tour reveals cold war fears

It may seem right out of an old science fiction or zombie apocalypse movie, but there was a time when the brightest minds in the country were focused on keeping selected government and senior military officers alive in the event of a nuclear missile attack. The solution? Stash them in a massive concrete bunker 75 feet below the surface of the earth.

In 1959, on the orders of then Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, scientists and military engineers were brought together to prepare plans to secretly construct a series of underground Emergency Government Headquarters across the country. Many were constructed, but the largest was built to house the Federal government, military officials, and support staff, 535 people in all. It comprised 100,000 square feet on four levels, and was designed to withstand a 5-megaton nuclear blast as close as 1.8 KMs away, and keep everyone inside alive and well fed for at least 30 days. It took 18 months to build and was ready for use in 1961.

In the event of imminent nuclear war, the Prime Minister, Cabinet ministers and key support staff, as well as military leaders and their support staff, would be whisked away from Ottawa by rail to the bunker in Carp, about 30 to 40 minutes outside the capital. No one would be allowed to bring their spouse or other family members – and in fact when Diefenbaker learned this was the case, he refused to ever set foot in the bunker, and never did.

Fortunately no one was ever evacuated to the bunker, although when tensions were high during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, officials were ready to swing into action. For the next 30 years, it served primarily as a military communications base and training facility for reservists, finally closing in 1994.

It would have faded into obscurity had it not been for a group of local volunteers and former bunker staff who cleaned it up, re-furnished it and now offer special events, school tours, self-guided tours, and the day I was there, guided tours.

To enter the bunker, you head down a long blast tunnel designed to take the force of a nuclear blast through one side of the hill and out the other, thereby taking pressure off the heavy doors to the side that take you to the elevators. Our tour guide provided lots of great detail about what we were seeing, showing us the mini-hospital, the War Room, Cabinet offices, the Prime Minister’s bedroom, cafeteria, support staff bunk rooms, the mainframe computer room and more.

Perhaps the most surprising room was the huge Bank of Canada vault connected to the bunker. In the event of a nuclear missile attack, while government and military officials were on their way to the bunker, Bank of Canada officials would be loading trucks with gold bars, an important consideration when a country’s solvency was largely based on it’s gold reserves, and the last thing you want is for your gold to be radioactive.

A visit to the Diefenbunker is a great drive and day trip from Ottawa. Plan to spend at least an hour inside the bunker itself – I’d suggest two hours if you’re keen. Then lunch at the historic Cheshire Cat Pub on your way back out of Carp.

Blast tunnel

Blast tunnel

One of 300 rooms in the Diefenbunker

A typical office, one of 300 rooms in the Diefenbunker

Manframe computer room, keeping communications within the Diefenbunker and with the outside world

Manframe computer room, keeping communications going within the Diefenbunker and with the outside world

The cafeteria, open 24 hours a day when the bunker was in operation

The cafeteria, open 24 hours a day when the bunker was in operation

Inside the Bank of Canada value, no gold in sight

Inside the Bank of Canada vault, no gold in sight

Bunk beds -- the plan was for the beds to always in use by whoever was off shift at the time

Bunk beds — the plan was for the beds to be in continuous use by whoever was off shift at the time

The entrance is a just a big machine shed, the interesting stuff is underground

The entrance is a just a big machine shed, the interesting stuff is way underground

Inside and out of the cold in Ottawa

When the temperature is well below zero outside, Ottawa offers numerous indoor attractions including a plethora of national museums and the national art gallery. Over the years I have had a chance to visit almost all of them, and with ever-changing temporary exhibitions, all of them are worth returning to.

On a recent mid-winter visit to Canada’s capital city, with an $8 day bus pass in hand, I took advantage of the $20 ticket that provides access to both the Canadian Museum of History (formerly and mostly still known as the Canadian Museum of Civilization), and the Canadian War Museum.

The Canadian Museum of History is a massive complex in Gatineau, just across the river from Ottawa. You can catch bus #8 in Ottawa and it will take you to the front door (but check with the driver, not every bus on this route goes as far as the museum).

Perhaps the most famous aspect of this museum, beyond the Alberta Badlands-evoking shape of the building itself, is the Grand Hall. This large and dramatic space features totem poles and building facades that represent the construction styles and tell the stories of the first peoples of the Northwest Coast. The buildings are arranged along a raised walkway/beachfront, and inside each is an exhibition that further displays and describes everyday and ceremonial aspects of Northwest Coast First Nations culture.

On the same level is the First Peoples Hall, described as Canada’s “largest permanent exhibition on the history, diversity and contributions of Canada’s First Peoples.” There is much to see and read about First Nations life from coast to coast to coast.

The other main permanent exhibition area is the third floor and mezzanine that focuses on the broad history of Canada, from pre-contact to present day, including a whaling station, turn-of-the-century village, depictions of wars and rebellions, and the nature of immigration over the years. Loads of information on the people and personalities who shaped the idea of Canada over the years.

The second floor is given over to temporary exhibitions. The mini-exhibition on snow was not that interesting to me; what caught my attention was the exhibition that explored the history and rituals associated with Vodou. Numerous objects, audio recordings, film clips, and descriptions were used to help people understand the origins and worldview of those who practice Vodou. I’d highly recommend this exhibition but it was closing soon after my visit. Maybe it will tour.

Back on the #8 bus which conveniently passes by the side of the equally massive Canadian War Museum. The exhibition space is divided into four major chronological phases in the history of war in, or involving, Canada: wars in Canada up to 1885, wars involving Canada as a Commonwealth nation, the Second World War, and a final gallery that looks at Canada’s role in the Cold War, peacekeeping, and recent conflicts around the world. Within each there are themed sections that examine specific battles, wars, equipment used, the role of artists and the media, and military alliances.

There is also an open exhibition area featuring the heavy equipment of war: trucks, artillery, tanks, boats and warplanes. Perhaps a bit too much killing technology in one place for my peace-activist mind to take, but overall the museum is well worth a visit.

Museum of History - Grand Hall

Museum of History – Grand Hall

The plaster form for Spirit of Haida Gwaii

The plaster form for Spirit of Haida Gwaii