Cloudy Visions: Weapons and Defence in Canada

The infamous mushroom cloud synonymous with a nuclear explosion evokes a different response depending on audience. Most will immediately harken back to the Second World War when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Others may think of Cold War nuclear tests by Britain and the former Soviet Union (Russia). Depending on perspective, you might awe at the display of power or cringe at the thought of chaos and annihilation. Today we are far removed from the volatile circumstances that resulted in the first use of atomic weaponry, despite what former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev might think. Yet the evolution and proliferation of weapons technology continues at a rapid pace, and destruction of both property and peoples is ongoing. In attempting to somehow measure or quantify human life, many scholars point to death toll statistics in times of both war and peace. These studies aim not to reduce the fragility of human existence to numbers, but rather to help explore the conditions that led to an awful reality. One of those conditions is weapons creation, and on that topic Canada is certainly not as innocent as many think.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Canadian government recognized that its citizens were vastly unprepared to face the escalating nuclear threat, and before the bomb meant complete annihilation, policy makers in Ottawa decided on a strategy to prepare the public for a potential attack. Civil defence (CD) planners implemented a campaign for a Cold War strategy that was intended to prepare the populace to absorb unimaginable damage and civilian casualties.

Between 1948 and 1954, officials in Ottawa attempted to design and implement a self-help CD model that was based on British and German rescue, first aid, and firefighting tactics. Their plans altered quickly in 1952 when the United States successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb, at which point the radioactive severity of a potential nuclear attack forced a major critique of Canada’s CD policy. The self-help model was replaced by a calculated evacuation policy, in which specific cities were targeted to receive food provisions, shelter, and care for nuclear refuges in the event of an attack. In 1959 CD plans were adjusted for a third time, when it was realized that nuclear fallout would not be geographically confined. Since it no longer made sense for CD planners to target select locations for potential aid, they focused their efforts toward developing a comprehensive strategy of national survival.

At all three stages, Canada’s CD structure was dependent on volunteer participation. Planners implemented a recruiting strategy that was intimately bound to the concept of citizen-as-defender, where Canadians were obliged to serve in defence of their country. Using exhibits, exercises, church basements, movie theatres, and an extensive publication program, officials pushed CD as a civic virtue. After 1959, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker gave numerous speeches in support of CD Canada and its subsidiary projects, and increased public spending on emergency measures in an attempt to win over the public. But the stark reality associated with the possibility of nuclear annihilation produced an atmosphere of high anxiety, in which the notion of preparedness was ridiculed by an apprehensive public that rejected any belief that defence against nuclear war was possible. However much the government demanded public support for CD, lavish projects such as the Diefenbunker were ultimately unsuccessful at convincing Canadians to assume a civic responsibility.

One of the largest displays of Cold War weapons technology in Canada took place in the early 1960s at Suffield, Alberta near Medicine Hat. Scientists from the Defence Research Board exploded what was at the time the largest TNT blast ever detonated on North American soil. We have previously discussed Suffield on Clio’s Current, with special reference to chemical and biological weapons testing. But this video is a depiction of Canada that may take some by surprise. The blast at Suffield was just one of many such tests during the 1960s and into the 1970s. Gradually, experimental work at Suffield became a severe point of attack for environmental and anti-war war protestors.

While some citizens were willing to assume part of the responsibilities required of CD, monetary or otherwise, the majority of Canadians rejected the notion of civic duty by refusing to accept any personal responsibility for the survival of their nation. Most Canadians undermined CD efforts by ignoring disseminated information and refusing to volunteer, accept survival training, or build the necessary bomb shelters that were required to survive a radioactive period of nuclear fallout.

Officials in Ottawa thought that peacetime CD planning required provincially located resources, but the federal government had difficulty convincing its provincial and municipal counterparts to comply with the policies and guidance drawn up by CD Canada. Those opposed to the CD requirements demanded of the provinces and municipalities by the federal government, argued that the price and complexity of nuclear defence made it a national rather than a local responsibility. Opponents also pointed to technological advancements in Cold War weaponry—namely the development of the hydrogen bomb and intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver them—to argue that CD was a federal responsibility which required greater involvement by the armed forces at the national level. But the Canadian public went unconvinced. Generally, most thought that air-raid sirens and homemade fallout shelters would be useless against Soviet thermonuclear bombs and missiles.

Fortunately, at no point during the Cold War was Canada’s CD policy implemented to a level at which it can be fully assessed—a nuclear or thermonuclear bomb was thankfully never detonated. But even though “the bomb” was never dropped on Canada, the cultural impact of nuclear war fiction on the Canadian psyche was significant. The most influential example is Nevil Shute’s novel-turned-film On the Beach (1957), a film which satirically depicted the horrors of radioactive life after the bomb. The film was so powerful that it evoked anti-war and pro-disarmament attitudes in the public that increased pessimism toward CD. Today visualizations of war and destruction are seemingly endless. What we've offered here is but one image of Canada far removed and somewhat omnipresent, but it is an image evocative of a legacy that requires further attention and questioning.