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COLUMN: Unveiling Nelson’s Cold War bunker

J.P. Stienne writes about the history of Diefenbunkers

By J.P. Stienne

Touchstones Museum

This month, Touchstones Nelson Museum opened Nelson’s Cold War bunker exhibition within the basement of the Gray Building at 502 Vernon St. The exhibition, which presents the history of the bunker, and its role in the context of the Cold War, opens up the space to the public for the first time, after being hidden away for almost 50 years.

The Cold War lasted from around 1945 to 1991 and was a truly global conflict. In Canada, the fear of a Soviet nuclear attack began to take shape in the 1950s, and in the early 60s approximately 50 bunkers — including Nelson’s — were commissioned. The main purpose of these bunkers was to protect the continuity of government during a nuclear attack, and to restore order in the aftermath. In theory, designated officials would be able to escape to the safe haven of a bunker and be accommodated for the first 14 days of the “shock” phase. Then they would emerge and be in a position to re-establish civil authority during the “recovery” phase.

The largest bunker was the Central Emergency Government Headquarters built at Carp, Ont., 33 kilometres outside of Ottawa. This four-level underground complex was irreverently referred to as the “Diefenbunker” after Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. The bunker in Nelson was one of five zonal emergency headquarters in B.C., chosen as the Kootenay hub due to its administrative importance in the Kootenay region. It was also less vulnerable to attack than nearby Trail, because of Teck’s heavy water-producing P-9 tower.

Perhaps due to the shroud of secrecy surrounding the bunker projects, many of the original features still remain. There are three huge water tanks that would have provided personnel with their own water supply. The bunker generator and air filtration system remain in place, and the entrance features the original steel doors and radiation decontamination showers. First aid supplies and a Geiger counter were among the artifacts that were found untouched in the space, and are included in the exhibition displays. Also discovered were mobile feeding units, a mobile coal cooking stove and food packets, which were still being replenished every two years well into the 1980s, according to articles in the Nelson Daily News.

Enquiries to other Cold War and Civil Defence museums and discoveries in federal archives have helped us piece together missing parts of the bunker story. The City of Nelson archives revealed some of the details of the civil defence activities, including information about the emergency warning sirens installed across the city. Most importantly, a building permit gave us the date of the bunker’s construction – 1964 – later than we originally thought, and eight years after the Gray Building was constructed. The building permit also revealed that future Nelson mayor Louis Maglio was the contractor for the bunker’s construction.

Civil Defence co-ordinator Walter Wait (of Wait’s News fame) left his papers to the Shawn Lamb Archives, which included several intriguing photographs of civil defence radio training courses taking place in the bunker and elsewhere. We also spoke to Nelson resident Alan Ramsden, who as manager of CKLN radio was one of the designated people allocated a spot in the bunker. He had been told to keep his role and the existence of the bunker secret, even from his immediate family. He wondered, in the event of a nuclear attack, how many of the officials would have made the decision to leave their loved ones and make their way to the bunker?

There would have been up to 70 officials in the bunker. Of the three dormitories in the bunker, the two largest were for men. This reflects the predominance of men in positions of power in the 1960s. Much has changed in the past 60 years, but truly how much? We wonder today how many of the people on the list to go to the bunker would be women, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour), or identify as LGBTQ2+?

Related: Take cover! Cold War bunker opens to public in Nelson

Our research has uncovered a great deal of fascinating information, but there is much we still do not know about the bunker. Many details have been lost due to the secrecy surrounding its construction and its early operation — for instance, we only know a few of the names on the designated survivor’s list. Many questions remain: What was in the food packets stored down there? Were there any clothes stored there and what did the radio room look like? More importantly, would the bunker really have been able to operate if a nuclear attack had taken place?

The bunker was not the only preparation that Nelson made for a nuclear strike. Kootenay Lake General Hospital, like many hospitals across the country, received a stockpile of disaster preparation equipment to be used in a major emergency. Pieces from Creston Valley Hospital have survived, and some are on display in the Nelson bunker exhibition, on loan from the Creston Museum. A number of exercises and drills took place in the city to prepare people for what they may have faced. Five warning sirens were installed across the city by the army in 1963. They are still there ready to alert the city in an emergency.

The nationwide continuity of government bunker program was abandoned following the end of the Cold War. Most of the Diefenbunkers have been decommissioned and many have been demolished or abandoned. However, the fear of a nuclear attack remains. Who knows what secret plans the world’s governments have in place if the unthinkable occurs today?