Travel isn’t only about visiting the obvious sites of a country like the Eiffel Tower, Kaieteur Falls, or Machu Picchu. For me, it is also important to check out the smaller things, to go beyond the flashy bits of a place. Some would call it “going off the beaten track” but for Diefenbunker in Canada, it’s well known to those who live in the vicinity but is definitely not really known to the wider world. So if you’re in the Ottawa Valley region of Canada, have an interest in recent history, and want to see something quite unusual, this is the place for you.

What is a “Diefenbunker” and why was it important?

Diefenbunker is a remnant of Canada’s Cold War history. It’s basically a former military facility located just outside of downtown Ottawa. In the late 1950s, Canada’s prime minister at the time, John Diefenbaker, commissioned almost 50 “Emergency Government Headquarters”, shelters that were meant to protect members of government in the event of a nuclear attack. They were all called “Diefenbunker”, probably in a derogatory manner as it was the Opposition party that coined the term. This particular Diefenbunker one was the largest built and the only one near Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. It was decommissioned in 1994 and became a museum in 1998. Today, it is a National Historic Site of Canada.

What was the Cold War?

The “Cold War” describes the relationship that developed between the USA and the USSR after World War II. It lasted from 1945 to 1980. While there was no official military engagement between the two sides, there was most certainly a war of ideology – communism vs capitalism. As both countries vied to be the world’s most powerful nation, this geopolitical struggle spilled over to the rest of the world. It put many countries on edge because it was known that both the USA and the USSR had weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear bombs.

So how does this relate to Canada? Well, even though there were some ideological differences between Canada and the USA, the countries were still allies. As such, Canada certainly did feel the stress of the Cold War era. Hence, Prime Minister Diefenbaker’s decision to build bunkers that would protect the Canadian government if it ever became necessary.

I’m in a bunker!

Yup, visiting here is a very unique opportunity to see what life would be like in a bunker. Kind of apropos again now, considering the current political climate in the world right now…. When wandering around Diefenbunker, there are many rooms open to the public. Key things to look out for are the blast tunnel entrance (which can be eerie if you’re lucky enough to walk the length by yourself), an emergency broadcasting studio, the Prime Minister’s office, and even an operating theatre. My favourite bits, though, was the Cold War propaganda and lifestyle admonishments. Remember – you, too, can help reduce costs! Misuse of supplies is abuse!

Trivia about Diefenbunker

  • Location: underground; Carp, Ontario
  • Size: Four stories, 100,000 square feet
  • Primary construction materials: 32,000 tonnes of concrete and 5,000 tonnes of steel
  • Population: Could hold up to 565 people for one month without replenishing supplies from the outside
  • Strength: Would withstand a surface nuclear blast up to five megatons from 1.8km away
  • Weakness: Vulnerable to “Bunker Buster Bombs”, invented after Diefenbunker’s construction
Diefenbunker