1. First official mention of the Public Shelter Program occurred in Prime Minister Diefenbaker’s November 1959 statement in the House of Commons concerning the federal government’s policy on the need for evacuation of people from possible target areas and for shelter for those threatened by radioactive fallout. This statement, which outlines the federal government’s principals for civil defence planning included (1) the need to provide for some means of protection against radioactive fallout; (2) voluntary dispersal from major cities of persons not required for essential tasks; (3) preparations for the reception and care of evacuees in smaller communities and rural areas; (4) arrangements for removing persons from areas heavily contaminated by fallout.

2. In the fall of 1964 the Cabinet Committee on Emergency Plans approved a public shelter policy and the development of a program to implement it as well as authorizing a national survey of fallout protection. It also provided for further development of shelter space in new construction and in existing available buildings, and for the continuation of the existing modest design program concerning blast protection.

The interior of an H-bomb steel shelter is shown May 19, 1955 at an unknown location. The shelter is equipped with five bunk beds, lanterns, canned food, water, and a radiation detector. 

3. A Cabinet decision of October 3,1980 required that “…the Canadian civil structure be in a position to mitigate the effects of a foreign attack on the Canadian population, essential industries and services”. This decision continued to be in effect until the early 90s when because of the end of the cold war and various cut backs the program was quietly discontinued. The additional wartime responsibilities of Ministers were described in the 1980 policy decision, and were subsequently confirmed in the 1981 Emergency Planning Order. Responsibility for shelter planning was given to the minister of Public Works effective April 1, 1974

Shelter Program Activities and Results

4. Between 1964 and the early 1990s the following achievements were realized:

  • The production and maintenance of a national inventory of shelter space available. As of 1992 Public Works Canada had a national inventory of shelter spaces available which had been compiled in 1987. To that date, more than 70,000 buildings had been surveyed (not including houses with basements) and 24 million useable personal spaces identified. The greater part of these were located in the core areas of major cities. Many of these spaces had a fallout protection facto of more that 100, and thus were relatively safe from most probable concentrations of fallout radioactivity. The inventory required constant updating to account for demolition, renovation and new construction of buildings,
US Symbol for a Community Fallout Shelter. There was no specific Canadian Symbol.
  • Provincial shelter plans were in place for New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Draft plans existed for the remaining provinces.
  • Community shelter plans existed for all municipalities in the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Price Edward Island. These plans were the most important element of the national shelter program and were updated every two years. They indicated where each citizen of a community was to go in the event of a nuclear emergency. (The main thrust of the national shelter program was to encourage the development of community plans for all areas of the country.),
  • More up to date blast shelter designs and blast resistant techniques had been developed,
  • Shelter planning guides and standards had been made available to the public,
  • Several hundred Fallout Shielding Analysts had been trained,
Simulated Community Shelter in Diefenbunker Museum (the space illustrated would be for about 20 persons, normally such shelters would have been for 500 plus persons)

5. Community shelter plans were still, however, required for the population in the other seven provinces. Most of this work was the responsibility of the provinces and municipalities. Emergency relocation plans and the national shelter readiness plan could not be started until a substantial portion of the community shelter plans had been completed. Emergency relocation plans were to follow from community shelter plans, and would have dealt with the particular problem of relocating citizens from potential target areas. The readiness plan would have directed the implementation of all shelter and relocation plans by describing who would have done what, when, where and with what resources. It was estimated that the time required for implementation of the full shelter readiness plan, assuming complete cooperation of all jurisdictions and an adequate allocation of the financial and other required resources, would have been six months.

Evacuation Policy

6. It appears that the federal government never seriously intended to attempt the evacuation of centres of population in anticipation of a nuclear attack on North America. This was in contrast to the U.S. civil defence authorities approach who were proactively in favour of such an evacuation of American cities. Pre-attack relocation was not considered a viable option in Canada because of climatic conditions and population distribution (and relative sparseness in rural areas). Furthermore it was not expected that Canadian cities would be primary targets, although it was assumed that there would be heavy nuclear fallout across southern Canada in such a confrontation. Canadian authorities did however, consider that it might be necessary to evacuate certain urban and even rural areas subsequent to an attack due either to unacceptably high local deposition of radioactive fallout and/or where there was a particularly serious fire risk to the inhabitants.

7. Under most fallout conditions, the population was generally considered to be better off seeking protection in their own homes or in public shelters in their neighborhoods. It was also recognized that there would have inevitably been some voluntary evacuation/relocation should rising international tensions have indicated an increasing likelihood of war. The inhabitants of large centres who considered that their cities were close to potential targets (i.e. target cities, missile sites, military command centres, or significant war material production sites), might have chosen to leave for cottages, isolated towns and villages or to move in with relatives in what they thought were possibly safer areas.

8. Canadian policy during the post-attack period was to stay put and only to evacuate citizens from radioactive “hot spots” on a remedial basis. Should nuclear detonations have occurred in populated areas, the resulting fire and heavy radioactive fallout for some considerable distance from ground zero would have forced authorities ton carefully weigh the risks of exposure from moving, as opposed to the danger of death, illness or injury by fire and possible lethal doses of radiation. In Canada hot spots could have been expected in populated areas well away from the direct vicinity of nuclear targets. In certain circumstance such high contamination areas may have been predictable (given some knowledge of the locations, types and sizes of nuclear detonations and good meteorological wind and precipitation prediction models) and preventative evacuation undertaken. Provincial Regional and Zonal headquarters would have been making such decisions.

Program Deficiencies

9. Despite all of the activity described above, many areas of the shelter program had received little or no attention and would have had to have been addressed in order to have achieved a truly comprehensive and ready system of public shelter preparedness. Such details as beds and bedding; rations and their storage; medical equipment, facilities, and staff; radiation monitoring; shelter ventilation; trained shelter managers and wardens had not been fully sorted out.


10. In the early 1960s the Canadian government recognized the urgent need for radioactive fallout protection for the Canadian population. Following the apparent failure to encourage the construction of private family shelters, the emphasis of the program shifted. The new approach concentrated on the provision of public fallout shelters in existing buildings. Consequently, a series of surveys was conducted to analyze the quality and amount of fallout protection available to the Canadian population. The then new community fallout shelter program resulted from these efforts.