Diefenbunker Museum
© 2014 FrontLine Defence (Vol 11, No 2)

Under a grassy hill, a half hour’s ‘evacuation distance’ west of Ottawa, lies the Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum. Built to protect the Canadian government from nuclear attack, this once-secret underground bunker is now a museum and a National Historic Site of Canada. Formerly known as Canadian Forces Station Carp, the Diefenbunker is a decommissioned military command and control bunker located in Carp, Ontario.

During the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker commissioned the construction of seven underground Emergency Government Headquarters (dubbed “Diefenbunkers” by the Opposition). Officially termed the Continuity of Constitutional Government Program, the Central Emergency Government Headquarters in Carp were operated by the Department of National Defence from 1959 to 1994, as a key strategic communications facility for the Canadian Forces. Should nuclear war have appeared imminent, the Diefenbunkers would have provided a thin thread of continuity of government.

After decommissioning in 1994, the Carp site was run by community volunteers and opened as a museum in 1998. It was also designated a National Historic Site as the most important surviving Cold War site in Canada, and is now one of Ottawa’s 11 community museums, attracting about 50,000 visitors every year. It is a not-for-profit corporation with charitable status.

The entrance to the Diefenbunker is deceptively unassuming and hobbit-like, below the peak of a natural ridge. One would not guess that below this placid rural hilltop is a fortified concrete and steel structure extending four storeys below ground. The 100,000 square foot facility, which contains 9,000 tons of steel and 32,000 cubic feet of hand-poured concrete, could withstand a blast of up to five megatons from a mile away, and was designed to house 535 government authorities for up to one month in the event of a nuclear attack.

The heritage value of the Diefenbunker lies in the comprehensive physical evidence it presents, confirming Canada’s determination to survive and function as a nation during and following a nuclear attack. It is a poignant and tangible reminder of one of the most critical periods in modern history.
The Critical Path project management method was used for the first time in Canada by the same engineers who went on to lead the construction of Expo 67 in Montreal. Design and construction of this engineering marvel boasted many innovations of its time.

The Diefenbunker was designed for complete self-sufficiency for up to a month, equipped with emergency power generation, air filtration systems, and self-contained potable water and waste systems. Naval engineering technology is evident throughout the building in elements such as the concrete pad, tie-down systems, and emergency escape hatches. Even the toilets are shock mounted, as a nuclear blast would have set off an earthquake, and working toilets for 535 people would be essential.

Atypical for museums, it is the facility itself and its systems that are the artifacts. Its marine-based diesel generators were designed to be quiet in an enclosed space. The electrical system was also designed to be self-sufficient so that, after a blast, a no-break power system powered vital communications systems until the diesel generators were up to full power. The air filtration systems are very intensive, designed to filter out poisonous and deadly radiation.

Today, a new vision guides the museum’s activities and inspires staff to turn the building into one of the country’s most unique learning environments for present and future generations. The uniqueness and the industrial heritage nature of the facility is being used for a wide variety of educational, community, and business events, becoming one of the top family attractions in the region with its very popular Spy Camps, birthday parties, tours, exhibitions, and other family events.

The Diefenbunker has been introducing visitors to the facility through innovative ways and new programming such as ­emergency preparedness workshops and a ­science and engineering-based program. A wide selection of new teacher resources and online activities for youngsters have recently been added to the website.

New conflict resolution workshops for schools will be piloted late in 2014, based on government scenarios that used to be run in the facility, and provide an immersive environment for young people to learn leadership skills. An exciting array of exhibitions ranging from community art to peace building to Cold War immigration offers thought-provoking perspectives.

Partnerships and creativity have also brought Cold War music, ‘zombies’ and ‘spies’ to the Bunker, attracting a whole new generation of visitors and volunteers.

Business meetings in the historic Dr. Strangelove-like War Cabinet Room, and banquets in the gold vault, take on extra significance in this relict of the Cold War. Whiskey tasting events engage multiple senses as visitors enjoy themselves in a ‘Mad Men’ style cafeteria.
The real appeal of the Diefenbunker is that the uniqueness of the Cold War industrial facility and the progressive, forward-thinking programming leads visitors to unforgettable experiences.

Henriette Riegel is the Executive Director of the Diefenbunker.
© FrontLine Magazines 2014