Calgary’s Cold War evacuation exercise plan unearthed by plumber

Ramna Shahzad · CBC News July 9, 2015

Cold War: Calgary evacuates for disaster planning


A glimpse into the city’s Cold War-era past has come to light thanks to a chance discovery by a plumber working in a northwest Calgary basement.

Justin Rogers, 24, was doing a job in a house in Thorncliffe about a year ago when he noticed a long-forgotten artifact of Calgary’s history — a 1955 evacuation plan for the city of Calgary — tacked up on the wall.

Operation Lifesaver was a major practice evacuation in preparation for a possible Soviet attack or invasion. (Justin Rogers)

“I just saw this old stained piece of paper and I’m a pretty curious guy by nature, I decided to open it up and have a peek,” said Rogers.

“I thought it sounded pretty cool.”

In September 1955, following months of planning, Calgary ran a major practice evacuation as part of preparations against a possible attack by the Soviet Union.

Operation Lifesaver

The evacuation, called Operation Lifesaver, was a combined effort of the Canadian government and civil defence organizations.

Frances Reilly, a historian and PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan who has studied the operation, says the plan was mostly to put the minds of Calgarians at ease. And it was used by the media to show that Canada was ready with defense strategies in case of a bombing or an attack, she says.

“It was a period of fearing what the Soviets were hearing and listening to,” said Reilly. “So if they were listening to Canadian media, they would know there’s a disaster plan.”

The evacuation plans were color-coded to identify different evacuation routes.

60th anniversary

“The only defense against the threatened nuclear attack is to be far away from it,” the document says.

It advises people to “pack such necessary clothing as you can easily carry, together with enough food for 24 hours.”

The CBC filmed the exercise in 1955 and reported that out of 25,000 possible evacuees, only 5,000 Calgarians participated.

Despite low participation, Reilly says the plan was widely publicized across Canada and North America.

“At the Calgary Stampede that year they had people in Civil Defence uniforms to show they were prepared in case of an attack,” Reilly says.

This fall will be the 60th anniversary of Operation Lifesaver.