A history of fallout shelters – top secrets, amateur bus bunkers, criminal bids and escape rooms.
When the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb in 1949, the tension could be felt throughout Canada. Since our northern airspace was considered the most convenient route for the Soviet Union to attack the United States, many defensive measures were put in place throughout the mid-20th century to protect against any potential doomsday scenarios.
Nuclear missiles were at the top of North Americans’ minds during the 50s, so then-Prime Minister of Canada John Diefenbaker commissioned several bunkers across the country to protect himself and other top government and military officials in the quest for continuity of government. Seven Cold War shelters were built, known colloquially as “Diefenbunkers.”
They were each designed to protect about 300 government officials against a five-megaton blast in the unfortunate event of any nuclear Armageddon situation.
While the United States had started constructing their own underground shelters – some for government officials and others that were made specifically for the public with a tell-tale yellow and black sign – in Cold War era Canada, there was a bit more of a DIY approach.
Of course government officials would be protected in their official government bunkers but the rest of civilians were left to fend for themselves to construct their own fallout shelters.
By 1960, the Diefenbaker government had also published a 35-page booklet titled “Your Basement Fallout Shelter: Blueprint For Survival No. 1.” It included step-by-step instructions for citizens to build their own bunkers with readily available materials. But it also outlined how to live in the shelter – how to deal with any radioactive dust, how to cook safely and even how to poop in bags.
“Should a nuclear war occur, the risk of radioactive fallout will be very widespread, and will endanger many of us in our homes, even though a long way from the bomb explosion,” Diefenbaker wrote in the booklet’s foreword.
“The shelter described in this booklet, although not affording protection against the blast of a nuclear explosion or the fires that may result, will provide good protection against the more widespread radiation danger.”
At about the same time, Consolidated Building Corp. was selling Canada’s first professionally constructed “Basement Fallout Shelter” at Regency Acres in Aurora, Ontario. For just $1,500 on top of the regular price of a home in the sub-division, a reinforced concrete bunker would be installed to the basement of any of their models. The fallout shelter walls were 30 centimetres thick and each one had powerful steel doors and an air purification system.
Shortly afterward, the existing tensions were heightened. In 1961 the Soviets’ “Tsar Bomba” – the most powerful man-made explosion – was detonated over the Arctic Sea. It, quite reasonably, spooked Americans and Canadians alike. The 27-ton thermonuclear device was 1,500 times more powerful than the U.S. bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In 1962, Canada’s Emergency Measures Organization issued a pamphlet called Simpler Shelters. It was clear that our country’s civilians would not all be following in the American footsteps of building fully-furnished second homes underground, so the feds designed a small basement fort pattern out of sandbags and concrete blocks as something of a compromise. Loans were available to people who wanted to build bunkers at the time.
Through ramped-up marketing campaigns, Ottawa encouraged citizens to take the reins and build their own safe havens. One such poster concept was the “Bea Alerte and Justin Case” campaign, where two comic characters were portrayed as being ill-prepared and regularly finding themselves in illustrated worse case scenarios, often covered in soot or buried in rubble.
In the words of a 2017 National Post article looking back on nuclear preparedness: “It seems strange that Canada needed to shame its citizens into trying to save themselves from nuclear holocaust, but officials were up against a pretty strong sense of apathy from the citizenry. ‘There was a fair amount of fatalism.”
These days, while most of these government Diefenbunkers have been decommissioned and/or sealed off, a few remain active in some way or another. A couple Diefenbunkers are still part of active military bases but some others are active in less militaristic ways – visitors can come to immerse themselves in the Cold War environment with historically accurate equipment and settings on a guided tour, or explore and learn in a museum, or even play fictional “war games” with laser tag gear. One Diefenbunker even hosts an annual Easter egg hunt.
Debert Diefenbunker and Enter The Bunker
One such underground shelter in Debert, Nova Scotia, has been turned into an escape room and entertainment venue. The two-storey, 64-000-square-foot bunker first commissioned in 1959, constructed in the 60s and then decommissioned in 1996, has been hosting tours during their regular opening hours for several years now. Since 2018, they also offer: laser tag, paint ball, movie nights, an e-game hub and the “War Games” escape room.
These activities all take place in the refurbished Cold War Diefenbunker setting in rural Nova Scotia with its decontamination showers, NORAD Joint-Ops room with floor to ceiling maps and high tech filtration and ventilation system aimed to purify the air. It was originally built to house about 350 people for 90 days in isolation while the outside world turned to ash.
At the time, the plan was that if a bomb were dropped on Halifax – which was on the U.S.S.R.’s long list of prime Canadian targets – government and military officials would rush to the Debert Diefenbunker where they would have to take three anti-radiation showers and burn their clothes before being able to enter the rest of the shelter.
A Geiger counter would then evaluate if they were still radioactive and anyone who failed the test would be forced out, back into the nuclear war-zone.
During Enter the Bunker’s regular business hours, visitors can take on an immersive experience through the escape room mission. There, they will be asked to pretend it is 1969 and there is one hour left before the nukes go off – when cities will be destroyed and millions are vaporized. The bombs are in the air and the participants have been separated into two different nation teams – one is the U.S.S.R. and the other is the U.S.A. They must do their duty to halt Armageddon by setting up their self-defense systems.
It all rests on the Debert Diefenbunker guests to save their nations through solving puzzles and following clues within the bunker’s metre-thick walls.
The Diefenbunker allure to the criminal mind
Besides Debert, other Diefenbunkers were built in that same era – in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Vancouver. The Quebec and Ontario bunkers remain a part of active military bases, while the Nanaimo Military Camp on Vancouver Island and the Canadian Forces Base Shilo east of Brandon, Manitoba were sealed off after they were decommissioned in the 90s.
However, the CFB Penhold Diefenbunker in Springbrook, Alberta almost fell into the wrong hands. It was sold to local businesses before it was repurchased by the province and then demolished in 2001. But the demolition came after bids for the property were submitted by the Hells Angels, a group of white supremacists and a car-smuggling ring. Of course an underground fallout shelter would appeal to people with something to hide as well as with something to protect.
Additionally, an Edmonton bunker built in 1954 in the Crestwood neighbourhood was kept secret during the Cold War. The Edmonton civil defence bunker, which is still located five kilometres east of West Edmonton Mall, would have been a command centre during any attack.
While Alberta’s provincial officials were planned to take shelter in the Diefenbunker two hours’ south at Canadian Forces Base Penhold, the City of Edmonton kept a six-person full-time crew at the secret civil defence bunker. They were tasked with managing what would remain of the city after any potential nuke threats.
This bunker lay forgotten for decades but was unsealed in 2010.
The bigger and bunkier Diefenbunker
A larger Diefenbunker was built near Carp, Ontario. This much larger bunker was a four-storey, 100,000-square foot known as the Central Emergency Government Headquarters and is designed to house 535 people which is supposed to include the prime minister, the governor general and senior cabinet members. If any nuclear weapons were ever launched, no family members would be allowed inside though.
This Carp Diefenbunker has been a national historic site and Canada’s Cold War museum since 1998. It also houses what is billed as “the world’s largest escape room.”
Additionally, this is the bunker where Easter eggs are hidden each year for children to hunt for among the Cold War era decor.
Modern-day Alpha and Bravo bunkers
Fast forward to 2016, when tensions rose with North Korea and Canada decided to open some of its bunkers again. The CBC reported in 2017 – once it had obtained documents from access to information legislation – that the Privy Council Office, a bureaucratic wing of the Prime Minister’s Office, drafted an agreement with National Defence to open bunkers on two military bases if the Ottawa region proved “unviable.”
These two bunkers’ locations are classified and referred to in the redacted briefing simply as “Alpha and Bravo sites.”
The agreement, CBC reported, is part of the federal government’s plan for the continuity of government which it says is aimed to “ensure minimal or no interruption to the availability of critical services” during an emergency or natural disaster in the National Capital Region.
The man who turned 42 buses into a bunker
An 85-year-old Ontario resident, Bruce Beach, spent much of his adult life building a private, underground doomsday shelter in Horning’s Mills, Ontario. His project of 40 years is named the Ark Two and came to be shortly after he moved to Canada from the US, concerned that nuclear war was just a few years or just a few weeks away.
The Ark Two is made out of 42 old buses and a whole lot of concrete, and was originally meant to house up to 350 people. Beach started building the fallout shelter in 1980 on a 12.5 acre lot, buying old school buses at $300 a piece and then planting them into the ground and covering them in concrete and several feet of soil.
The complex includes: a decontamination area, a medical area, a pharmacy, a dentist area, a chapel, a laundry room, a library, a daycare and a mortuary. But since the project started so long ago, much of the technology used in its construction and furnishings has changed – the paint is chipping, the dentist chair is dirty and the beds are rusted. As well, the bunker has three security monitors with old Commodore 64 computers. It has a functioning landline but uses decades-old rotary phones.
Beach’s neighbours have called him a “nut,” he told National Post reporters, and local and provincial authorities have threatened to have his bunker sealed off for public safety but Beach insists his shelter is for the greater good and keeps puttering at it, checking off more chores on his list to try to maintain it. Since 2000, the entrance to the shelter has been sealed off at least twice but Beach just reopens it and continues on.
A nearby fire department has gone on record to say that, should the need ever arise, firefighters will not risk their own lives to go rescue anyone inside the bunker.
“Their basis for sealing it is they say it was found to be a hazard. It is a threat to life, etc., etc.” Beach told the Orangeville Banner.
“But as I say, it is the very opposite. The idea is not to create risk, but reduce risk.”
An American company selling bomb shelters to Canadians
It isn’t just lone amateurs building fallout shelters across the country. A company based out of Texas has been selling underground bunkers, survival shelters, bomb shelters and safe rooms to Canadians for years.
According to a 2017 Global News report, the owner of Atlas Survival Shelters said Canadians – mostly from British Columbia and the Greater Toronto Area – are smuggling them across the border. This came just days after US President Donald Trump had taunted North Korea with his infamous “fire and fury” comment.
One of the many different Atlas models categorized as “military” is called the Bombnado. It can be added to an existing home and includes an NBC filtration system. That stands for “nuclear, biological and chemical.”
The shelter also includes a custom fabricated ladder entry and an 8-ton hydraulic hatch-lift “for emergency egress,” according to the website. It comes in four sizes and starts at $18,999 US for an eight-feet-by-eight-feet bunker, not including the price of installation or any beds, couches, toilets or other furnishings. It then goes up to a bare bones eight-feet-by-twenty-feet bunker at just under $35,000.
The website explains they are sold empty to adapt to people who are just interested in using the “military shelter” as an unfurnished wine cellar, safe room or gun vault that no one is living in.
Private bunkers today
It is unclear how many underground bunkers exist in Canada today. The details and locations of private Canadian fallout shelters are published less often than they are in the land of our southern neighbours. This could be because there are many more private bunkers in the states than there are in Canada – and there are certainly many more private companies in the US that sell residential bunkers.
It could also be a cultural thing. Perhaps our notorious Canadian politeness makes our efforts for security somewhat more hushed and concealed.
Still, many people did build bunkers decades ago, during the Cold War, at the encouragement of the federal government. And at least some of these must still exist.
For instance, an 1870 Aurora farmhouse that was previously owned by the City of Toronto and used as a training centre for police officers was sold in 2017 to a handy couple prepared to take on a heritage site fixer-upper. It came with a Cold War bunker attached to the basement that the city had built in 1962. Within the bunker is a large hand-painted map showing every Toronto street, a blank space to write in the names of casualties and two large emergency water tanks.
It may have been a rare find with a secret history but there are likely others like it. Concealed underground there must be many other vintage Cold War-era fallout shelters surviving across the country, forgotten, just waiting to be found.