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Give Me Shelter: Civil Defense in Calgary

by Christine H - 0 Comment(s)

Calgary Herald photograph

Civil Defense Headquarters bunker

Calgary Herald, March 29, 1955

I had the privilege of hearing some of this city’s great historians at the Heritage Weekend. Max Foran, Hugh Dempsey, Nancy Townsend and Harry Sanders all spoke about great Calgary characters and events. The highlight of the afternoon had to be Brian Brennan talking about Paddy Nolan and finishing up with “When Irish Eyes are Smiling”, a song that Paddy may have enjoyed himself. All the presentations were excellent, capping off a really great weekend of heritage programs.

Dr. Foran spoke on an event which is somewhat amusing, but also speaks to the fears faced by many during the Cold War years. I had originally done some research on this story when I was looking for information about the fate of the air-raid sirens that were scattered throughout the city. There had been one in the yard of my kindergarten (which was held in the community hall) and I always wondered what they were for. Digging into the clippings files in the local history room, I found a wealth of information about civil defense and, particularly, about Operation Lifesaver, the topic of Dr. Foran’s talk.

The idea behind Operation Lifesaver was to practice an evacuation of a portion of Calgary, to simulate what might happen in the event of an enemy attack. So, the Civil Defense Authority planned the evacuation of a quadrant of the city, requiring the population to pack up and move to designated safe spots outside of Calgary. This was planned for September 21, 1955 and the quadrant chosen was the northeast. The population of that area was about 40,000 people at that time. Most were expected to participate. The populace was asked to fill out cards (such as the one below) to indicate whether they had a car, how many people the car could hold, whether they were physically capable of participating, ages of any children etc. Calgary Herald

Calgary Herald, May 5, 1955

The headquarters of the Civil Defense Authority were in a specially built bunker in the Municipal Golf Course (now Shaganappi Point). The photo above isof the interior of the bunker taken from the Calgary Herald of May 29, 1955.

In the end, Operation Lifesaver was postponed due to bad weather (it snowed quite heavily on September 21). When it took place, a week later, smoke bombs were detonated and the air-raid sirens wailed. Only 10,000 (as reported in the papers, but some estimates put it at only 3000) of the 40,000 population participated, but it was still hailed as a great success. It was the first of its kind, where citizens were directed out of the city, and cities across North America took note.

This would not be the last civil defense drill Calgarians would be subjected to. By the 1960s the focus had changed from preparing for an enemy invasion to surviving a nuclear detonation. To that end, the government released the pamphlet “Your basement fallout shelter”. This booklet, pictured here, includes a message from our PM, John Diefenbaker and complete plans for the building of a fallout shelter and instructions on how to live in it after the nuclear disaster. It is made clear in the instructions that this is not a bomb shelter, so it wasn’t advisable to hide in the shelter to escape explosions; it was designed to protect the homeowner from nuclear fallout, assuming they survived the initial blast.

Pam file

So in the next exercise, in November of 1961, the sirens sounded to alert the population to a mock nuclear attack. Most of downtown was unaffected. The people, having not heard the sirens, continued on about their business. Some sirens didn’t sound at all. An investigation blamed dirt for the malfunction.

If you would like to find out more about Canada’s civil defense policy, Andrew Burtch has just published Give Me Shelter which examines the effectiveness (or lack thereof) Canada’s policies during the Cold War. (This title is on our NextReads History and Current Events newsletter. You can sign up for it here.) CBC was on hand to film the exercise. The video is available through their archives. You can see the clippings and the booklet on building a fallout shelter in the Community Heritage and Family History Room on the fourth floor of the Central Library.

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