Tuesday, 26 January 2016




How excited was I to find out that approximately 30 minutes away from downtown Ottawa there lies the Diefenbunker Museum (Canada’s Cold War Museum)? Pretty excited! Over the winter break I spent three days in Ottawa with hopes of visiting Canada's National museums, which I sadly have not yet had the opportunity to explore. My top three were the Canadian Museum of History (actually located in Gatineau), Canadian Museum of Nature and the Canadian War Museum. To my disappointment, the same three days I was in the city were the same days all three museums were closed for annual maintenance. It appears that I need to work on my planning skills.

The Diefenbunker Museum. Source. 

My ranting aside, I was happy to have discovered the Diefenbunker Museum, which I thought was a great experience. There’s something about a 75-foot “top-secret” bunker meant to accommodate and protect military and government personnel from impending nuclear and radiation destruction that I just couldn’t resist. The focus of this week’s Walk of Fame article, however, is not on the museum itself but on the individual it is named after, Canada’s 13th Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker.

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Source.

Diefenbaker started his early career as a respected defence lawyer, but he felt his true calling was in politics. Although he would have to walk a long road before he would succeed to office, he pushed himself harder and in the end was able to prove himself a capable leader. He and the Conservatives succeeded Louis St-Laurent and the Liberals. (The Liberals had been undefeated for 20 years!) Diefenbaker had a solid vision and kept a firm ground on Canada’s role during the Cold War, even with the United States on his case. He believed in civil rights for everyone and introduced the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960. Under him, the federal vote was extended to Indigenous individuals and the first Native member of Senate, James Gladstone, was appointed. Diefenbaker also nominated the first female cabinet minister. Not to mention, he also involved himself with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Clearly he concerned himself enough with those who have historically been disenfranchised. 

Panel from one of the main exhibitions in the museum. Photo credit: Amanda Barbosa. 

The era in which Diefenbaker came to power was one of uncertainty and suspicion, when countries were threatening each other with bomb invasions and technological advancements. As Canada became more and more involved with the United States during the 1950s, tensions arose. Diefenbaker was not sure whether or not he should allow nuclear weapons on Canadian territory. He did not always see eye to eye with President John F. Kennedy, especially when it came to dealing with Cuba. In response to this volatile atmosphere during the post-war years, Diefenbaker decided to build the Diefenbunker as the federal government bunker and a number of other “Emergency Government Headquarter” bunkers in other cities and provinces across Canada. Funnily enough, the Prime Minister himself never actually got to step foot in it.

The blast tunnel. (Main entrance to the bunker). Photo credit: Sam Marshy.

The Diefenbunker was meant to be “top-secret,” but it’s true goal was exposed by a Toronto Star journalist. Those sneaky Torontonians! The facility had enough resources and space to keep about 500 individuals for 30 days. I couldn't help thinking, (and the tour guide certainly pointed this out), how crowded those 500 individuals would have felt. Although it was a large area, (100,000 square foot, with four levels), the bedrooms especially were quite small and contained bunk beds (and not very comfortable ones I must add). What I liked about the museum, however, is it’s ability to really capture the realities of those unstable years.  

One of the bedrooms. Photo credit: Sam Marshy.

The Prime Minister's bedroom. A little more spacious but still quite small. Source.

If you would like to find out more information on the museum, visit the website, where you can explore some of the current exhibitions and even play some Cold War games

Sources Consulted: 

Cox, Fiona Sinead. (2013). “The Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum.” Retrieved from http://publichistorycommons.org/preview-2/ 

Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum. (n.d.). “History of the Diefenbunker.” Retrieved from http://diefenbunker.ca/history-of-cfs-carp/ 

Ghent, Jocelyn Maynard. (1979). Canada, the United States, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Pacific Historical Review, 48 (2), 159-184.

McKercher, Asa. (2011). Dealing with Diefenbaker: Canada-US Relations in 1958. International Journal, 66 (4), 1043-1060.

The Canadian Encyclopedia. (n.d.). “John Diefenbaker.” Retrieved from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/john-diefenbaker/ 


  1. Rebecca Frerotte26 January 2016 at 23:02

    My favourite tidbit I learned about the Diefenbunker is that he refused to go there in the case of an emergency because his family was not allowed to go with him. The only women allowed in the bunker were secretaries and he would not go without his wife!

  2. Yeah I definitely thought that was interesting, the fact that not even the Prime Minister was allowed to bring his family with him!