Cold War fever enveloped Canada as well as the US in the 1950’s. As a kid growing up in Toronto, I still remember big signs along the road advertising “Bomb Shelters For Sale,” and actually had one relative who claimed he had a bomb shelter. I saw it one time, and he proudly showed off all the cans and jars of food he and his wife had accumulated. It was built into the side of a hill, but had glass patio doors. He lived way out in the rural area, so I could never figure out the need, nor how well it would work if the Russians did decide to target the fruit-growing regions of southern Ontario. But then, I was only 10 or 11, not savvy about the survival strategies of the day.
In the late 1950’s, while a gruff, pasty-looking fellow named John Diefenbaker was Prime Minister, Canada built an enormous monument to the Cold War, an underground bunker to safely hold the key members of the government in the event a nuclear missile targeted Ottawa. It was built far enough from Ottawa to survive the blast, but near enough that the chosen ones could get there in time. Not wanting the Russians to target the bunker too, the government claimed that it was actually just a non-essential radio facility – hardly worth bombing. The top secret status lasted about as long as the latest version of an iPhone, when a crack reporter from the Toronto newspaper flew over the huge construction site and counted 78 toilets waiting for installation. Surmising that a handful of radio-operators would not need 78 toilets, he concluded that it was what is was and in a major published story, the secret was blown:
The name stuck, and the Diefenbunker is now a museum that is open to the public, and freaky as hell for those who remember that dark period.
It was four stories deep, and large enough to hold over 500 people for at least 30 days. This model shows the layout, but belies its enormity.
The War Cabinet room reminded me of scenes from Dr. Strangelove:
It had all the usual things needed to sustain life, including a cafeteria and a recreation room. I wondered what the conversations would have been like while playing cards or shooting pool after a nuclear event.
It even had small offices for each of the government ministries, like the Department of Mines and Minerals, and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Really? After nuclear war? There was also refrigerated room that doubled as both food storage and a morgue. “Hey Fred, get the pork chops will ya? They’re right next to Johnson.”
Canada was on the gold standard back then, so they even devoted an entire floor to a special vault to hold the gold bars from the Royal Bank of Canada. The gold bars were to be transported by truck in the event war became imminent. Assuming none of the drivers took a wrong turn to their own homes.
The door to the vault was thicker than I’d ever seen:
They wanted to make sure they could communicate to the population before the bombs hit, and to any wandering moose afterwards, so they had a fully functioning studio for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation:
And they had the very latest in computer technology:
One of the eeriest parts of the tour was seeing the office and sleeping area for the Prime Minister:
Notice that his bedroom has a single bed. All beds for all 500 people were single beds because no one, not even the PM, was permitted to bring their spouse or children. Pause for a moment and let that sink in. John Diefenbaker himself never set foot in the bunker, and it is said that in the event of war, he would not have gone to the bunker. He would never have been willing to leave his beloved wife behind.
I read a comic book when I was a kid about a guy who built a bomb shelter, and when the air raid sirens blared, down he went, closing the impenetrable door behind him. He heard lots of knocking which he knew were people desperate to come in. But he didn’t want to share it or his food, so he kept the door locked until the knocking stopped. After waiting the recommended period, he emerged to find no damage..and no people. A note said that there had been no war. Instead, aliens had come to take them to some paradise planet and they tried to get him to come along but he wouldn’t open the door. So he had the entire planet to himself, all the material goods the world had to offer, but no one to share them with. He missed his chance to join the rest of humanity in paradise and instead spent his life alone on an empty planet. And he promptly went nuts.
I remembered that comic book story when thinking about the people who would have been allowed into the Diefenbunker, and what it would have been like to emerge from that shelter and find yourself among the few survivors, with family gone, friends gone, everyone gone. Except the fortunate few, and a functioning though bare-bones government. Including, thank God, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
3 thoughts on “Dispatch from the Field: The Diefenbunker”
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Now that you’ve (quite rightly) had fun with the Diefenbunker, will you be reminding your (American) readers that such preparations were entirely reflective of an era and not unique to the country bumpkins in Ottawa? 🙂
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Hi Ken and Carol. Looks like a wonderful trip. We knew about the Diefenbunker but not the details. How ridiculous. Another political vision run amok! We get excellent poutine at our football games. Go figure! Stay well. We are enjoying your literary works of art.
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