Claustrophobics beware! The Diefenbunker will send you running for the exit door. But if you have a passion for history, Cold War style, then head to Carp, Ontario, an hour’s drive west of Ottawa. Slap down the $13 admission fee and step into the world of nuclear war paranoia, Canadian style.
You’ll need at least an hour to wander through the 100,000 square foot, 4-storey bunker, excavated 75 feet under the ground. Guides are there to tour you through the Diefenbunker’s 358 rooms, but we did it alone. Hailey, our companion dog National Historic Site mascot, was glad when we were done and back into the open air.
Step back to the year 1959 to set the stage for surely one of Canada’s most unusual National Historic Sites. The Cold War is raging and talk of nuclear war dominates newspapers and airwaves. The Soviets are the villains and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev is sabre-rattling, sending western politicians into defense mode.
In Canada, a fearful Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker authorizes the construction of 50 “Emergency Government Headquarters” across Canada. Their purpose? To protect key government officials in the threat of nuclear war. Mr and Mrs. Joe Public are invited to dig their own hole in the ground in their back yards!
And so, in evacuation distance from the Canadian government headquarters in Ottawa, the village of Carp is selected as the site for the largest of the sites, pegged to protect key government officials, including the Canadian Prime Minister and his Cabinet. No small feat is this construction project!
An abandoned gravel pit outside Carp has been selected as the site and construction begins in 1959. An army of cranes, earth movers, dump trucks and bulldozers as well as hundreds of workers descend on the sleepy little village, causing townsfolk to wonder if a Soviet bomb might be less invasive than the current hullabaloo.
Over the next three years, work continues. Covering over 100,000 square feet, 75 feet under the surface, the Diefenbunker will require 32,000 tonnes of concrete and 5,000 tonnes of steel to build. Sacrificing ambience for safety, the structure is constructed to be able to withstand a 5 megaton nuclear blast, detonated up to 1 km away. With massive steel doors at the surface, the Diefenbunker is also fitted with extensive air filters to prevent radiation.
On completion, up to 585 humans can be housed in the sprawling structure. Supplies of water, food, fuel and other necessities of life are stored to last up to one month. And while the Canadian Prime Minister will be assured of accommodation to befit his station in life, his wife and children won’t be allowed to accompany him into nuclear safety. “Military restrictions” the reason.
Approaching the Diefenbunker on foot, we’re directed to the yellow doors that mark the entrance to the structure. A horizontal passageway leads into the bunker itself. “The air is close in here,” I observe to Louis. “I’m glad we’ve arrived on a cool-ish October day instead of sticky mid-July.” “It smells like wet concrete,” he adds.
Over the complex’s four levels, we’re presented with a microcosm of bunker-life, 60’s style– dentist’s office, doctor’s clinic, kitchen facilities, recreation and dining areas. “Remember melmac and arborite?” Louis observes as we take a peek inside the Diefenbunker kitchen, resplendent in shades of orange cupboard doors and matching wall paper.
A walk past the communication centre provides another journey into the past. “Not a computer in sight,” I chuckle, taking in the typewriters and mammoth tape recorders.
We enter the “women’s quarters” with the warning “no men allowed past this point.” “Of course there would be very few women in senior government positions in those days,” Louis remarks.
While most government workers and politicians will need to share quarters—bunk beds to save space—the Prime Minister’s suite befits his position. Curiously, the Prime Minister’s butler is housed on a different floor that his esteemed boss.
With cross-Canada communication essential in case of a nuclear attack, the Diefenbunker boasts the latest telecommunication equipment in the CBC Emergency Broadcasting Studio. Norman Depoe in a bunker! Chilling thoughts indeed.
No secret bunker would be complete without homage to a spy or two, and the Diefenbunker provides its own version of espionage Canada-style. Behind a glass case is the facsimile of a bodyless head, covered with what looks to be a pillowcase. The story that accompanies the display is worth the price of admission alone.
As the temperature of the Cold War lowered, a lowly cipher clerk, one Igor Gouzenko, working at the Russian Embassy in Ottawa presented himself at the Canadian Embassy with the news that the pure white north was indeed a hotbed of Soviet spies. And to add substance to his story, Igor pulled from his briefcase over 100 sensitive government documents that were on their way to Moscow.
Given asylum by the Canadian government, Gouzenko wore a white pillowcase over his head to hide his identity when he was called upon to testify. Gouzenko lived out his life in the Toronto suburb of Bramalea as Jim Brown with few people ever knowing his idenity or role in the Cold War era..
And don’t miss the last stop on the Diefenbunker tour –the basement. First stop: the morgue. Kept at a cooling body preservation temperature, the morgue comes complete with shelves for multiple casualties. Beside the morgue you’ll find the vault, designed to hold the gold reserves of the Bank of Canada . Two formidable vault doors prevent unauthorized entry. Sure don’t want the country’s money melting like chocolate on a hot summer day.
Completed in 1961, the Diefenbunker remained in continuous operation until it was decommissioned more than 30 years later in 1994. With the threat of nuclear holocaust diminished, the Bunker also served as the headquarters for Canadian Forces Carp. A staff of 150 kept the centre running 24 hours a day. At all times during the Diefenbunker’s active life were its cupboards fully stocked with food.
In 1994, the Diefenbunker was named a National Historic Site. It remained empty until 1997 when it re-opened as a museum.
Saying goodbye to what is surely one of Canada’s most eccentric National Historic Sites, I offer: “I’m really glad we visited; the Diefenbunker gives baby-boomers like us an unparalleled insight into such a different time—a time where fear and paranoia reigned.” We’re both relieved such times have faded into history.