The Hill Times

January 15, 1996

The bunker bites the dust

By Mark Bourrie

Built as the ultimate refuge for boys and their toys, the fabled Diefenbunker was sealed forever under the quiet farmland of Carp.

Officially, the site is CFS Carp, a small military base about 20 minutes drive from Ottawa. But in the secret world of the Cold War, the bunker was to be the last refuge of Canada's political, military and bureaucratic elites, with a few CBC types thrown in. And no women were allowed. Next to the U.S.'s Strategic Air Command base inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, it was the largest survival bunker in the world.

To protect Ottawa's elite, taxpayers shelled out $25 million in 1959-60 just to pay non-government contractors for their work. The millions more spent by the Department of National Defence was buried in its budgets, but it was at least as much as the contractors got. More than 1,000 workers spent about two years building the 30,000 square metre bunker, equipping it with state- of-the-art electric generators and air conditioning units, and installing an intricate communications system. Upwards of 120 kilometres of special phone lines linked the bunker to key government ministries in Ottawa. Much of the cable was buried in solid rock.

Then there was the cost of manning it for 35 years. At least 100 Armed Forces members were stationed there 24-hours-a-day, seven days a week, doing nothing more than keeping the bunker ready.

And, in the end, its only historical significance was the trivial fact that Denis Lortie, the man who shot up the Quebec National Assembly and killed three staff members in 1984, was stationed there. Guides show visitors the place in the bunker where Lortie stole the guns and ammunition that he used for his attack.

Len Spenst, a retired Armed Forces technician, made his living in the bunker during the last five years that it was in service. "Originally, I worked on the radiation monitoring system," he says. "When it closed, I was transferred outside to help guard it. "It wasn't the most exciting place to work."

Two sets of barbed- wire fence surround the place. The last checkpoint into the site was manned by soldiers, who had a small bunker of their own under their guardhouse. They could watch gatecrashers through a grey periscope sticking out of the roof of their checkpoint.

A tunnel made of corrugated steel, which had survived nuclear blast tests in Nevada, leads to the steel doors of the Diefenbunker entrance. Just inside those doors, heavily- armed soldiers stood ready to fight off invaders.

Just off the entrance was a shower for nuclear-contaminated politicians to clean away radioactive dust. For the less fortunate, a fully-equipped operating room lay just down the hall, and for the doomed, there's a morgue on the lowest level. "I can honestly say that it was only ever used to store fresh fruit and vegetables," Mr. Spenst said.

Everything in the bunker was mounted on springs or tied down, since even a four-storey reinforced concrete bunker buried under 25 metres of gravel was expected to shake and rattle if an atomic bomb exploded over top. Even the hills nearby were sculpted to deflect the power of a nuclear blast.

The people who worked at CFS Carp lived in an atmosphere of paranoia so thick that they were not even allowed to bring their own lunches into the bunker, in case they were smuggling in a camera. Instead, they bought their food in a cafeteria located more than 30 metres below the quiet Ottawa valley countryside.

Boredom seemed to be the real enemy of the guards of the Diefenbunker. Films, formerly top secret, invariably showed enlisted men playing cards to kill time during claustrophobia experiments that were carried on in the bunker after it was built.

Claustrophobia was a worry to the bunker's engineers. They tried to use colors to create a feeling of space. Bedding was bright red, walls were pastel yellows and mauves, and even the pillars were striped to give the bunker a feeling of spaciousness. Pipes and wiring was hidden by dropped ceilings, creating the atmosphere of a slightly cramped office building.

All of the soldiers stationed there were men, and it wasn't until the 1980s that a small section was created for women politicians and officials. Its walls were painted pink.

While there was no room for children, there was a vault the size of a school classroom in the centre of the bunker, deep at its lowest point. This vault was supposed to house the Bank of Canada's gold reserve, which, somehow, wasn't expected to be safe in its home deep under the streets of Ottawa. The gold vault, unlike the Diefenbunker, was built in solid rock. Even if the politicians' bunker was somehow obliterated, the gold would have survived.

The bunker had a command centre where soldiers could keep track of wind-borne nuclear fallout and a CBC radio station that the politicians could use to broadcast to the country outside.

A clever steel hatch system worked as an escape door for the politicians and bureaucrats to emerge from if the bunker's steel doors were somehow blown tight.

There was even a place for mutineers, bunker criminals or people who went mad in the bunker. A special lockup with eight beds was built for people who became unmanageable. Food was supposed to be passed to them through a small window in the room's steel door.

Although the bunker was named after Diefenbaker, he never visited it. The only prime minister to tour the bunker was Pierre Trudeau.

Now it's obsolete. It's insulated with deadly asbestos, its computer system and communications machinery is long out of date, and it probably couldn't survive an attack by a cruise missiles or smart bomb.

Finally, it was killed by a 1994 federal budget cut.

It now lies like a giant King Tut's tomb of the last half of the 20th century, decorated inside with sports murals and "Prices include GST" stickers that will baffle archaeologists 5,000 years from now.

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