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Dan Friedmann, CEO of MDA, in front of an artist's rendition of the next-generation Radarsat Constellation. (Laura Leyshon for The Globe and Mail/Laura Leyshon for The Globe and Mail)
Dan Friedmann, CEO of MDA, in front of an artist's rendition of the next-generation Radarsat Constellation. (Laura Leyshon for The Globe and Mail/Laura Leyshon for The Globe and Mail)

No funding, no liftoff for Radarsat program, CEO says Add to ...

A Vancouver space and satellite technology developer is blastingthe federal government for foot-dragging on plans for new satellites that are supposed to defend Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic.

MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd.’s criticism of the Conservative government comes four years after Ottawa surprised investors by blocking the company from selling its space technology division to Minneapolis-based Alliant Techsystems Inc., saying the unit was of strategic interest to Canada.

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Now, the company says scientists and engineers are leaving the company because the Harper government has failed to live up to commitments to adequately fund space robotics and to meet deadlines in its key Radarsat Constellation project, which aims to launch at least three new satellites starting around 2016. The goal is to dramatically improve surveillance of Canadian territory and its border regions, including defending the country’s sovereignty in the thinly populated North.

But MDA chief executive officer Dan Friedmann warns a vital industrial capacity is at risk in Canada as his staff are forced to leave the country for work. He says the level of federal space-robotics funding no longer amounts to “serious numbers” necessary to keep smart people working in Canada on the file.

The company’s Brampton, Ont., operation has already lost about 100 employees and expects to lose another 50 in 2012 as a result of the cuts to funding in the space-robotics area. MDA could also lose approximately 100 employees in its Richmond, B.C., and Montreal operations if the Radarsat Constellation project doesn’t proceed.

Mr. Friedmann said he has no choice but to notify his satellite division staff of job cuts. “It’s a measure we have had to take, because unfortunately we’ve already seen this movie on robotics.”

Industry Minister Christian Paradis’ department said Thursday it has not given up on the Radarsat Constellation project, despite the fact it has missed the target for awarding the satellite construction contract by five months.

“We remain committed to the Radarsat project,” Industry Canada spokeswoman Andrea Matte said. She did not provide any details on when Ottawa might proceed beyond the design phase.

The Harper government has thrown many new spending plans into a deep freeze as it seeks to cut $5.2-billion from annual expenditures in order to balance the budget faster.

The Canadian Space Agency is squeezing its budget to cut $7.9-million from the 2012-13 fiscal year and $24.7-million from 2013-2014. It’s trying to carve out what it calls “ongoing savings” of $29.5-million by 2014-15.

Mr. Friedmann said he presumed when the Tories blocked the sale in 2008 it was going to represent a new era for government support of key technologies at MDA. “It was good news. I thought they recognized at the time it was strategic.”

He said Ottawa awarded the company the contract to design the next-generation Radarsat satellites shortly after it blocked that sale in 2008 – and ramped up space-robotics funding during the recession.

But starting in 2011 he noticed the “door starting to shut,” when it became clear Ottawa wasn’t going to continue to spend at the same pace on robotics.

Then, this January, Ottawa missed what MDA understood to be the target date for awarding the contract to build the next-generation satellites.

Mr. Friedmann said he’s been trying for several months to arrange a meeting with Stephen Harper but has had no luck in securing one with the Prime Minister’s Office. “I’ve been told that’s the only place we can get this thing unstuck.”

“In the case of [space]robotics and synthetic aperture radar, those technologies are considered strategic by all countries including Canada,” he said.

“I cannot work in those areas unless my own government is involved.”

Mr. Friedmann said the delayed building contract means the 2016 launch of the first satellite is also delayed now by five months.

“There’s a day-for-day slip,” he said, adding that things could worsen as satellite division staff are let go.

“Once you get past June it’s going to be a longer [delay]… because you start losing too many people and it gets harder to put it back together.”

Mr. Friedmann said the staff he’s assembled to build and design satellites have very specialized talents – skills that will be in demand abroad.

“There are many countries around the world that are thinking of doing parallel programs, especially if we don’t move ahead and there’s no other work [here]for most of these people,” he said.

He blames Mr. Paradis’ department.

“I think the Prime Minister is quite committed. I just don’t understand why his people in Industry Canada can’t execute.”

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