'Most likely to be bombed': unearthing Edmonton's Cold War secrets

At the height of the Cold War era, local military operations and thriving oil refineries put Edmonton in the crosshairs of the simmering conflict between NATO and the Soviet Union.

'Edmonton was the most well-prepared in Canada, alongside Ottawa and Vancouver'

The Edmonton civil defence bunker, built in 1954, was designed to house Edmonton's political and military leaders in the event of an attack. (Canadian Civil Defence Museum)

At the height of the Cold War era, local military operations and thriving oil refineries put Edmonton in the crosshairs of the simmering conflict between NATO and the Soviet Union.

"Edmonton was the most likely to be bombed if something did happen," said Fred Armbruster, executive director of the Canadian Civil Defence Museum Association in Edmonton. "At least, that's what was believed.

"We had a lot of things going on in Edmonton at the time ... and those gave us reason to have greater fear of something happening."

With discussions of a new nuclear arms race between Russia and the United States under president-elect Donald Trump, Armbruster is revisiting some of Edmonton's Cold War secrets.

'Edmonton was the most well prepared in Canada'

The federal and municipal government went to great lengths to educate the public on the dangers of nuclear attack. (Canadian Civil Defence Museum Association)
In 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb. In the following years, fear that the Cold War would turn hot became palpable, and efforts to guard against it took many forms.

As Canada joined its southern neighbour in an effort to unearth homegrown communists, both real and suspected, government agencies went to great lengths to ensure the public was prepared in case the Cold War heated up.

"Edmonton was the most well-prepared in Canada, alongside Ottawa and Vancouver," Armbruster said in an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active. "We had to be prepared to face an attack. We felt that it was quite plausible that we would be attacked, so we had to put proper procedures in place to ensure the safety of the civilian population, as well as the government.

"We were quite well respected for our civil defence operations that we had here."

Emergency recordings were at the ready, set to be broadcast across the radio waves in the event of disaster. Air raid sirens were placed strategically across the city. Now long dismantled, their rising wail would have given residents a final warning to take cover or flee the city for the relative safety of the countryside.

By 1954, Canadian officials began to plan for the evacuation of major target cities within three hours of receiving an attack warning.

In Edmonton, a local civil defence committee was formed and began training civilians on how to manage the chaos of a mass evacuation. Their strategy, developed by the Department of National Defence, included a plan to control traffic, assuage panic and care for evacuees.

But it tended to ignore the lethal effects of radioactive fallout.
Citizens were encouraged to built their own fallout shelters to take refuge during the deadliest hours following an attack. (Canadian Civil Defence Museum)
A network of impenetrable bomb shelters were dug under government and military buildings.

Among those still standing is the Edmonton civil defence bunker, built in 1954 in the Crestwood neighbourhood.

The vault was designed to house 36 of the city's highest political and military leaders, and would have acted as a command centre in the event of attack.

​The fallout shelter, all but forgotten for decades, was unsealed in 2010 and restoration work began. 

"It was for politicians and for the civil defence operations," said Armbruster. "In the Edmonton bunker, they had six stations that would be manned by different personnel from the city, so that they would have a safe place and still be able to manage the city if anything should happen. 

"But that was not there for the civilian population at hand."

This bunker, designed as an emergency command centre, sat forgotten for decades until it was unsealed in 2010 and restoration work began. (Canadian Civil Defence Museum)
 Instead, residents were encouraged to build their own backyard bunkers. Pamphlets were distributed to homes across the city, urging citizens to build fallout shelters where they could wait out the deadliest period following an attack.

An untold number of small bunkers were built. Armbruster suspects some of those subterranean relics remain forgotten underground.

"That was their responsibility if they wished to build a bunker when they were building their home, and at the time they actually offered loans if you wanted to build your own bunker."

'We are not prepared, by any means, for an emergency'

Though fears of nuclear attack have faded with time, Armbruster thinks Edmonton has something to learn from our post-war predecessors.

"We are not prepared, by any means, for an emergency in general," he said. "I think Fort McMurray [during last May's wildfire] was the perfect example of that.

"People were running out gas, people were running out of food. They didn't have any provisions in place for an evacuation-type emergency. In the Cold War era, everyone was educated."  

Disasters, whether natural or man made, could still strike our province, said Armbruster.

"Now we aren't educating people on how to be prepared for any emergency. I always say, the Cold War never ended because the fear of the possibility of something happening is always there."

With files from Elizabeth Hames