Planning and paranoia at the Diefenbunker

The Diefenbunker was built to withstand an atomic bomb 250 times stronger than the one dropped on Hiroshima

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CARP, Ont. Dec. 2, 2015/ Troy Media/ – It’s an unlikely place for the seat of government, beneath this windswept knoll along a rural road 35 kilometres west of downtown Ottawa.

But at the height of the Cold War, housed in a 100,000 square foot bunker that drills down into the earth four storeys, the Central Emergency Government Headquarters was meant to be just that.

It was designed to withstand an atomic bomb 250 times stronger than the one dropped on Hiroshima. And it was where the Ottawa elite – the Governor General, Prime Minister, war cabinet and defence leaders – were to take refuge in the event of a nuclear attack. It was also meant to secure the Bank of Canada’s gold reserves, Canada Mortgage and Housing’s files, and the CBC’s emergency broadcast studio.

The bunker never served its primary purpose, of course. But until 20 years ago, it housed sensitive communications operations carried out by the armed forces. And today, it can house you, too – at least for a couple of well-spent hours.

The place is now the Diefenbunker, Canada’s Cold War Museum, nicknamed after Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who okayed its construction in 1959. It opened in 1962, on time and within its $40 million budget, the equivalent of about $400 million today. After the Army decommissioned it, public-spirited locals took up the cause of converting it to a museum. About 50,000 now visit annually.

A visit reflects the planning and paranoia of the era.

A tour starts in the 115-metre blast tunnel, designed to deflect shock waves away from the bunker’s entrance. With more than two tonnes of steel, that door isn’t flimsy. The tunnel may be familiar: it’s the setting for the opening minutes of The Sum of All Fears, the 2002 film starring Ben Affleck. (And in case something went wrong, two escape hatches were available.)

The entry leads to a lead-lined shower where personnel, fully clothed, would wash off radiation particles. They’d then throw their clothes down a disposal chute and, wearing nothing but a gas mask, wash in a second shower stall. If a Geiger counter registered residual radiation, it was a one-way ticket back outside.

You’ll see how self-contained the bunker was.

It had a medical clinic where, according to guide Cassie Nagy, any operation could be performed except for open heart or brain surgery. School kids sometimes think it looks like a torture chamber, she deadpans, though the equipment was state-of-the-art in its day.

A mess hall, largest open space in the facility, was gussied up in hospital-issue pastels of turquoise and pink to calm residents’ nerves. A sign provides a less than ringing endorsement for the ration packs served there: “You’re lucky to be alive . . . so just eat it.”

You can visit the sleeping quarters, where 565 residents were meant to sleep in shifts around the clock. The single bed in the prime minister’s suite was, presumably, an exception.

But the key operational parts are the most fascinating. In the cabinet room, for example, I learned only a dozen ministers would have made all government decisions – and in dire circumstances, as few as five. With the War Measures Act in effect, other Members of Parliament would be sidelined.

The CBC’s broadcast studio would be where the Governor General or Prime Minister could deliver reassuring messages to Canadians, who presumably were equipped with portable radios in their air raid shelters. Emergency messages alerting citizens to a pending attack were pre-recorded, so the announcer wouldn’t sound scared.

The nerve centre, however, was the cluster of military operations. You’ll see a situation room, a warning centre and cryptography room. Though equipped with everything from electronic gear to wall-sized maps and briefing boards, they reveal a much simpler surveillance operation than one finds in today’s Edward Snowden world.

My tour left me wondering about the ironies one finds in the Diefenbunker:

  • The facility was designed to protect officials from radiation, but the health centre had a radiation-producing X-ray machine.
  • The claustrophobic would be confined to a tiny room with no inside door handle.
  • The cafeteria’s meat freezer could double as a morgue.
  • The bunker was built to protect politicians, but Denis Lortie, a soldier who killed three persons at the Quebec legislature in 1984, stole his arms from there.

It was meant to be secret, but an enterprising Toronto journalist flew above and photographed 78 newly delivered toilets, belying official claims it was a simple communications base.

When Diefenbaker learned his wife wouldn’t be allowed to stay in the Diefenbunker, he vowed he’d never enter. He never did.

And the only prime minister to see the bunker, Pierre Trudeau, cut funding soon after his visit.

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