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What Happened to Canada’s Cold War Relics?

Recently I made several trips to the Diefenbunker, the underground complex in the village of Carp, Ontario, that — assuming everything went to plan — would preserve Canada’s political and military leadership when nuclear warheads fell from the skies. Those plans, as I wrote in an article published this week, relied heavily on wishful thinking.

[Read: Inside a Nuclear War Bunker Built to Save Canada’s Leaders]

The view from inside the vault in the Diefenbunker where the Bank of Canada’s gold reserves would be stored during a nuclear war.Credit…Ian Austen/The New York Times

Some historians argue that the Cold War that led to the Diefenbunker’s creation itself began in Ottawa. Weeks after World War II came to a close, Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk at the Soviet Union’s embassy, defected with a bag of documents showing that his country was spying on its wartime allies. He was initially dismissed by newspaper editors, officials and the police. But after two days on the run from Soviet agents, Mr. Gouzenko was given asylum, and his documents brought an end to an alliance with the Soviets.

In the following years, Mr. Gouzenko became perhaps best known to Canadians for appearing on television shows like “Front Page Challenge” wearing a pillowcase, with holes cut out, over his head to hide his appearance from Soviet agents who he feared might assassinate him.

The fear that the country might be consumed by a thermonuclear fireball was once common in Canada. And the Cold War led to some of the largest and most costly infrastructure programs in the country’s history. But today the Diefenbunker is one of the few places in the country that commemorate the decades-long Cold War in Canada.

“I don’t understand it,” Brian Jeffrey said of the dearth of relics. He runs a virtual museum devoted to the DEW Line, a chain of 63 radar bases mostly in Canada’s Arctic. “I put it down to Canadian apathy as a general rule and also that we have a view that it can’t happen here,” he said. “That’s probably some of the basis for why we don’t seem to take this stuff seriously.”

Mr. Jeffrey’s advocacy of preserving the Cold War’s history stems from personal experience. He quit his job as a technician at the National Research Council in 1960 to take a highly paid civilian job at various Arctic DEW line radar bases that, along with two other radar lines farther south, watched the skies for signs of a Soviet attack on North America.

The Diefenbunker’s cafeteria stored only enough food for 30 days.Credit…Ian Austen/The New York Times

His three years included at least one very harrowing moment.

“I sat in a room with one other person during the Cuban missile crisis, monitoring and talking to the B-52s as they flew north of their holding patterns and giving them the ‘go’ or ‘no go’ message,” he told me. “Go,” of course, meant telling the U.S. Air Force bombers to head into the Soviet Union to drop their nuclear payloads.

The DEW, or Distant Early Warning, line cost about $7.5 billion to build in today’s money. When it was decommissioned between 1988 and 1993 and replaced with automated radar stations, Mr. Jeffrey said, pretty much everything was destroyed, although a few of the structures were retained. As a result, the only physical artifact his museum currently owns, aside from photos and documents, is a control panel for a diesel power generator from one station. (Dismantling and cleaning up the stations, which were built without consulting Indigenous people and with little regard for the environment, cost 575 million Canadian dollars.)

The Alberta-based Canadian Civil Defence Museum is a third museum that preserves Cold War history. In 2018, it purchased the remaining radar dome and buildings of Canadian Forces Station Alsask, located in the community of the same name that straddles the border between Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Fred Armbruster, the executive director and founder of the Canadian Civil Defence Museum, told me from his home in Red Deer, Alberta, that his interest in Cold War commemoration grew out of stumbling across a small bunker while hiking in Edmonton several years ago.

Mr. Armbruster is passionate about how the Cold War changed Canada.

“The Cold War created the future,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the Cold War, we wouldn’t have the technology that we have today. We would be backstepped a decade or even more in technology because we wouldn’t have had anything to spur us on.”

A prerecorded warning of an imminent nuclear attack was to have been broadcast from the special CBC studio in the bunker.Credit…Ian Austen/The New York Times

The Alsask radar dome was part of the Pinetree line, the southernmost of the radar networks. It survived largely because, after the military was finished with it, it was adapted and used for civilian air traffic control for many years.

Right now it is only open for public tours on five holiday weekends of the year. But Mr. Armbruster has ambitious plans to transform the four-story building on the site into a Cold War museum.

Mr. Jeffrey now lives in Carp and is a longtime volunteer guide at the Diefenbunker.

He said that it would largely be up to volunteers like himself to keep the memory of the Cold War alive.

“The military in particular is not good at history, nor can it afford to be,” he told me. “They don’t have enough money to even arm themselves properly. So why would they want to maintain a building for historical purposes?”


Trans Canada

The government has settled a lawsuit over the loss of Indigenous languages and cultures at residential schools including the former Kamloops school.Credit…Amber Bracken for The New York Times
  • The federal government has agreed to set up a 2.8 billion Canadian dollar fund to compensate 325 First Nations for the erosion of their cultures and languages caused by the residential school system. If approved by a court next month, the agreement will end a long-running class-action suit.

  • In Opinion, Jessica Bennett traveled to Ladysmith, British Columbia, to meet Pamela Anderson. “It is hard to overstate the influence that Ms. Anderson had on a particular era of culture, which happens to be the one that I grew up in,” Ms. Bennett writes.

  • Jon Caramanica, a pop music critic for The Times, writes that even after all of his fame and success, Drake remains an unvarnished fan of the rap stars of his youth.

  • In Cooking, Shayma Owaise Saadat, a Pakistani Afghan recipe developer and writer who lives in Toronto, discusses the collection of mortars and pestles in her kitchen. And Yewande Komolafe has adapted a recipe for kouign-amann, the pastry dish from Brittany, by Nicolas Henry of the Montreal patisserie Au Kouign-Amann.

  • Lara Jakes and Thomas Gibbons-Neff look at what will happen next now that Canada and other countries have agreed to send tanks to Ukraine.


A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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