Excitement, Suspicion, Protest: A Brief History of Military Science in Canada

By Matthew S. Wiseman

The bombings in Paris and Beirut this past week are a powerful illustration of how civilians are too often caught in the violent crossfire unleashed by global unrest. How does one prepare a civilian populace for such potential devastation? Is it even possible?

Between 1948 and 1954, officials in Ottawa attempted to design and implement a self-help civil defence (CD) model to prepare citizens for the escalating nuclear threat. Their plans altered quickly in 1952 when the United States successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb, at which point the radioactive severity of a potential nuclear attack forced a major critique of Canada’s CD policy. Officials replaced the self-help model with a calculated evacuation policy, in which specific cities would receive food provisions, shelter, and care for nuclear refuges in the event of an attack. In 1959 CD plans were adjusted for a third time, when officials realized that nuclear fallout would not be geographically confined. Since it no longer made sense for CD planners to target select locations for potential aid, planning in Ottawa turned toward developing a comprehensive strategy of national survival.

At all three stages Canada’s CD structure depended on volunteer participation. Planners implemented a recruiting strategy that was intimately bound to the concept of citizen-as-defender, where Canadians were obliged to serve in defence of their country.[1] Using exhibits, exercises, church basements, movie theatres, and an extensive publication program, officials pushed CD as a civic obligation. But the stark reality associated with the possibility of nuclear annihilation produced an atmosphere of high anxiety in which the notion of preparedness was ridiculed by an apprehensive public that rejected any belief that defence against nuclear war was possible. However much the government demanded public support for CD, lavish projects such as the Diefenbunker were ultimately unsuccessful at convincing Canadians to assume civic responsibility.

Yet weapons technology in the early postwar period was not restricted to the nuclear realm. One of the largest displays of Cold War technological prowess occurred in 1964 at Suffield, Alberta. Scientists from the Defence Research Board (DRB), a division of Canada’s National Defence, exploded what was at the time the largest TNT blast ever detonated.

Today Suffield is a military base located near Medicine Hat, but for most of its history, the site was as a secret testing location for various biological, chemical, and bacteriological weapons. Under a veil of secrecy, successive governments funded military science at Suffield for war-related weapons testing.[2]

Government researchers heralded displays such as the TNT blast at Suffield as significant Canadian achievements in an age of big science and technology. In response, experimental work at Suffield gradually became a point of attack for environmentalists and anti-war protestors. As many Americans grew increasingly agitated with federal support for the war in Vietnam, Canadians against military science mobilized with their like-minded neighbours and protests against Suffield grew in both size and intensity by the mid-1970s.

Protests against weapons testing at Suffield derived in part from attitudes towards CD. While some citizens were willing to assume part of the responsibilities required of CD, monetary or otherwise, many Canadians rejected the notion of civic duty by refusing to accept any personal responsibility for the survival of their nation. Those opposed to provincial and municipal CD requirements argued that the price and complexity of nuclear defence made it a national rather than a local responsibility. Opponents also pointed to technological advancements in Cold War weaponry—namely the development of the hydrogen bomb and intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver them—to argue that CD was a federal responsibility, which required greater involvement by the armed forces at the national level. The Canadian public remained unconvinced, and confidence in federal techniques to combat the Cold War waned.

Fortunately, at no point during the Cold War did Canada’s CD policy implement at a level necessary for full assessment. But even though “the bomb” was never dropped on Canada, the cultural impact of nuclear war on the Canadian psyche was significant. The most influential example may be Nevil Shute’s novel-turned-film On the Beach (1959), a satirical depiction of the horrors of radioactive life after the bomb. The film was so powerful that it evoked anti-war and pro-disarmament attitudes in the public that increased pessimism toward CD.

Cold War military science is evocative of a legacy that requires attention. Although Canada’s federal defence expenditure has steadily decreased since the 1970s, government support for military research and development has continued. Defence Research and Development Canada (formerly DRB) is an international leader in security science and technology. In the midst of intensifying security concerns, how will government-funded R&D be viewed by the modern Canadian public?

Matthew Wiseman is a Ph.D. Candidate with the Department of History at Wilfrid Laurier University, as well as the book review editor for Canadian Military History.

[1] For an in-depth examination of civil defence in Canada, see Andrew Burtch, Give Me Shelter: The Failure of Canada’s Cold War Civil Defence (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2012).

[2] Historians of science have documented some of that history. See, for instance, Andrew Godefroy, Defence and Discovery: Canada’s Military Space Program, 1945–74 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2011); and Donald Avery, Pathogens for War: Biological Weapons, Canadian Life Scientists, and North American Biodefence (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013).

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