin planting and saluting an American flag on the first moon landing. The U.S. has subsequently planted five more American flags on the moon.

When a recent Hollywood biopic about Neil Armstrong, First Man, elected not to show the U.S. flag-planting in favour of celebrating the universality of the lunar achievement, Aldrin and President Donald Trump condemned the omission, with Trump complaining “when you think of Neil Armstrong and when you think about the landing on the moon, you think about the American flag.”

Canada’s logo on the Canadarms was also a deliberate act of national branding, Chris Gainor noted in Canada in Space. It was placed on the first Canadarm after the project team saw the European Space Agency’s logo on the European Spacelab module. Not to be outdone, NASA also placed a very visible U.S. flag on the cargo bay of the space shuttle.

The branding doesn’t always go smoothly. In 2014, the Canadian Space Agency photoshopped the Canada logo on a blank portion of Canadarm 2 and posted the doctored photo on its official Tumblr account. The Economist dedicated an article to the photo, noting that “the tactic of fairly ham-fisted airbrushing used here seems more reminiscent of North Korean propaganda posters than of Western democracies’ typical PR efforts.”

Other governments have noticed the way space exploration proves a potent advertisement for patriotism. When India sent a low-cost spacecraft to orbit Mars in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “The success of our space program is a shining symbol of what we are capable of as a nation. Modern India must continue to be a world guru.”

China is planning a crewed mission to the far side of the moon as an expression of its rising world power and national pride. On Lunar New Year this year, PepsiCo decided to stoke that national pride and released a seven-minute-long Mandarin ad celebrating a hypothetical Chinese moon landing.

Indeed, corporations long have wrapped themselves in national flags to sell products, even as globalization increasingly strains their claims. Tim Hortons, carrying the name of a well-known Canadian hockey player, stirs our cultural pride to push us coffee and doughnuts, (even though it is majority owned by the American-Brazilian investment firm 3G Capital). The beaver-branded retailer Roots celebrated Canada’s 150th birthday with a global campaign praising Canadian’s apparent history of being “nice,” while persuading consumers to buy red flannel shirts.

The Canada goose is now associated with the expensive parkas from Canada Goose. Hudson’s Bay touts itself as “Canada’s iconic department store,” and hawks its classic striped wool blankets as colonial nostalgia, (while its majority owner, U.S.-based NRDC Equity Partners, capitalizes on the lucrative real estate underneath the stores).

And finally there’s Denver-based Molson Coors’ and its Molson Canadian beer with the infamous “I am Canadian” marketing.

As a consumer, I can choose whether or not to succumb to the patriotic marketing of beer and doughnuts.

But when the product is a costly, taxpayer-funded outer space infrastructure project, I can no longer exercise my individual agency and must trust our politicians to make the hefty spending decision on behalf of all of us. Those same politicians are subject to lobbying efforts by #DontLetGoCanada.

In the pre-2019 budget consultations last October, MDA’s Canada head Mike Greenley made a submission on behalf of his company to the federal finance committee. One of its four key recommendations was for “the government [to] provide $1-2 [billion] over the next 20 years, starting in Budget 2019, to fund a third generation Canadarm.”

Greenley went on to cite Canadian’s patriotism to justify the request. “Canadians care about the Canadarm. With its prominent Canada wordmark, it is an important national symbol. It continues to be the main image that comes to mind when Canadians think about Canada’s space program or involvement in space.... It is also a strong point of pride — 92 per cent agree (including 60 per cent who strongly agree) ‘When I think about or see the Canadarm, I feel proud.’”

Earlier last year, Greenley and MDA associates, including lobbying lead Leslie Swartman, a former high-ranking Liberal political staffer, met with Trudeau, the Prime Minister’s Office and Bains to advocate for “Canada to participate and share in international space programs that may bring work that MDA could bid for” among other topics. MDA was the only space-related organization that submitted a budget request for the Canadarm as a key recommendation.

MDA’s lobbying efforts have successfully cemented their sizeable Canadarm funding request in the 2019 federal budget. MDA argues this will yield a job windfall for Canadians: “10,000 person-years of employment,” most of them based in this country. However, whatever revenues MDA produces ultimately go to the bottom line of a U.S. corporation.

In a few years, we’ll be transfixed by the new Canadarm, with its national branding and a propaganda and marketing campaign that presents it as a celestial symbol of international co-operation, job creation and inspiration for the next generation to pursue science.

As we celebrate, we need to remain grounded with the reality that Canadian taxpayers helped an American company that capitalized on our love for our country for their pursuit of private profits.  [Tyee]

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