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How Canada prepared for nuclear attacks — then and now

Here is a look at Cold War safety tactics after Hawaii's false alarm sparks new fears over North Korea's nuclear powers.

Cold War-era nuclear attack preparations were more urgent than today's methods.

Contributed / Canadian Civil Defence Museum Association

Cold War-era nuclear attack preparations were more urgent than today's methods.

Bunkers, sirens and pamphlets were once the tools employed to warn and protect Canadians against impending nuclear doom. But emergency preparedness on the matter today is more subdued. 

Fred Armbruster, founder and executive director of the Canadian Civil Defence Museum Association in Edmonton, says that’s due in part to government cost cutting and the shuttering of civilian-led emergency offices.

Commonplace until the early 1970s, civil defence associations published and distributed pamphlets door-to-door, organized escape plans, and taught courses like bunker building to prepare cities for attack. 

Now the federal government provides guidelines for citizens to prep for emergencies, such as natural disasters, including guidelines for stocking an emergency kit to survive 72 hours.

Similar lists provided by civil defence organizations in the Fifties included items like cigarettes. And that’s not all that’s changed since those days, says Armbruster.

“Basically if you don’t educate yourself, there’s nothing made available to you,” he said. “The civil defence organization went to the people to educate them. Now there are resources out there; however, it’s your responsibility to go find that information.”

Canada does not yet have the kind of system that helped quickly spread a faulty alert in Hawaii this weekend — attributed to someone pushing the wrong button during a test.

Canada does have systems aimed at alerting the public to impending large-scale threats — mostly a wide range of natural disasters such as fires, floods and other severe weather events.

Nuclear emergencies are mostly confined to worries about radiation releases from a power plant.

Current systems rely largely on TV and radio for disseminating warnings to the public and do not yet include full-scale text messaging to cellphones, although the federal telecommunications regulator last April mandated wireless-service providers to implement such alerting by this spring.

Most current emergency advice turns on listening to suggestions or orders from officials in whatever format they might be delivered.

Protective measures could include evacuating an area or sheltering in place, depending. Information on what concrete actions people should take in case of a nuclear disaster — however incurred — are vague.

Generic advice in cases of radiation exposure, according to various government agencies, includes taking iodine pills to minimize effects on the thyroid; closing outside doors, windows and air exchangers; discarding contaminated clothing in sealed plastic bags; and showering.

The basement of middle floors, away from walls, windows and roofs are considered safer options, according to Ontario’s recently updated emergency plan states.

Large structures such as schools, shopping centres or other commercial buildings with concrete walls generally provide greater radiation protection for sheltering-in-place than do most people’s homes, the Ontario plan indicates.

In September, the House of Commons National Defence Committee heard from government, military and academic experts about the potential threat posed by North Korea and Canada’s plans to cope, including brief mention of the country’s preparedness for a nuclear attack.

Major General William Seymour, told the committee that any defence and citizen protection plans for a nuclear attack would build on existing strategies to combat threats such as terrorism. 

That said, the committee heard that the federal government does not think Canada is considered under threat from North Korea. “We sense that, for the time being at least, they perceive us as not an enemy and therefore potentially a friend,” said Mark Gwozdecky, assistant deputy minister of international security at Global Affairs Canada.

With files from The Canadian Press

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