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Is Canada’s space program slipping out of orbit?

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It has been a big couple weeks for Canadians in space. First, a University of British Columbia professor was part of the team that nailed the tricky Mars InSight landing, setting the stage to explore the interior of the red planet like never before. Then OSIRIS-Rex arrived at the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, where it will use a Canadian-made laser to scan the rock and determine the best place to extract a sample. That same day, astronaut David Saint-Jacques opened the hatch and floated onto the team at the International Space Station, joining the international mission for the next six months.

However, Canadians may want to temper their excitement amid all this feel-good news. Leading scientists say the government’s neglect of the Canadian Space Agency over the last decade has left Canadian space exploration in dire straits. With no plan for the future and no budget for significant new ventures, such celebratory weeks could become a thing of the past.

“It’s a war of attrition. We are losing capacity, a bit, year after year,” says Gordon Osinski, a planetary geologist who holds the industrial research chair in Earth and space exploration at Western University in London, Ont. “You don’t notice it on a day-to-day basis, but when you stand back and look at where we were 10 years ago, you realize we are in a bad situation.”

Here’s how bad: The most recent budget documents show the CSA spent $388 million in 2016-17. That may seem like a lot, but a study from UBC published last year says that Canada spends the least on space exploration of all the G8 countries, and the second-lowest per capita. (At the time, the U.K. contributed the lowest per capita, but it has since increased its spending, notes one of the authors.)

RELATED: David Saint-Jacques on space exploration and what it takes to become an astronaut

Funding for the CSA is also at its lowest level since 1999 and, without an injection of new funding, recent projections point to a budget of less than $300 million by the 2020-21 fiscal year, as current spending commitments wind down.

Canada is already missing out, says Osinski. It turned down a role in NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission and Canada’s place on the next big mission, Lunar Gateway, is in jeopardy if the government continues to dither. “Ten years from now, when humans set foot on the moon again, it would be great if there were a Canadian amongst them,” says Osinski.

Osinski isn’t the only one sounding the alarm. A group called Don’t Let Go Canada, which includes industry, labour leaders and academics, wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister and the ministers of finance and of innovation, science and economic development, calling for a space strategy in the 2019 budget. Osinski is spearheading another project, Space Matters, to raise the profile of space research in Canada.

When contacted, neither the offices of Finance Minister Bill Morneau nor Navdeep Bains, the minister of innovation, science and economic development who oversees the Canadian Space Agency, would say whether space research would get any additional funding. In a statement, the innovation minister’s office pointed to ongoing investments in the space sector and to the government’s renewal of the space advisory board, of which Osinski is a member. The board did public consultations and released a report in 2017. “Our investments in the space sector have positioned Canada’s space community as a global leader in space robotics while providing opportunities to the Canadian space industry to participate in future international exploration missions,” the minister’s office said in a statement.

While the future of bigger missions is up in the air, Canadian contributions to smaller missions are suffering, too. Part of the problem, say scientists who work in the field, is that the Canadian Space Agency is so focused on made-in-Canada technology that scientists who want to explore “science for science’s sake” have nowhere to turn for funding.

RELATED: In ‘First Man,’ an iconic space story is infused with powerful humanity

For example, on the recent Mars InSight mission, there are international co-investigators from all over Europe, but Canadians are conspicuously absent. Catherine Johnson, a professor in UBC’s department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, is an investigator on the mission, but she is American, not Canadian. One member of her research group is partially supported by a Canadian Space Agency grant, but that funding ends in March 2019, only four months into the mission. “Canada doesn’t actually have a mechanism for funding these types of NASA missions,” says Johnson. “The CSA grant funding for my group was a one-time, and quite restricted, opportunity for CSA funding, which is a great shame. We are losing terrific opportunities to attract and retain young scientists, and to connect our local communities with the excitement of planetary exploration.”

Johnson says the data she gains from the InSight mission will be shared with her UBC community and it could be used to set the stage for humans. “It is important to understand this from a safety perspective, for future human exploration,” says Johnson. “You don’t want to go building your habitat next to a place that might have magnitude-five marsquakes.”

There is at least one Canadian co-investigator on InSight. Sabine Stanley, a professor in the department of earth and planetary sciences at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., was a professor at the University of Toronto for 11 years before taking her current position. After landing at Johns Hopkins, she could apply to be a co-investigator on this NASA mission, something she couldn’t do in Canada.

Stanley says she wishes the Canadian Space Agency had money for more Canadian researchers on NASA missions. It is a relatively low-cost investment—probably less than $100,000—to pay for travel and maybe a grad student salary, she says. And it has the potential for big returns. Any data gained is public and benefits the entire scientific community, not just a single researcher.

RELATED: Mars: When do we get to visit?

“It should be easy,” Stanley says. “It would really make a big impact on the amount of planetary science coming out of Canada.”

The lack of funding for all types of space research means many of the best and brightest Canadian space scientists, Stanley among them, leave Canada. They go south of the border, and also to Europe or Japan. “Most of my PhD students in the last few years have gone, or will go, to the U.S.,” says Osinski. “There are no real opportunities here.”

Kevin Cannon is one of those expats. The Canadian planetary scientist, originally from Vancouver, is doing post-doctoral studies at the University of Central Florida and says he would like the option to work in Canada, but doesn’t see that happening. “At this point I’ve all but given up hope of ever finding work in my home country,” he wrote on Twitter, in response to the Don’t Let Go Canada campaign.

Cannon hopes the current government comes through with a plan for the future of Canadian space research. “I’d like to see politicians actually pay attention to space,” he says. “The Canadian Space Agency has been neglected and has just withered away. There is the potential to do something, even with a smaller budget, but there needs to be political will to make it happen.”

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Dreessen: Ottawa has to shed its image as a town that doesn’t like fun

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Ottawa has long held a reputation as a place that fun forgot. People who live here know that there is a lot to love about the city: its history, the Rideau Canal, proximity to parks and rivers, excellent clubs, museums and galleries all make Ottawa a great place.

More spontaneous fun things are harder to come by. We’ve created a process that makes it hard for small businesses to thrive and where the process is more important than the outcome.

In 2016, a local artist planned to give away free T-shirts celebrating Ottawa 2017 on Sparks Street, until the local Business Improvement Association (BIA) asked him to move, squashing a fun event to bring people together.

In 2017, business proposals to the NCC executive committee made a business case to open cafés at Remic Rapids, Confederation Park and Patterson Creek. In the summer of 2020, two opened; the Patterson Creek location, opposed by neighbours, has yet to see the light of day, though the NCC website indicates it may happen in 2021.

In each case, the cafés are only open for a few brief summer months. Despite the fact that Ottawa celebrates itself as a winter city, we can’t, somehow, imagine how people might want to enjoy a café in the spring or fall, or during winter months while skiing along the river or skating along the canal. Keeping public washrooms open, serving takeout and, yes, using patio heaters, could make these cafés fun additions to our city for most of the year.

More recently, Jerk on Wheels, a food truck with excellent Caribbean chicken and two locations, has run intro trouble. The one on Merivale Road continues, but the Bank Street location in Old Ottawa South has to close. According to social media posts from the owners, despite the business having all permissions in place, local restaurant franchises of Dairy Queen and Tim Hortons have objected to its presence.

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Ottawa businesses frustrated with slower pace of Ontario’s Roadmap to Reopen plan compared to other provinces

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OTTAWA — As Canada plots its roadmap to reopening, each province is choosing their own path to reopen the economy and lift the COVID-19 restrictions.

Some are moving towards loosened restrictions at a faster pace than Ontario, which is frustrating for business owners who say they are ready to receive customers safely.

Patio season is upon the city, and at Banditos Restaurant on Bank Street, owner Matt Loudon is staging the large outdoor dining area to prepare for the summer rush. But the patio will have to remain closed until at least June 14, when it is expected Ontario will move into Step One of the three-step Roadmap to Reopen plan

“I hope they push it up a little bit,” says Loudon. “It’s beyond frustrating all the other provinces are opening up before us, we’ve been locked down longer than anybody else.”

Loudon, who owns two restaurants, says their outdoor seating has always been safe and that they have invested in added measures like sanitization stations and personal protective equipment for the staff. Indoor dining will continue to remain off limits in Ontario until Step Three. When patios do open, tables will be limited to four people. 

Unlike British Columbia’s four-pronged approach that began May 25. Residents in the province are now allowed to dine both inside and out, with a maximum of six per table, not restricted to one household.

Quebec will enter into its first step Friday, where outdoor dining will be available for two adults and their children, who can be from separate addresses per table. This applies to red and orange zones in the province. The curfew will also be lifted. 

In Gatineau, hair salons opened their doors to customers last week. Ten minutes away at Salon Bliss in Ottawa, all owner Sarah Cross can do is hope she can reopen sometime in July.

“Most people think that government funding covers all the bills but it’s far from it,” says Cross. Her upscale salon has nine chairs and over the course of the pandemic, in order to comply with regulations and keep staff and patrons, safe, only three chairs can now be filled. She says the hardest part is that the rules constantly change and vary in each region, adding it doesn’t make sense how one is better than the other.

“Our livelihood is dependent on what the decisions are made and if they were aligned with one belief system then I think they would have the trust of the public to follow these protocols.”

Many Ontario business owners say it’s not only a matter of necessity they open, but can do so safely. Infectious disease physician Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti agrees, and says the province needs to expedite its timeline.

“Especially with the fact that we are in the post vaccine era,” says Chakrabarti.

“It’s important for us to remember that we have been following this case count very closely for the last year and certainly we’ve had some experiences with opening things, especially with the second and third waves we have to remember that as we go forward now vaccines are a huge difference maker to the situation. Cases may go up but that doesn’t mean the most important thing will go up which is hospitalizations.”

Chakrabarti says while people will still get infected with COVID-19, with the reduced risk of hospitalization in large numbers there is no reason to restrict the community. He says while it’s not time for packed stadiums, it’s also not time for lockdowns and Ontario should re-think its strategy.

“We have to faith in the vaccines. We have seen in the other parts of the world like Israel, the U.K.,and the U.S. our neighbours to the south,” says Chakrabarti. “They are very safe and effective and our ticket out of this pandemic. We really should be taking that.”

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$2.9 million tax break for Ottawa Porsche dealership receives the green ligh

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OTTAWA — Ottawa city council has given the green light to a $2.9 million tax break for a new Porsche dealership in Vanier.

Council voted 15 to 9 to approve a grant under the Community Improvement Plan initiative to build a Porsche dealership at the corner of Montreal Road and St. Laurent Boulevard.  The project by Mrak Holdings Inc., a.k.a. Mark Motors of Ottawa, would be built at 458 Montreal Road.

Under the Community Improvement Plan approved by Council, business owners can apply for a grant equal to 75 per cent of the municipal tax increase attributable to the redevelopment. A report says the goal of the Montreal Road Community Improvement Plan is to “stimulate business investment, urban renewal and property upgrades in the area.”

Coun. Catherine McKenney was one of nine councillors who opposed the tax break for the Porsche dealership.

“I agree with the Community Improvement Plan, but I know and what people see here is that this application does not meet the criteria,” said McKenney about the CIP proposal for the Porsche dealership.

“A car dealership, no matter whether it’s Honda, or a Porsche or a Volkswagen, it does not first off belong on a traditional main street. This does not the meet the criteria of a CIP, it will do nothing for urban renewal.”

Approximately 70 people gathered at the site of the proposed Porsche dealership Tuesday evening to oppose the tax grant.

Coun. Diane Deans told Council she doubted any councillors who supported the Community Improvement Plan when it was developed in 2019 thought it would support a luxury car dealership.

“I don’t think it fits. I don’t think a clear case has been made that this incentive is required for the Mark Motors project to move forward at all,” said Deans. “I don’t believe there’s a clear community benefit.”

Coun. Riley Brockington, Deans, Jeff Leiper, Carol Anne Meehan, Rick Chiarelli, Theresa Kavanagh, Keith Egli, McKenney and Shawn Menard voted against the tax break for the Porsche dealership.

“It will lead to a $17 million investment on Montreal Road, it will create about 20 jobs in that neigthborhood,” said Mayor Jim Watson.

Watson noted auto dealerships were not excluded from the Community Improvement Plan when approved by committee and Council.

A motion introduced by Watson was approved to use property tax revenue generated by the redevelopment for affordable housing.

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