Diefenbunker: Tour a nuclear shelter from your self-isolation bunker

Imagine being stuck inside, unable to go out for fear of falling victim to an invisible threat, all while being expected to carry on with your work as if nothing had changed.

… okay, maybe that isn’t the best start for piquing your interest at the moment, but hear me out. After all, I’m not talking about the COVID-19 pandemic; I’m just referring to the much more frivolous topic of nuclear apocalypse.

… yeah, okay, okay, I hear you. It’s unfortunate that I’m inspired to write about a Cold War nuclear bunker in these times of cabin fever and self-isolation, but the unusual Ottawa museum at the centre of this article is a place that’s well worth a visit, whether online or in person once this is all over. 

The entrance to the Diefenbunker.

Sixty-one years ago, at the height of the Cold War, construction began on a bunker that would house key members of the Canadian government and military in the event of nuclear war.

The “Diefenbunker”, a play on the name of then-prime minister John Diefenbaker, was maintained with a 24/7 staff for the next 32 years, ready to lock down at a moment’s notice before it was decommissioned and opened to the public as Canada’s Cold War Museum.

The museum is filled with sobering reminders of Cold War fears. Here’s a depiction of a mushroom cloud over Ottawa.

The best part is, you don’t even need to wait until the pandemic is over or physical travelling is permitted again to visit. Thanks to 360-degree cameras, the entire museum is available to tour online, all from the comfort of your own doomsday shelter. 

Thirty minutes’ drive from downtown Ottawa in the small community of Carp, the Diefenbunker is a museum with a difference. Walking in feels like playing the video game Fallout in reverse: you leave behind the safety of the outside world you know, down a 150-metre blast tunnel, and into a post-Third World War nightmare.

The Diefenbunker would theoretically allow the Canadian federal government to operate safely underground for 30 days with up to 535 staff after a nuclear attack, working with a network of other emergency bunkers scattered across the country.

Across its four floors, set up to look as they would during the bunker’s operational history, visitors make their way through the kinds of rooms you would expect in a nuclear shelter: decontamination showers, mess halls, sick bays, and engine rooms.

But then there are the fascinating extra areas required as the country’s expected government headquarters in the event of war; the Prime Minister’s office and a conference room, a military information centre resembling a university lecture theatre, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio studio, and a Bank of Canada vault, which would have been filled with 800 tons of gold.

When we visited the bunker back in mid-February, we quickly discovered that we would likely not be around to experience the post-apocalyptic world this bunker was planned for. A large map of Ottawa, showing the probable effects of a direct nuclear attack on Parliament Hill, placed our home in the “90 per cent casualty” radius.

Bye-bye, Ottawa…

Sobering displays like this are scattered throughout the museum, pulling you back into reality and reminding you of the circumstances for which the bunker was built. But the museum is not just about the bunker itself; it also documents the wider Cold War context in which Canada found itself for more than half a century.

We often focus only on the United States and Soviet Union during Cold War history, so it was fascinating to read about the contribution of, and consequences for, Canada during this tense period. From the founding of NATO, to early warning stations in the high Arctic and spy scandals in Ottawa, all the way to the effects of anti-communist purges in the public service and the arts, Canada’s Cold War history made for an interesting topic.

Thanks to another global crisis, the Diefenbunker is physically closed at the time of writing, but has a vast number of resources available online. In the “Museum at Home” section of its website, you can virtually tour the entire bunker complex, play the Project Rustic game about Canada’s Cold War history, or download colouring sheets of parts of the bunker.

Your standard meeting room… if you lived in a nuclear bunker.

Yes, existential threats are probably not what you want to focus on right now, but if you’re tired of reading and thinking about pandemics, the Diefenbunker offers an odd, fascinating form of distraction to a different time and set of circumstances.

And once this period of self-isolation, quarantining and social distancing is over, locking yourself away underground for a few hours in this museum is a must-do while you’re in the national capital.

Where: Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum/Musée Canadien De La Guerre Froide, 3929 Carp Rd, Carp, ON

When: Closed due to COVID-19 pandemic, but resources available online. Ordinarily, open 10am-4pm Monday-Friday, 10am-4.30pm Saturday-Sunday. Seasonal hours may vary.

Cost: Adults: $17.50. Seniors: $16.50. Students: $13.00. Youth (6-18): $11.00. Children (0-5): Free. Family (2 adults, 5 youths): $48.50. 

How: Travel west on the Highway 417 from Ottawa to exit 144 (Carp Road), then follow signs to Diefenbunker. Public transport options from Ottawa limited.

More info: The official website has details of closures, events and virtual collections.

We visited in: February, 2020

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