The last time I was in Ottawa, Sarah and Dave’s attempt to bring me to the Diefenbunker was thwarted by holiday closure of said bunker. On this trip, to make it up to me, Ottawa gave Sarah & me free admission! More specifically, the Ottawa Public Library offered free admission and Sarah, a regular at said Library, picked up said free passes so that she and I could enjoy all the awesomeness of Canada’s Cold War Museum for free, free, free! Poor Dave couldn’t join us as he had to work, like a sucker!
The Diefenbunker, which operated from 1959 to 1994 as previously alluded to, is Canada’s Cold War Museum. More specifically, it is a bunker that was built, under the government of Prime Minister Diefenbaker – who you may remember from my Prime Ministerial series as the blog posting guest written by the aforementioned Sarah – as a place that prominent Canada politicians – along with all the gold in the Bank of Canada – could go in the event that Ottawa got nuked with an atomic bomb. Back in those days, everyone was sure that it was pretty much inevitable that such a thing would happen, so a series of bunkers were built across the country, with the biggest and most elaborate one being the Diefenbunker, locate 30 km west of Ottawa and intended for the Prime Minister, the Governor General, various federal Ministers and military big wigs. The idea was that they wanted to ensure that Canada could be re-built and governed after a nuclear attack and so they needed the people with the power to do that to be kept safe in this bunker. Plus they needed the money to do it – hence the giant vault built to house all the gold from the Bank of Canada.
Of course, such a bunker system was only useful in the event that there was enough forewarning of a nuke on its way that all these important people could be brought to the bunker before the bomb hit. Which was true when they started building the bunker – the delivery of bombs via plane from Russia at that time would have been slow and there would have been several hours warning of such a bomb on its way. By the time it was finished, that wasn’t really true anymore, but that didn’t stop the bunker from being staffed for many years after it was built! In fact, it was operated until 1994.
After decommissioning, the bunker was turned into a museum and much to the surprise of even the people running it as a museum, people were clamouring to see it! I mean, how often do you get to see the inside of a previously secret government facility like that? If you ever find yourself in Ottawa, I highly recommend you check it out. It feels like walking onto the set of a movie about the Cold War and I had to keep reminding myself, “no, this is the real deal!”
Also, in a move that I can only imagine coming from a guy like him, Dief never once set foot in the Diefenbunker. At some point, he was told that should he need to go to the bunker, he would not be allowed to bring his wife with him. The bunker was built to accommodate the government officials and bureaucrats deemed necessary, along with the support staff needed to run the bunker, plus two CBC radio personalities who could broadcast messages in familiar and comforting voices to those left up on the ground – around 500 people in total – and stocked with enough food to sustain those people for 30 days (at which point it was felt that it would be safe to go back outside). If all those people were allowed to bring spouses (and not even their kids), it would need to be twice as big and stocked with twice as many supplies – and that just wasn’t feasible. And it was decided that if everyone else in the bunker was leaving their spouse behind, how could the Prime Minister not do the same? Dief decided that he wouldn’t leave his wife behind to get nuked and so he boycotted the facility, refusing to ever step foot into it.
Another interesting story that the tour guide told us was what happened to all the other bunkers around the country. When the bunkers were decommissioned, the government had to figure out what to do with them. After all, they couldn’t all be museums – and truly it’s just the Ottawa one that was really big and decked out – so what do you do with a series of underground bunkers designed to withstand a nuclear bomb? At first, they figured they could sell them to recoup some of the costs of building them all, and they sold one of the bunkers to a farmer. A farmer who proceeded to sell the bunker to some Hell’s Angels, who used it as a clubhouse! Realizing that they didn’t want the bunkers to fall into the hands of just anybody and that they could control what happened to them once they sold them off, they bought the bunker back from the HA and proceeded to fill them all up with concrete!
The next time you find yourself in Ottawa, I highly recommend a trip to the Diefenbunker! They have guided tours as well as self-guide audio tours – we did the guided tour, which was cool because you can ask their tour guide questions and find out things that might not be on the audio version, and then after your guided tour you are free to roam around and check out the different exhibits!