It’s not the first time I’ve waded through many hundreds of pages of correspondence released by a government under a FOIPOP (Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy) request, but it is the first time that reading the correspondence made me feel slightly queasy, like a voyeur witnessing unhealthy relationships developing between uncritical and subservient public officials and the demanding CEO of a private company.
The 1,728 pages of correspondence, mostly emails, were released to Canso resident Marie Lumsden, who submitted a FOIPOP request to the Municipality of the District of Guysborough (MODG) earlier this year for all records relating to Maritime Launch Services (MLS) and its proposal for a spaceport in Canso. Lumsden is a member of the citizens’ group Action Against the Canso Spaceport (AACS) that formed this year to oppose the project.
The correspondence reveals how, starting in late 2016 shortly after MLS was formed and began promoting its proposal to launch Ukrainian-made Cyclone 4M rockets into space from Canso, the MODG economic development director and its chief administrative officer, among others, worked with MLS to sell the project not just to the public but also to the media and other levels of government.
The emails tell the story of how people on the public payroll became close allies of and worked very hard to advance the interests of a handful of men and companies from the US and Ukraine, in this case those behind the MLS project.
Among others on the email loops with MODG officials are MLS CEO Steve Matier from New Mexico, its vice president Yaroslav Pustovyi from Ukraine, California’s United Paradyne Corporation CEO and President Joseph Hasay, its vice president David Walsh, and the Ukrainian companies Yuzhmash and Yuzhnoye.
The public servants seem to have become supporters after seeing a 2016 MLS project description, which said there would be 30 full-time employee / contractor positions on-site when the project went into operation in 2019, rising to 150 by 2028.
If the MODG ever did due diligence, asking critical questions about the project risks and the Ukrainian companies involved, it is not evident anywhere in the email correspondence.
Particularly enthusiastic and willing to please is MODG economic development director Gordon MacDonald, who acted like Matier’s de facto assistant and seemed happy to be at his beck and call, organizing countless meetings, handling logistics, providing information, introductions, and contacts.
I emailed MacDonald twice to ask him about his work on behalf of MLS, but have not received a reply.
Starting in October 2017, MacDonald regularly offered Matier space for MLS messages in the “glossy quarterly newsletter” that MODG produced and sent out, as he told Matier, “to each household” in the municipality.
Emails also indicate that Matier had engaged the services of a PR specialist to help sell the project and advise on media relations. In December 2017, Janet MacMillan of NATIONAL Public Relations sent an email to a group including Matier, Harvey Doane who is Director, Defence, Security and Aerospace at Nova Scotia Business Inc (NSBI), and Gordon MacDonald, in which she offered advice on how to handle Dalhousie University adjunct professor John Kearney, who was quoted in a Canadian Press story expressing concerns about the spaceport’s potential to harm birds.
Tim Bousquet wrote about the Canadian Press article in the Halifax Examiner Morning File, prompting MacMillan to send an email to Matier et al. advising that:
The Halifax Examiner tends to feel like a right-wing type publication that pushes on radical and constantly challenges the “establishment”. Small following, the politicians (and their staffers) pay some attention to it, for sure. The good news is that MLS and the project is not (now) a big target for this publication.
MLS and its PR helpers
Then on March 2, 2018, in response to an article on the project by Jennifer Henderson in the Halifax Examiner, MacMillan wrote another email, this time to a larger group, including Gordon MacDonald, Matier, and his business colleagues from United Paradyne. MacMillan wrote:
I tried to access [the Halifax Examiner article] but we don’t have a subscription to this publication. They have a relatively low following, are considered to be a little left-leaning but they dig deep on issues and uncover stories of interest; and they are often contacted by folks that aren’t able to get the mainstream media to cover their stories of concern. 1
None of the recipients of these emails seems to have noticed MacMillan’s odd description of the Halifax Examiner as “right-wing” in December 2017, and then four months later as “left-leaning.”
Matier did, however, react strongly to another Halifax Examiner Morning File piece by Tim Bousquet about the project, its financing and the fact that MLS was lobbying for federal government funding. Matier wrote to MacDonald that he wished he were Elon Musk so he could self fund the project, and said he figured the author didn’t want the project to succeed.
But MacMillan was not the only one keeping an eye on media for MLS. Like any good media relations person, Gordon MacDonald had a Google Alert set up for Maritime Launch Services to keep track of and alert Matier to anything published about the company and its project.
Matier invited MacDonald to represent MODG at a media event MLS was hosting in Halifax in December 2017. And MacDonald did as he was asked by Matier, when he reached out on behalf of MLS to Export Development Canada.
In July 2018, perhaps in recognition for all they had done for MLS, Matier wrote to MacDonald and MODG CAO Barry Carroll, saying it was “high time” they got down to California to see a rocket launch for themselves at Vandenburg. Despite much back-and-forth on the planned visit, and MODG council passing a motion approving it, there is no evidence in the correspondence that the visit ever happened.
Also in 2018, Matier, MacDonald, and others in favour of the project reacted badly to media coverage that raised questions about its possible risks, including a CBC article by reporter Frances Willick quoting University of British Columbia political science professor Michael Byers about the propellant that would be used in the second stage of the rocket, and another she wrote citing government officials reiterating those concerns in their comments on the project.
After the first of these was published, MODG CAO Barry Carroll wrote a strongly-worded email to Willick, upbraiding her for using Byers as a source because he is a political scientist. (In fact, Byers’ UBC bio states that he “holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law. His work focuses on Outer Space, Arctic sovereignty, climate change, the law of the sea, the laws of war, and Canadian foreign and defence policy.”) The email reads:
Hey Frances,I just read your story on the proposed rocket launch site and the EA submission. I think you throw credibility out the window when you use a political scientist as your source. Really? Check course offerings at any university for political scientists and I don’t think you’ll find rocket fuels in any of the course listings. For that matter, you could have chosen anyone for your source, as long as they could read. Sure your source has written some space stuff but more from his political bias as being an NDPer [Byers once advised NDP leader Jack Layton and ran for the NDP in 2008 in the federal election]. You could have consulted a rocket fuel specialist, a rocket scientist, or even a chemist who could have given you an unbiased view of your subject. But you chose someone who has a record of having a biased anti-environmental perspective. Disappointing Frances. Regards, Barry
Matier also appears hypersensitive to journalism that challenges his project in any way. In an email in October 2018, he called Willick’s article a “hit piece” and alleged that she “was out to trash the initiative.”
A “grassroots” petition with input from on-high
Whether it was in response to the critical media coverage, or just part of the PR pitch to sell the project, in October 2018 Matier and MacDonald began to exchange emails about getting a petition going and enlisting the services of Frank Sander, a board member of the Canso Area Development Association (CADA). On October 18, 2018, Sander emailed Matier to say they were “preparing a mail flyer to encourage people to sign the petition supporting MLS,” and promised to send him a draft.
On November 1, 2018, Matier wrote to Sander and CADA president Harold Roberts, saying he had reviewed the draft petition and offering his thoughts on it:
- The petition should be from CADA or somehow, from the community, not MLS with the MLS logo. It will not seem like the grassroots campaign you are intending, but rather instigated by MLS
- I would address it to Minister Miller [then minister of the environment], Minister Rankin (crown land) and Premier McNeil, only. [Transport and Infrastructure Renewal] Minister [Lloyd] Hines is super supportive already and has been working collaboratively with MLS to see this happen.
- I think the simpler the better – Getting into all the jobs numbers or description about the focus report terms seems to me to miss the message you are sending to the province.
- The sign up sheet might have the printed name, signature, and area they live in (not specific address but rather the areas in Guysborough – eg Canso, Guysborough, etc…)
- Your message as I understand it is similar to what Ginny [Boudreau, manager of Guysborough County Inshore Fishermen’s Association] stated the other night: willingness to shoulder the risk to see the benefit.
The MLS CEO also kindly added some text for the petition in support of his company:
We, the undersigned wish to convey our support to Maritime Launch Services for the establishment of [sic] satellite launch facility in Canso, Hazel Hill and Little Dover. MLS has held three separate Open Houses in our community and has been very open about the potential risks and benefits of this development and we understand them. Unlike people that have sent in comments from outside our community and have no stake in it, we are the ones that are willing to shoulder any risk and clearly see the benefits, not only to our community but for Atlantic Canada. Please approve the Environmental Assessment at your earliest convenience. Thank you.
Roberts replied to Matier (copied to MacDonald and Sander) that they would incorporate his comments into the document.
On November 12, 2018, MacDonald and Roberts wrote again to Matier to ask him, based on “the MLS EI [sic] / focus report schedule,” “when would it be a good time to start the petition?”
On March 5, 2019, MacDonald then wrote to Roberts, saying he had spoken with Matier, who had recently met with “NS Government Ministers (incl. Lloyd H[ines])” and mentioned the plans for a petition in support of MLS. MacDonald pointed out that there was a format for petitions to be brought to the floor of the legislature, and provided Roberts with that information.
The petition was reportedly aggressively distributed in Canso. It “garnered 753 signatures” and Lloyd Hines, Liberal MLA for Guysborough – Eastern Shore – Tracadie, tabled it on April 11, 2019 in the provincial legislature.
As reported here, Jim Geddes, a member of Action Against the Canso Spaceport, estimated that there were only about 293 legitimate signatures on the petition, and some of those people had actually changed their minds.
This cast doubt on the “grassroots” local support for the spaceport, but it didn’t stop Steve Matier from boasting about the petition every time anyone expressed criticism of the project, as they did at a community meeting organized by AACS in August 2019.
In response to that meeting, Matier took to the pages of the Guysborough Journal to defend MLS, once again claiming there was community support for the project as shown by the petition – a petition that he helped to craft.
Since then, AACS has started its own “Stop the Canso Spaceport” petition and spokesperson Marie Lumsden tells me they have more than 400 signatures from the local communities of Canso, Tickle, Hazel Hill, and Fox Island.
When does collaboration become collusion?
The correspondence released by MODG also shows that Matier hoped for (and wasn’t shy about asking for) support from the municipality. (He also sought support from federal agencies when he spoke to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance in October 2018.)
On February 6, 2017, Matier wrote to MacDonald to say that MLS had met with “a number of agencies and ministries in Ottawa,” as well as then Liberal MP Roger Cuzner, Premier Stephen McNeil, and the Canadian Space Agency president Sylvain Laporte, all of whom had been “very favourable.”
I am optimistically moving forward assuming we will commit to Canso so wanted to discuss next steps with you. To that end, I would like to work out an understanding of how your municipality and MLS might work together. I would specifically like to develop and [sic] MOU that outlines how we can collaborate. MLS is not seeking any significant direct government investment for this project.
That said, we would like to see where it makes sense to ask the local municipality to cooperate on aspects. Things that leap to mind include the agreement to use the access road to the wind farm to support our access. There is also the piece of land west of yours that we need to cross over that you and I discussed previously. We need to arrange to get that access or ask you to get it for us. I was also thinking about the utilities, specifically the electricity to the site. If we consider our spaceport footprint to be our responsibility, can we ask that you bring the electricity to the site boundary? Is the Crown land lease valuation that needs to be done something we can work on together and share the cost of? Is the land lease annual cost something you would consider picking up for the first five years until we reach our launch tempo of 8 [rocket launches] per year? Given your water capacity in Canso, is it cost effective to tie in to your system for drinking water? We have also discussed the power lines, etc in town that may be too low for us to drive a rocket stage under. Can we ask you to deal with those when the time comes?
MacDonald replied to Matier that the MODG was “certainly open to collaborating on the development of an MOU to define potential roles going forward,” but that its participation was prescribed by Nova Scotia’s Municipal Governance Act, which does not permit municipalities in the province to offer public subsidies to private businesses. This, wrote MacDonald, “prevents MODG from working cooperatively with for-profit developers to create attract [sic] investment.”
An email to MODG asking whether any formal MOU or informal agreement for collaboration with MLS had ever been drawn up has gone unanswered.
In his email to Matier, MacDonald also wrote:
We are certainly willing to look at potential avenues for the MODG to cooperate and identify cost-savings for MLS. … Our focus, on the launch facility, as it has been on all of our other investment projects is in providing a supportive environment for investment that helps in advancing the development. We have not offered incentives for developments previously for the reasons stated above. We are, however willing to look at all options that meet the legal requirements of the MGA.
To this, Matier replied that he understood the limitations for municipalities, but:
For us, we are trying to find the most efficient means to be cost effective so that we can make our cost point. In the US, the sites looking to bring spaceport clients to their area can and do make those kinds of offers. Our one main competing site to Nova Scotia is in Mexico and the Space Agency there is working to put together an infrastructure package that would benefit the spaceport. I get that a municipality such as yours has limited abilities to make serious investments.
Do you see any relationship that does not equate to subsidies that makes sense? Is their [sic] an equity relationship possible?
The missing federal assessment
This wasn’t the first time that Matier had issued not very subtle threats that if MLS and partners didn’t get their way in Canada, they would take their rockets and go elsewhere.
On November 11, 2016, Matier had written to MacDonald to express concern that Ottawa might decide the project should undergo a federal environmental assessment [EA]:
The worry I have is that the EA may be forced into the federal level without much consideration. I would obviously prefer to keep it at the provincial level if at all possible primarily for the shorter time duration. There are no obvious triggers for the provincial level EA according to the NS Environment Department.
The potential federal trigger is likely due to Transport Canada being the federal regulatory body we will be working with for a launch. If they urge the Minister to make it a full federal EA it will dramatically affect our timetable and push out the start of construction to two plus years and then a possible first launch in 2020. Bluntly, that may drive us to another location being considered on the west coast of Mexico. Their Space Agency is already promoting a site for us to consider. My personal preference is Nova Scotia but the business case and launch payload manifest is pushing for us to get to market quicker.
Matier got what he wanted — a pass by the federal government on an environmental assessment for his project.
Why there was no federal environmental assessment of such a complex project involving dangerous chemicals such as the highly toxic and carcinogenic propellant 1.1-dimethylhydrazine (also known as Unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine or UDMH) that is to be used in the second stage of the Ukrainian Cyclone 4M rocket that would be heading into space from Nova Scotia, remains a mystery.
Documents released under a FOIPOP request by the Ecology Action Centre to the provincial government, show that Matthew Dunn, the Risk, Insurance, Business Continuity with the provincial Department of Internal Services, was particularly concerned about what kind of insurance would be required and the potential liabilities to the province. To colleagues in other departments he wrote:
One insurance I noticed that may be needed for this type of exposure is environmental impairment liability (EIL). I am more thinking of damage to the ecosystem, waterways, etc
And, he noted:
According to UN Convention Laws, the state (ie us) are [sic] responsible for anything that goes wrong. If there is an accident and the shuttle plunges into Manhattan, the Province of NS is on the hook for damages that fall outside of their insurance. Presumably, there are no asset holdings in the company that could offset damages via lawsuit, so it would be prudent for the Province to look at this as the insurance money being the only access to cash we have.
As reported here, when he spoke at the meeting in Canso in August, UBC professor Michael Byers said he became concerned about the project only when he realized that MLS intended to use:
… old technology that included a hydrazine-fuelled second stage, and then just as importantly, they were planning on … combining different parts from old kinds of rockets into an untested rocket, which would be flown for the first time from Canso.
Byers told the audience in Canso that the importance of the spaceport project to Canada’s close relationship with the Ukraine may help explain why it was not subjected to a federal environmental assessment, despite the fact that it involves so many federal jurisdictions, including migratory birds and the marine ecosystem.
As I reported here, questions to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (now the Impact Assessment Agency) about why Environment and Climate Change Canada opted not to undertake an EA of the spaceport resulted in no useful answers at all.
I then submitted a FOIPOP request for documentation and communication that would show why the federal government decided that the spaceport didn’t require an EA. Unfortunately, because of the “volume of records and consultations required” I cannot expect to receive that file release until April 2020.
Premier McNeil supports MLS and the province gives it a green light
Despite the risks involved and the fact that the Department of Environment has no expertise on spaceports, the province decided the project should undergo the shorter and less thorough Class 1 rather than a Class II EA.
But the original MLS submissions were deemed incomplete by then environment minister Margaret Miller, and MLS was asked to prepare a focus report.
Among other things, MLS is to develop and submit an environmental protection and monitoring plan, a wildlife management plan that includes detailed studies on birds, species at risk, and measure to mitigate effects to migratory birds from “noise, sonic boom, chemical substances used in launch activities and/or by-products or daughter products, accidents and malfunctions and cumulative effects from the Sable Wind Farm,” which is very close to the proposed spaceport.
MLS is also to pay the government $100,000 a year to cover staff time for provincial employees dedicated to the project. Matier told journalist Alec Bruce for an article in Halifax Magazine, that this fee “surprised” his team, and said he hoped that once the project is up and operating, the payment won’t be needed.
Thing is, after wading through more than 1,000 pages of spaceport-related communication from the provincial government released to the Ecology Action Centre under a FOIPOP request, and then nearly three years of correspondence from MODG, it strikes me that perhaps MLS should have been paying fees for its intensive use of public servants’ time and expertise long before the EA was approved.
On April 24, 2017, Nova Scotia Environment hosted a “pre-environmental assessment meeting” for the spaceport proposal, at which five federal officials and five provincial officials made presentations, as did Steve Matier.
Four days later, Premier Stephen McNeil wrote a letter of support for MLS. It was addressed “To Whom It May Concern” and offered this endorsement of a newly formed foreign-owned company that wanted to blast untested rockets from Nova Scotia’s shores:
I am pleased to offer this Letter of Support to Maritime Launch Services in support of their new project, a Spaceport, in the community of Canso, Nova Scotia.
… I have personally met with and discussed this project with Mr. Steve Matier and some of the other principals behind this exciting development as well as their Ukrainian partners. Their professionalism and drive to make this facility a reality have impressed me.
The Government of Nova Scotia is fully behind this exciting and innovative development and look forward to the day when they launch their first satellite from their new facility.
Despite having met with the premier to promote their private spaceport project, neither Maritime Launch Services nor Stephen Matier are registered as lobbyists on the provincial registry of lobbyists.
In an April 28, 2017 email to his business partners, Harvey Doane of NSBI, PR specialist Janet MacMillan and Gordon MacDonald, Matier wrote:
As an added bonus to our week, please find a letter of support from Premier McNeil. This has been a number of weeks in coming.
The same day, MacDonald wrote to Barry Carroll and Liberal Minister of Transport and Infrastructure Renewal, Lloyd Hines, about the letter:
It only gets better and better. That letter makes a loud statement. MLS had commented that they had a positive and productive relationship with the Province. This rocket thing might take flight yet.
I emailed Premier McNeil’s spokesperson, David Jackson, to ask if the letter of endorsement, written more than a year before MLS had submitted its project for environmental assessment, didn’t undermine or prejudice the EA process and the independence of the government’s role as regulator. He replied:
It’s not unusual for proponents to request a letter of support from various levels of government while developing a project. In this case, a private sector proposal for economic development in a rural part of our province that has faced economic challenges aligns with government’s commitment to grow the economy in rural Nova Scotia.
A letter of support indicates a positive response to the concept and intent of a project, but does not in any way infringe on or influence the role of regulators, or diminish the obligations of a proponent to obtain necessary regulatory and environmental approvals.
From his letter, it appears that Premier McNeil’s support for MLS in 2017 was based on his personal meetings with the principals and their Ukrainian partners, whom he lauded for their “professionalism.”
Don Bowser, a specialist on international corruption currently living in Ukraine, begs to differ. He has been investigating the two Ukrainian firms Yuzhmash and Yuzhnoye, which would be designing and supplying the rockets for MLS.
While MLS and its Ukrainian partners claim that the rockets are passing qualification tests in the Ukraine, Bowser told me via Messenger from the capital Kyiv that he has confirmed with two Ukrainian rocket scientists that the Cyclone 4M has never flown and will not be ready to do so for at least another two years.
“MLS are not being honest about the track record and the readiness of the Cyclone rockets,” said Bowser. “MLS is not telling the truth to investors.”
Referring to the Bricklin sports car disaster in New Brunswick in the 1970s, which cost people in that province many millions of dollars before the dreams for the flashy car finally fizzled out, Bowser added, “If you know the Bricklin won’t drive, it’s fraud.”
“The history of Yuzhnoye/Yuzhmash is one of corruption, malfeasance and deals made with rogue states [which] is well documented,” said Bowser. He also wondered why Canadian government officials were not hesitant to do business with the Ukrainian “rocketmen.”
MLS has been meeting with a number of Federal MPs including Roger Cuzner, and strangely, New Brunswick MP Alaina Lockhart, whose duties nor riding seem to match. MLS has stated they have the support of Chrystia Freeland and Global Affairs Canada and this seems to be supported by the MOU between the Ukrainian Government and the Canadians, including the Canadian Space Agency in November 2017.
Still, the kind of cosiness that Bowser describes between the federal government and MLS and its Ukrainian partners pales next to the way that MODG officials have worked non-stop for Matier and MLS for nearly three years.
Despite all the support and government time that have been devoted to MLS and the spaceport project, there is still no evidence that Matier and his partners have secured the financing — $210 million — that they need to go ahead.
I emailed Matier with detailed questions about the project and its funding, whether it has fulfilled the conditions of its EA, and asking for an update on the project. He replied that MLS was working on a “comprehensive update” that will be ready in coming weeks, and that they were happy with their progress. He did not answer any of my questions.
Then, just as I was opening that email from Matier, I heard a CBC radio report that MLS had partnered with a US company looking to recycle upper stages of MLS Cyclone 4M rockets in space. This, before the spaceport has even been financed or begun.
I sent the story to Don Bowser for comment. He tweeted:
Well given their real “partner” in the Spaceport – Ukrainian firm Yuzhnoye is incapable of completing any Cyclone 4M rockets any time soon & is embroiled in [a] corruption case where $10 million CAD was stolen – I would say “don’t hold your breath.”
Tim Bousquet’s reaction to the CBC story was even blunter. In the Halifax Examiner Morning File he wrote:
Last week, I got the Google News alert about Maritime Launch Services “partnering” with Nanoracks, a company that supposedly recycles launch vehicles, and I promptly ignored it. That’s because A) it’s unlikely that MLS will ever launch a rocket from Canso, B) Nanoracks has never recycled anything, C) the entire premise is bullshit, and D) the press release was obviously just a way for both companies to get free press in order to entice investors, and I don’t generally fall for such obvious tactics.
Alas, that hasn’t stopped other news outlets from jumping at the bait. Peeps, I keep saying: Don’t give away free advertising! Charge for that shit.
Guess I’ll have to submit a new FOIPOP request to find out what Matier and the MLS spaceport cheerleaders in the Municipality of the District of Guysborough have to say about the public criticism — and the Halifax Examiner — this time.
- After MacMillan wrote that the Examiner is “often contacted by folks that aren’t able to get the mainstream media to cover stories of concern” she wrote: “That said, Jennifer is a highly respected former (longstanding) CBC business journalist. Thorough in her research, smart, tough, but fair. If she’s now decided to follow the MLS story it will be good to keep the communication lines open. ↩