The Diefenbunker: Echoes from our past, or back to the future?
There’s a strong feeling of déjà vu when you walk through the complex that could have served as a temporary shelter for members of the Canadian government 50 years ago. The Diefenbunker is a legacy of the Cold War, and since 1998 thousands of visitors have passed through it. So far, the public’s interest shows no sign of flagging.
Dark underground corridors, condensation dripping from the walls, and decor straight out of ‘The Twilight Zone’ create the impression that Canada’s 13th Prime Minister, John George Diefenbaker, or his Defence Minister could emerge at any moment from one of the 350 rooms in the subterranean labyrinth — now Canada’s Cold War Museum. In actual fact, however, Mr. Diefenbaker never entered the bunker, nor did any member of his cabinet.
The bunker was originally known as the emergency seat of government at Canadian Forces Station Carp. It was John George Diefenbaker, Canada’s Prime Minister at the time, who authorized its construction at the height of the Cold War in 1958. The complex, completed in 1962, was designed to accommodate 565 people for one month without requiring any supplies to be brought in. Among those assembled underground to keep the country from falling into anarchy would have been the Prime Minister, the Governor General, 12 members of the Defence staff, the President of the CBC and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. In the event of nuclear war, the public affairs officers and journalists in the bunker, using Underwood typewriters, would prepare all the news items and bulletins to be released to the public. The authorities even advised Canadians to build smaller versions of the shelter in their own yards!
This reminder of a fascinating period in Canadian history is located in the village of Carp, west of Ottawa. The underground complex has 9 000 m2 of space on four levels. Its construction required 32 000 tonnes of concrete and 5 000 tonnes of steel. It was designed to withstand a 5-megatonne nuclear explosion at a distance of 1.8 km or more.
Today, the museum is run mostly by volunteers, together with a few permanent employees. Doug Beaton, the current chair of the board of directors, formerly worked as a restorer for Parks Canada and as a conservator for Heritage Canada. After his retirement, he became a guide at the Diefenbunker and has invested a great deal of effort in restoring the complex and improving the library of Cold War publications, which is named after him.
Many volunteers from a variety of businesses and organizations use their experience and skills improving the Diefenbunker. One volunteer, who owns a heavy-machinery company used a crane to move a period-appropriate generator into the machine room, located three levels below ground. A number of volunteers are retired CF personnel, who have a unique understanding of the military and geopolitical issues of the Cold War and make good use of their knowledge when showing visitors around.
The Land Force supervised construction of the bunker, and Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Churchill of the Royal Canadian Engineers managed the project. He was also the director of installations and the engineer responsible for construction of the site for Expo 67, the 1967 world’s fair held in Montréal. DND constructed the shelter and maintained it until the military decommissioned the site in December 1994, after the fall of the Soviet Union.
As the structure had no other national or international importance, its security and protection mission was set to end in 1994. But shortly before DND was scheduled to drop the first charge of dynamite on the Diefenbunker, the Minister of Canadian Heritage designated the underground complex as a National Historic Site of Canada. And in April 2006 the city of Ottawa named it as a site of importance, designating it as a property of cultural heritage value under the Ontario Heritage Act.
Once the bunker’s historic and heritage status was officially recognized, all that remained was to raise funds to turn the complex into a museum. The management team doubled its promotional efforts, which quickly bore fruit. Mr. Beaton notes that the museum welcomed 5 000 visitors and took in $78 000 during its opening weekend in 1998. The money was used to renovate and re-equip the structure, which had been emptied of its contents in preparation for the planned demolition. Since then, the number of visitors has increased by 15 percent every year, reaching 39 000 people in 2009.
When asked about his duties, Mr. Beaton said, “I really enjoy leading tours, and all the visitors are fascinated by the complex. I also like organizing and cataloguing the incredible collection and making it accessible to the public. There are so many resources! At the beginning, there were 90 to 120 people working here, but circulation was limited.”
Although Prime Minister Diefenbaker never visited the bunker, he is remembered for his tenacity and determination during his term in office. His government appointed the first female cabinet minister, Ellen Fairclough, and gave First Nations people the right to vote. James Gladstone, a member of the Blood tribe, became the first Aboriginal person to be appointed to the Senate. Diefenbaker’s government also enacted the Canadian Bill of Rights, and his anti-apartheid stance contributed to the withdrawal of South Africa from the Commonwealth.
As part of its role as a museum, the Diefenbunker offers numerous programs and services. Video enthusiasts will find many different clips online that will appeal to a wide audience and offer a closer look at the history of the Cold War. One is a 10-minute video that gives an overview of the construction of the shelter. There is also a video game, Project Rustic, that Canadians can play to find out more about the Cold War. It simulates a nuclear war between the USSR and the US, presents issues of the time, and explains how the government of the day functioned during a crisis and how civilian participation can influence our understanding of domestic and foreign politics. Since September 2010, the museum has been presenting Project Rustic to Grade 10 students in social studies classes. The game is accessible online at no charge, enabling anyone with a computer and Internet access to learn more about the Cold War.
The Diefenbunker is an exceptional window on a past that is still very relevant today. For more information, call 613-839-0007 or 1-800-409-1965, or visit www.diefenbunker.ca/en_index.shtml.
Did you know?
- The official opposition dubbed the structure the “Diefenbunker” while Mr. Diefenbaker was Prime Minister.
- The Hollywood movie “The Sum of All Fears”, starring Morgan Freeman and Ben Affleck, was shot in the Diefenbunker.
- There is a Bank of Canada vault in the shelter, but no gold has ever been placed there.
- The beds in the dormitories are bunk beds and cots.
- The cafeteria, which is still in use, serves individual field rations.
- There are almost 50 bomb shelters in Canada, designed and equipped to protect members of various levels of government in the event of a nuclear attack.
- The complex has two three-room suites reserved for the Prime Minister and the Governor General. They are the only accommodations in the bunker that have a private shower.
- The bunker contains a CBC studio that was supposed to be used to broadcast news in the event of a nuclear war.
- According to Eric Espig, manager of programs and public relations for the Diefenbunker, spouses and family members were not authorized to even know about the shelter’s existence, let alone live there—not even the Prime Minister’s wife.
- The museum has its own radio station, VE3CWM-Cold War Museum, which broadcasts on Tuesday nights.
- Close to 100 CF members were deployed to the Diefenbunker over a period of 35 years, 24/7. They were tasked with keeping the shelter ready . . . just in case.