Pickled beets no match for Russian nukes
Canada ill-prepared for blast attack
At 10:20 a.m. on April 23, 1952, the Soviet Union dropped an atomic bomb on the centre of Ottawa.
The blast toppled the Parliament Buildings; downtown was levelled; fires threatened most remaining homes and offices; underground waterpipes were ruptured; bridges to Hull were crippled.
As sunset approached, dazed survivors crowded into Lansdowne Park seeking food and water. Casualties were horrific: 25,000 people were dead, 50,000 were injured and 105,000 were homeless.
How’s that for the beginning of a book? Not a science-fiction novel, but a serious, sobering look at Canada’s ineffective plans during the Cold War to deal with a nuclear holocaust.
The book is Give Me Shelter: The Failure of Canada’s Cold War Civil Defence. The title is inspired by the Rolling Stones’ 1969 song Gimme Shelter which, according to Mick Jagger, is an apocalyptic “end-ofthe-world song.” Hum that song as you read this book by Andrew Burtch, the Canadian War Museum’s post1945 historian.
Burtch has produced a very chilly blast from the past. The book’s opening scenario about the destruction of Ottawa was one of many penned by government officials in the Cold War as they contemplated Soviet aggression. Various measures, including mass evacuations and bomb shelters, were dreamed up to try to save at least some Canadians from annihilation.
But it is doubtful the feared apocalypse from Soviet bombs and missiles could have been averted, even if there had been adequate funds spent by the government and a greater willingness by the provinces, the military and ordinary citizens to plan for a nuclear attack.
Initially, as the Cold War began, the Liberal govern-
by Andrew Burtch (UBC Press in association with the Canadian
War Museum, $32.95) ment of the day decided citizens should take responsibility for saving themselves and their families.
The plan was for armies of civilian volunteers (all male, of course) fighting fires and other volunteers (all female, of course) running soup kitchens.
Canadians generally did not buy into the plans.
Next came schemes for mass evacuations in advance of bombings. Some trials in places such as Brockville, Ont., and St. Johns, N.L., were relatively successful.
But then came the big trial, a planned mass evacuation of 40,000 residents of northeast Calgary in September, 1955. A freak snowstorm delayed the evacuation for a week. (One can only wonder if the storm would have delayed bombs and missiles.)
When the evacuation finally happened, only 15 per cent of the residents of the target area actually joined the exodus out of Calgary to surrounding small towns.
And then there was the effort, beginning in 1959, to build bomb shelters.
The so-called Diefenbunker just outside Ottawa is a product of that Cold War effort. The prime minister, key cabinet ministers and top mandarins were supposed to take shelter there in case of nuclear war.
The rest of us were supposed to hide out in makeshift shelters in the basements of our homes, even though a hydrogen bomb dropped nearby would destroy basements as well. And even if you did survive, what would you do?
The breezes above would be blowing radioactive fallout your way, food and water would be scarce and life might just not be worth living.
It was during this era that a film was shown to public school students in the small Saskatchewan town where I lived.
We were all urged to go home and tell our parents to build bomb shelters. Well, I tried. My parents attempted to reassure me that our basement had thick walls that could sustain the biggest of Russian bombs and the basement shelves were lined with preserved food.
My 10-year-old self remained skeptical. How long could our family of six — seven in the winters when grandma always visited — have survived on mom’s pickled beets and raspberry jam? And how would we go to the bathroom? Yuck.
My parents were no different than most other Canadians. Only about 2,000 individual bomb shelters were built in the Cold War. People simply did not believe the shelters were the solution. They figured diplomatic and military efforts to tame the Soviets were more realistic options.
“Canada’s civil defence (CD) program failed for a constellation of reasons,” Burtch writes. “Successive governments pursued and altered CD and drafted plans behind closed doors, but they never provided the public with the tools required to create a meaningful defence. Civil Defence Canada and its officials meanwhile limped by on a fraction of a percentage of the billions of dollars committed to the military defence of the country during the same period.
Luckily, the Soviets never did bomb us or we would not be around to read Give Me Shelter, an extremely detailed and shocking analysis of how a government and its people failed to connect and collaborate on one of the most important issues facing the world during the Cold War.
The book is scarier than science fiction because it shows how unprepared we were to save our own skin had the Russians ever decided to attack.
The mother-daughter team of Patricia and Traci Lambrecht, writing under the name P.J. Tracy, unveil the sixth novel in their series featuring the Monkeewrench crew in Off the Grid. Fans will be eager to see their favourite characters reappear, but newcomers will likely feel lost.
Monkeewrench Software Co. handles delicate com- puter and crime issues, and the team of misfits use their specialized skills to help the police. A partner of the group, Grace MacBride, takes a sabbatical and soon realizes she cannot stay away from trouble. While on a sailboat off the Florida Keys, she sees a friend attacked by pirates. She kills the pirates and saves her friend’s life.
At the same time, Leo Magozzi, a homicide detective in Minneapolis, finds two men executed. Soon more deaths occur that appear to be tied to the attack on the sailboat. Magozzi is estranged from MacBride, but he needs her and the Monkeewrench team if the murderers are to be brought to justice.
The Monkeewrench series usually features strong doses of humour mixed with 3-D characters and intricate mysteries. Off the Grid feels like a rough outline that needs another pass to flesh out the details. Humour is nonexistent, and some of the characters seem different from previous books. Characters should grow in a series, but they shouldn’t become unlikable. The rushed ending and lack of a payoff don’t help.
Give Me Shelter: The Failure of Canada’s Cold War Civil Defence