It was a simulated nuclear attack carried out in May of 1960 that sent premier W.A.C. Bennett, provincial secretary Wesley Black and 175 other officials scurrying to Nanaimo in a 17-car procession.
They were headed for Nanaimo’s Diefenbunker, one of six underground fortresses built across the country to both withstand the fallout of a nuclear attack and to assure the continuity of government in the wake of a catastrophe.
The test, for a period of time, resulted in the seat of government being shifted to Nanaimo — at least in theory.
“A five-megaton bomb was ‘dropped’ on Esquimalt harbour at 12:25 p.m. yesterday and all the area from the far end of Esquimalt Lagoon to Cook Street was ‘totally destroyed.’”
So began a Daily Courier article from May 4, 1960 that detailed how such an attack would have engulfed all of the greater Victoria area in a six-mile crater.
Damage would be spread out over 12 miles, and fallout would have covered the state of Washington.
Though the cold war is long over, threats to government such as natural disasters remain.
Last month, the B.C. legislative assembly announced a $50,000 budget for a re-vamped emergency plan looking at how B.C.’s top staff could reconvene the provincial parliament post-catastrophe.
Though the Diefenbunker that played such a central role in historical emergency planning was decommissioned in 1994, the question remains today as to whether Nanaimo’s bunker could have any part to play in new provincial emergency planning.
Named for prime minister John Diefenbaker, who authorized their construction during his administration in the late 1950s and ’60s, the bunkers were designed to be hubs of governmental communication and planning.
The exercise that whisked crucial members of government to Nanaimo during that day in 1960 serves as a grim reminder of just how real the threat of nuclear attack was for all levels of society in Canada at that time.
Nanaimo was chosen as the prime location for an alternate provincial capital due in large part to the direction of the winds in the area.
“If (there was) a nuclear detonation, the prevailing winds would normally blow away from Nanaimo,” said retired Air Force Capt. Roger Bird, now president of the Nanaimo Military museum.
“Every day, when that bunker was going, they would chart the winds and send that information to Ottawa, so in case anything happened, they knew where that fallout was going to go.”
There were six Diefenbunkers built across Canada, the largest being in the town of Carp, just outside Ottawa, said Bird, who was in a construction engineering unit tasked with reporting on the state of all six Diefenbunkers in 1983.
Covering 30,000 square feet spread out over two floors, the emergency government headquarters in Nanaimo was home to a CBC studio that could disseminate messages to the public, a medical facility and private offices for all central members of provincial government.
“They had a big war room. You’ve probably seen in movies where you see this big giant map of North America with all the generals sitting around seeing the status of what’s going on,” said Bird. “That was in all of them.”
With blast-proof walls a metre thick constructed in 1961 with cement supplied by the nearby Lafarge plant, the bunker was accessed by tunnel and was fitted out with a complex filtration system in the hope it would reduce nuclear contamination. A communications squadron was permanently housed in the Nanaimo bunker and operated the receiver site, with a transmitter site housed at a mini-bunker in Nanoose.
“You know the air raid sirens they used to have in facilities in B.C. that were on big post? Those were all controlled from the bunker, for all the ones in B.C.,” said Bird. “In the case of a fallout, that information would go out and they could activate those.”
All that is remains at the site today is a grassy mound that sits between what is now Vancouver Island University and the Nanaimo Parkway.
However buried beneath the earth, the shell of the Diefenbunker remains: like many things in history, it was never destroyed, but simply covered over.
With the end of the cold war, the considerable resources spent on its upkeep were reviewed and a decision made to decommission the facility. The furniture and supplies were removed from the sleeping quarters and mess hall, along with the radio equipment, diesel generators and boilers. The doors were welded shut, covered with earth, said Bird.
The Department of Defence donated 75 cots that came from inside the Diefenbunker to the Cowichan Valley Emergency Program in 2001, but most other equipment has been sold or reused.
“Some of the artifacts from that bunker are on display at the Science and Tech museum here in Ottawa,” said historian Andrew Burtch, author of Give Me Shelter: The Failure of Canada’s Cold War Civil Defence. “There’s also a reconstruction of the CBC studio in the Nanaimo bunker (here).”
Burtch’s book details how though the bunkers represented a coherent effort by government to essentially save their own skins so they might re-establish order after a nuclear catastrophe, there was little coordinated planning that would have effectively protected citizens had the Soviets actually attacked.
“The plan fell flat because in order for society as we know it to survive, a couple of things had to happen. One, there had to be resources provided to the public so they didn’t even have to think about it
. . . or you needed to convince enough of the public to take matters into their own hands, to provide their own defence,” said Burtch. “But the amount of money it would have taken to protect the public was astronomical, so what they called on the public to do was to adhere to the principal of self-help.”
People were expected to build their own bunkers, which presented a host of costly logistical problems, and join volunteer corps, which they did to an admirable degree but that still fell short of what was necessary.
Today, the landscape of emergency planning has shifted, and though many would like to see the Diefenbunker revived as a potential resource in the face of disaster, that fate doesn’t appear likely.
The cost of reviving the bunker again would be simply too prohibitive, said Bird, and its prime location for avoiding nuclear fallout, largely irrelevant.
Emergency planning today is taking the form of anticipating natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods or disruptions in service such as power that could cause the evacuation of the parliament building, said Gary Lenz, the sergeant at arms in charge of security and emergency planning.
The Legislative Assembly is currently seeking advice on plans for how B.C.’s 85 politicians and top staff could reconvene parliament in the wake of such a catastrophe. The plan could include alternate locations for a makeshift Legislative Assembly, but Lenz was reluctant to speculate as to whether it would involve Nanaimo, or the potential unsealing of the Diefenbaker.
“I doubt they would, because there are so many other facilities out there that are ready to go that could be easily converted to a place for cabinet and legislature. It could be as simple as a large hotel,” said Lenz, who added that the ultimate decision was the responsibility of Emergency Management B.C. “I’m assuming we would probably go that route, or some larger government building. Could be a university. You look at the best practices other countries have utilized, and that’s probably what we’d be looking at.”
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