So, the Diefenbunker. You’ve quite likely heard of it if you live in Ottawa – but have you ever made the trek out to Carp to check it out? You absolutely should! It’s been on my vague list of things to do with the kids for years, but it was only when my friend Kirsten (*waves*) came back from her recent visit with a favourable review and terrific photos that it shot to the top of my list of potential adventures. Add yet another day of bone-chilling winter temperatures and the whole family was happy just to get out of the house for an outing that didn’t involve the risk of frostbite.
For those of you who don’t know it, the Diefenbunker is a decommissioned military base. Back during the cold war, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker had a complex built deep under some pastoral meadows in Carp, on the very western edge of Ottawa, to house Canada’s top government officials in the case of a nuclear attack. It was the biggest of a series of such complexes built at the time, known as the Continuity of Government plan. From the Diefenbunker website:
The Diefenbunker is a four-story, 300 room, 100,000 square foot underground bunker, and was meant to house 535 Canadian government officials and military officers in the event of a nuclear war. Shrouded in mystery, the Diefenbunker, nicknamed after then Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, was designed and built in secrecy during the crest of Cold War fear, between 1959 and 1961. The name of the facility was given by a Toronto Star journalist who exposed a story of its development.
The entrance to the complex was originally just a big door that lead under a berm of soil, but the tour guide told us a small outbuilding had to be built because the spy satellites would have been suspicious of all the supplies and building materials being hauled into a random field out in the boondocks. That outbuilding is the only sign of the giant warren under the ground. You follow this blast tunnel and then make a right turn and enter through one-tonne steel doors to get in – so in the case of a nuclear detonation, the wind would basically blow straight through the tunnel and not into the facility. It’s sobering and fascinating at the same time, which is pretty much evocative of how the entire facility felt to me.
We opted for a guided tour (free with the price of admission) but you can do a self-guided tour if you prefer. I highly recommend the guided tour, though – our tour guide Louis was excellent. He was very personable, enthusiastic about the topic and spoke in a way that was engaging for all three boys and us as well. We lucked out with a private tour – nobody else was foolish enough to be out early enough for the first tour on a frigid Sunday morning, I guess. And for all but the last 10 minutes we were there, we had the whole place to ourselves! The tour lasted just over an hour, and then we were free to wander through most of the complex to explore at our leisure.
This is what elevated the Diefenbunker from interesting to a great family activity for me – the fact that we were free to walk into the offices and sit in the chairs, dial the rotary phones, lay on the beds and inspect everything up close. Which we did – a lot!
The Diefenbunker was built between 1959 and 1961, and was decommissioned in 1994. I find it both evocative and a little depressing how familiar the mid-1980s bureacratic look is – when I started working for the government in 1990, this was still a functioning Canadian Forces station. Considering it’s only been a couple of decades, some of the anachronisms are jarring. We had to explain to the boys what ashtrays were, and how to dial a rotary phone – which they did, over and over and over again.
The room full of eight-foot by six-foot banks of mainframe computers was fascinating, too. The value of these computers at the time was in excess of $8M, but I have more computing power and RAM in my iPhone.
This room was Tristan’s favourite part of the tour. The tour guide paused before we entered and told us that when it was functional, the security clearance required to enter was so high that the Prime Minister himself was two levels of clearance shy. When it was an active military station, the commander on site did not have a high enough clearance to enter. So when we finally got to go in and see what was denied to Prime Ministers, the boys were wowed. They were underwhelmed by the computing power of the old magnetic tape reels, though!
And later, Tristan took a bit of a rest in the rather, ahem, austere living quarters in the Prime Minister’s suite.
If you think that’s austere, you should see the dorms that the lowly cabinet ministers and high-ranking military members would have shared – nine beds to a room, sleeping in eight hour rotations three times every 24 hours, so 27 people to a room. Lap of luxury, yes?
You see the lovely green quality of the light? That’s why so many of these photos are in black and white. Clearly nobody thought to outfit the place with soft white daylight bulbs! While I found the recycled air and the idea of being in a windowless bunker 80 feet under the ground more than a little disturbing, it was the light that would have done me in if I were to spend more than an hour or two in the Diefenbunker!
Other cool things we saw:
(Props to Kirsten, from whom I stole the idea for the shot above!)
I’m not sure what this is, but there are intriguing machines just like it all over the place in the Diefenbunker, and you can poke at them all you want as long as you are careful. I still can’t believe how open everything is and how much they trust the patrons moving through the museum to be respectful.
And deep underground, behind a door 15 times heavier than the blast door at the entrance, lies the vault where the Bank of Canada would keep the nation’s supply of gold (and thus, the entire value of the Canadian economy at the time) free from contamination in the event of a nuclear strike. (Having not seen Goldfinger, I had no idea that gold is immediately rendered valueless when it comes in contact with nuclear fallout. I’m still a little sketchy on that one – maybe because the gold becomes radioactive? So many cool lessons learned today!)
Apparently they started building the bank vault somewhere near Pakenham, but the site kept filling in with water. They eventually gave up and built the vault adjacent to the Diefenbunker – and you can still see a perfectly square lake somewhere out in Mississippi Mills. Must check the Google satellite maps for that one someday!
I think this sign in the cafeteria perfectly sums up the quirky gallows-humour experience of visiting the Diefenbunker. “You’re lucky to be alive, so just eat it.” Bwhahahaha – I really, really need one of these for my kitchen!
I was completely charmed by our Diefenbunker adventure. It’s a little bit of a history lesson, a little bit of a time capsule, and the polar opposite of a stuffy museum visit. I didn’t expect the kids to be as engaged as they were, and we ended up spending far more of our day there than I had anticipated. I’m also madly impressed with the Diefenbunker admin for offering not only a family admission price, but one that is not limited to just two adults and two children.
I’m not sure that we’d revisit this one on an annual basis, but I will go out of the way to take my family and friends for a visit – it’s definitely worth checking out at least once. Just remind me never to get talked into doing any professional photography under that dizzying cocktail of fluorescent and tungsten lights!
If you go:
The Diefenbunker Museum is located beside the Carp branch of the Ottawa Public Library at 3911 Carp Road. The museum is open seven days per week from 11:00am – 4:00pm, and closed on Christmas and New Years Day. A family admission is well worth $40 + HST. More details on the Diefenbunker site.
Have you been? What did you think?
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