WASHINGTON -- A bill that would align Canadian remote sensing laws with those of the United States has made its first steps through the Canadian parliament.
The legislation, co-sponsored by four Canadian ministries with purview over imagery satellite interests, is designed to promote the development of the commercial remote sensing industry in Canada but also provide the government the power to curb satellite operations to protect national security, a process referred to in the industry as shutter control.
The bill, "C-25: An Act Governing the Operation of Remote Sensing Space Systems," was introduced in the Canadian House of Commons in November and received its first hearing before the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade Feb. 1.
"This act will regulate the operation of Canadian remote sensing satellites and ensure these instruments and the information they produce are not used against the interests of Canadians," Pierre Pettigrew, Minister of Foreign Affairs, said while introducing the bill in the House of Commons. "The legislation will serve to protect the safety of Canadians and our allies."
The legislation, sponsored by the Minister of Foreign Affairs; the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness; the Minister of National Defence and the Minister of Industry, who oversees the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), grants the minister of Foreign Affairs the ability to license the operation of spacecraft and ground stations as well as regulate the distribution of data and products.
In a speech before the House of Commons, Dan McTeague, parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs, said the bill is intended to modernize Canada's remote sensing laws. "We hope that our thinking on this bill will continue to be productive and will not interfere with the interests of the private sector while understanding the realities of the world in which we live," he said.
The legislation also fulfills Canada's obligations under a treaty signed with the United States in 2000. The treaty, the "Agreement Concerning Operation of Commercial Remote Sensing Satellite Systems," is intended to promote development of a commercial industry in each country while ensuring the privately owned imagery satellites would not be used to harm the two nations.
The treaty specifically mentioned Radarsat-2, a next-generation radar imagery satellite scheduled to be launched by Canada in late 2005 or early 2006. Most of the funding for the satellite, which is being built by MacDonald Dettwiler of Richmond, British Columbia, is being provided by the Canadian Space Agency, but Radarsat-2 will be the first imagery satellite to be owned by a Canadian company and not the government.
"We realize this system can be used in the context of national security and that the data also has commercial value," Marc Garneau, president of the CSA, said in an interview. "... We are trying to make Earth observation a viable commercial undertaking."
MacDonald Dettwiler provided input on the bill, company spokeswoman Liza Aboud said.
"With new high resolution satellites, and other satellite capabilities, licensing makes sense," she said in a written reply to questions.
Besides the shutter control provision, the legislation also grants the government priority access to the satellite.
Such control prompted some legislators to raise concerns about whether the legislation may promote military use of imagery satellites, especially in conjunction with missile defense systems, and whether the privacy of Canadian citizens will be protected.
Francine Lalonde, vice-chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said the Bloc Quebecois party supports the bill, but that the language would be scrutinized heavily in committee.
"This is, in fact, the first time we have had to deal with a device that has military capacities and international capabilities," Lalonde said. "It will be managed by a private owner, but the government wants to regulate it so that it does not contravene its international commitments, and also so that it is not at odds with what would be good for national defense and security."
In testimony before the Foreign Affairs Committee Feb. 1, Paul Chapin, director general of the International Security Bureau within Foreign Affairs Canada, tried to alleviate such concerns.
"It is clear that this bill is entirely unrelated to any decision as to Canada's participation in ballistic missile defense," Chapin said. "Bill C-25 in fact would not facilitate such participation. The radars or other sensors on remote sensing satellites of the type expected to be licensed under Bill C-25 would be designed to produce detailed images of the surface of the Earth and would not be optimized to provide the range and bearing for objects in flight above the Earth, such as ballistic missiles."
Chapin also noted that privacy concerns are unwarranted because Radarsat-2 will not have the capability to gather information on individuals.
More committee hearings are scheduled before the legislation goes back to the full House of Commons, Stephen Knowles, clerk of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said. The bill then would be sent to the senate.
Neither Knowles or Garneau would estimate how long it might take the bill to make its way through both houses of parliament.