Cold War nuclear bunker in Canada wants to warn tourists about danger from Russia


Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, people started asking unusual questions about Christine McGuire’s museum. “They wanted to know if it still functioned as a nuclear shelter,” says the executive director of Diefenbunker, the Canadian museum of the Cold War. “That fear is still very real. It seems to have re-emerged in the public psyche.”

The place still retains almost all the characteristics and form of the shelter that it was in the past, destined for the use of authorities and the Armed Forces of Canada. The complex was deactivated in 1994 and, with its functional military heritage, it has become a symbol of the return to an era in which the destruction of the world once again seems a real possibility —with Russia, endowed with nuclear weapons, suggesting the possibility of making use of from them.

The story of the Diefenbunker is not just one of global tensions, but also of Ottawa’s parsimonious approach to defence, its optimistic thinking about the apocalypse and Canadians’ antipathy to anything they see as differential treatment of their leaders. Today, the private museum is one of the few places where people can see an old Cold War bunker built to house a government in the event of a nuclear attack.

All this has turned the place —a four-story, 350-room underground labyrinth in 9,300 square meters— into an unexpectedly popular tourist attraction, despite its slightly out-of-the-way location in the village of Carp, within the limits of Ottawa, the capital from Canada.

History professor Robert Bothwell of the University of Toronto was on the board of an Ontario cultural organization in the 1990s when a group of volunteers proposed that the bunker be converted into a museum. At the time, several other volunteer-run institutions were unable to attract visitors, despite receiving ample funding. “So I thought, ‘The Diefenbunker? Spare me.’ But I was wrong.”

Since construction began in 1959, the bunker has had several official names: Army Emergency Signals Establishment, Central Government Emergency Headquarters and Canadian Forces Station. But it became known as the Diefenbunker after John Diefenbaker, the prime minister who commissioned its construction — more as a mockery than a tribute.

For almost two years of work, this and ten other smaller bunkers across the country were disguised as military communications centers, something that was actually part of their function. But in 1961 The Toronto Telegraph exposed its real nature, publishing a detailed aerial photo of the building.

The image showed that dozens of toilets would be installed — a sign that the complex was intended to be more than a small radio base. The headline above the photo read, in block capitals: “78 BATHROOMS. And Yet the Army Won’t Admit THIS IS THE DIEFENBUNKER.”

After publication, Diefenbaker admitted the purpose of the bunker. He promised that he himself would not visit and that if bombs and missiles arrived, he would stay at home with his wife. But indignation persisted over the exclusive venue reserved for 565 people, including the prime minister and 12 ministers. To aggravate popular rejection, the government refused to disclose the cost of the work, estimated at 22 million Canadian dollars in 1958 money – today, about 220 million Canadian dollars (R$ 833 million).

From the outside, it looks like a grassy hillside, with exhaust pipes protruding from the ground, and a few antennas. The entrance was built in the 1980s: you pass through a metal construction with a roll-up door, like a garage, which opens onto a reinforced tunnel, built to absorb energy from a nuclear bomb dropped on downtown Ottawa. At 118 meters, the tunnel leads to doors that weigh between 1 and 4 tons. Next comes a decontamination area and the rest of the bunker.

Much of the bright interior is a restoration. When the site was decommissioned, everything inside it was removed — and later replaced with similar or identical items from bunkers and smaller military bases. The premier’s office and suite are spartan, with the only luxurious touch being the turquoise sink in the bathroom.

The command center has an overhead projector and four TVs. A military briefing room next door has a projector that tracked planes. The bunker is surrounded by thick layers of gravel to help mitigate the shock of any nuclear explosions. Its plumbing system is mounted on layers of rubber, the same material used for piping.

The safest and most well-protected area was a kind of vault, behind a door so huge that a second, smaller door had to be opened first, to equalize the air pressure. It was designated as a place for the Bank of Canada to store gold in the event of an imminent nuclear attack. There is no record that the Central Bank ever stored the metal there, according to a spokesman, and in the 1970s the room was used as a gym.

A small arms depot was robbed in 1984 by a corporal in the bunker. After even stealing two submachine guns and 400 rounds of ammunition, he went to Québec, where he shot 3 people dead and wounded 13 in the Legislative Assembly.

The complex was designed to contain enough food and generator fuel to allow the occupants to spend 30 days after a nuclear attack. The idea was that after that time, radiation levels above ground would be low enough for people to emerge safely.

But the bunker was never needed and ended up being neglected. The only prime minister to meet him was Pierre Elliott Trudeau, father of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. After Pierre Sr.’s visit in 1976 in a military helicopter, the government cut the bunker’s budget.

Today the Diefenbunker welcomes visitors who want to experience that window into the Cold War past — and possibly the sense of security that many crave today. Gilles Courtemanche is a volunteer guide on site. In 1964, when he was 20 years old, he was a soldier and worked there for two years as a signalman. He was one of 540 people, including civilians and military, who operated the bunker in three work shifts until it was decommissioned.

For him and for Canada, the circle has now come full circle. The Cold War of his youth mutated into new kinds of threats — with the museum reminding visitors of past and present dangers. “Today China is starting to show its muscles. The Russians? I don’t understand what they are doing. To me, it’s pure insanity.”

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