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Derek Burney was Canada's ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993 and was directly involved in negotiating the free-trade agreement with the United States. Fen Osler Hampson is a distinguished fellow and director of global security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and chancellor's professor at Carleton University. They are the authors of Brave New Canada: Meeting the Challenge of a Changing World.

As we finish this federal election campaign, it's time to mention some issues that have not been addressed but should have been, because they raise the sights of Canadians and force them to exercise their imaginations. One of these issues is space, which is truly the last frontier – and Canada was there right at the outset.

Canada has a long history of involvement in space, dating back to the Alouette 1 scientific satellite, launched in 1962. In 1986, Canada joined the International Space Station project, then in its infancy. It was thought that Canada should be involved in a leading-edge technology project featuring our skills in robotics, which resulted in the Canadarm, and now Canadarm 2, which has performed delicate repair tasks on the space station. It was a time when the world-leading Radarsat remote sensing system was approved and developed. This has become an integral part of Canadian security, providing surveillance of our three coasts.

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Based on David Emerson's report Reaching Higher: Canada's Interests and Future in Space, the Harper government developed Canada's space policy framework, which concentrated on areas of national space expertise: communications, radar, robotics and optics, meaning the surveillance of space. For Canada to assume a lead role in space technology and exploration, the government will need to make tangible commitments to this framework.

Specifically, commitments are required from Canada's federal political leaders that would:

  • Enhance Canada’s sovereignty, through the further development of satellite and drone technology for use in the Arctic, as was done with success in Afghanistan;
  • Enhance security, through maritime surveillance and the provision of enhanced communications in Canada’s North;
  • Enhance economic growth, through new investments, trade and creation of highly skilled jobs;
  • Enhance Canada’s position at the leading edge of development of innovative technology;
  • Enhance detection of environmental change by weather satellites, adding tools to the fight against climate change.

In order to facilitate research and co-operation between industrial space partners and government, publicly funded research councils should be mandated to give space technology priority for research funding and be required to work closely with members of Canada's private sector space industry to facilitate the development of this technology.

A prudent government should find a way to support this venture within the fiscal framework.

In order to galvanize Canadian public opinion in support of this transformational project, leadership is needed – just as it was needed to build a transcontinental railroad, the St. Lawrence Seaway and to finalize and implement the free-trade agreement with the United States. Canada won't be able to build on its past space accomplishments without leadership from our next prime minister, regardless of political affiliation.

As former prime minister Brian Mulroney said in a speech at Blenheim Palace earlier this year on the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill, quoting Kennedy adviser and speechwriter Theodore Sorensen: "Once in office, those who wish to stand up and stand out and leave something enduring behind must build new institutions, not new images. … They must appeal to our hopes as well as our needs, to what we long to be and what we know is right."

What we need now is leadership that makes a significant difference in the life of a nation – that recognizes political capital is acquired to be spent in great causes for one's country, causes that will set a platform to build upon in the future.

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Leadership in the country's great causes appeals to the hopes and dreams of Canadians and what we long to be. That is the kind of leadership needed to awaken Canadians to the challenges of space and the benefits that such a commitment by our political leaders can bring to this country in science, technology and Canada's place on the world stage. Our present leadership owes that much to Canadians and to Canada's future.

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