Figure 1. Source: Canadian Civil Defence Museum and Archives Collection, “Will It Happen Here,” Poster, 1950’s.

“Will it happen here?” was the question posed to Canadians in this civil defence propaganda poster commissioned by the Information Service of the Department of National Health and Welfare in the early 1950’s. The poster depicts the cartoon mascots of Civil Defence Canada – Bea Alerte and Justin Case, their names a linguistic play on the demand to be alert just in case an emergency might arise.  Using a vibrant colour palette to draw the viewers’ attention, the poster depicts Bea Alerte and Justin Case hurrying to the aid of injured civilians in the aftermath of what appears to be a bombing. This image was one of fourteen created as part of a Canada-wide public advertising campaign that aimed to convince Canadians of their responsibility to participate in civil defence activities[1]. With the rapid expansion of mass communication in the early 20th century, marketing and the visual strategies it deployed became a popular method for influencing public behaviour. As the Canadian government soon realized through their relationships with a newly burgeoning advertising industry[2], propaganda was a good way to sell war.

During World War II, the marketing of war via propaganda posters fulfilled a dual purpose: it boosted morale and delivered popular messaging designed to encourage Canadians to take their commitments to nation building seriously.[3] Indeed, the war effort relied on such public support to realize its goals, achieved through tangible means such as the purchase of war bonds[4]. But as we explore in this digital exhibition, war-time propaganda campaigns also delivered crucial lessons about citizenship and domestic responsibility on the home front of nation building. As such, propaganda posters deployed visual strategies to communicate cultural norms that tapped into already existing values and perspectives. As Bray (1995) argues in his analysis of Canadian World War II poster campaigns, these graphic messages can be analyzed as cultural artifacts – objects of material culture that provide visual evidence of public opinion at the time. But crucially, Bray suggests, propaganda posters “were, in fact, active agents in this process of change. As part of society’s cultural resources, the images used in these posters influenced the way society made sense of the social and ideological upheaval caused by the war”.[5] Bringing Bray’s insights to our study of Canadian propaganda poster campaigns during the Cold War, we explore the pedagogical aspects of graphic messaging, particularly how these posters instruct gender norms through their use of visual metaphors. Propaganda posters are elements of visual culture that reflect, influence, and produce the material world. We therefore ask, what kind of social, cultural and political work were they made to do?


1 F.F. Worthington to Provincial Civil Defence Coordinators, June 29, 1954, Library and Archives Canada RG 29, Vol. 56, File 100-5-1
2 H.W. Adams, Director, Information Services Division to F. Dostie, December 27, 1955. LAC RG 29, Vol. 102, File 180-8-1
3 B. Bray, “From flag-waving to pragmatism: Images of patriotism, heroes and war in Canadian World War II propaganda posters,” Material History Review 42 (Fall 1995): 75-86, 75.
4 “Victory Loans and War Savings,” Wartime Canada, accessed July 25, 2021, https://wartimecanada.ca/categories/victory-loans-war-savings.
5 Bray, 76.



Figure 2. Source: Canadian Civil Defence Museum and Archives, “You Bet Your Life”, Poster, 1950’s.

During the early Cold War (1948-1962), the Canadian government once again turned to propaganda posters to communicate how civilians might support the war effort. These campaigns, however, were not designed to recruit soldiers or raise funds; rather, they were aimed to solicit participation in civil defence activities. Blurring the boundaries between military and civilian spheres of life, civil defence engages citizens on the home front of the battlefield. Distinct from previous wars fought internationally by troops at a distance, the Cold War brought the battlefield home via the threat of nuclear attack. Though Canada was technically at peace after the Armistice of 1945, growing ideological tensions between the United States and the USSR made war an imminently perceived peril. This culture of fear was intensified through the development of nuclear technology which changed the nature of warfare and sparked widespread anxiety. Cold War civil defence therefore aimed to quell these worries by providing practical training in preparation for, and optimistically survival from, nuclear devastation.

In 1948, the Canadian government created Civil Defence Canada to develop, organize, and promote civil defence activities. Initially determined to be under the jurisdiction of the Department of National Defence, retired Major-General F.F. Worthington was chosen as the lead advisor. By 1950, Worthington had developed the country’s initial approach which, perhaps surprisingly, did not center fallout shelters.[6] The degree to which a nuclear attack was considered survivable changed as technologies evolved and the impacts of nuclear devastation were better understood.[7] In its early stages, civil defence strategies drew on those developed by the United Kingdom during the Blitz, sometimes referred to as a “self-help” model of defence.[8] Self-help did not mean that Canadians were completely on their own. Rather, it implied the involvement of civilians in their own defence activities which were part of a coordinated military response, including the logistics and infrastructure of survival. These efforts involved a wide variety of activities including coordinated evacuation plans, emergency first response, and skills preparation such as firefighting. Such large-scale planning, however, required government support, which was not forthcoming.[9] In 1951, the Department of National Defence argued that civil defence fell outside of their mandate and it was consequently shuttled to the Department of National Health and Welfare.[10] At this point it was becoming increasing clear that in order to even get close to the volunteer recruitment numbers required, publicity materials were necessary. One element of this publicity campaign was the development of a civil defence education campaign featuring a series of propaganda posters. Developed by the Internal Services Division of the Department of National Health and Welfare during the mid-1950s, the Canadian poster campaign featured the cartoon mascots of civil defence, Bea Alerte and Justin Case [Figure 1].


6 Andrew Burtch, Give Me Shelter: The Failure of Canada’s Cold War Civil Defence (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012), 156.
7 Laura McEnaney, Civil Defense Begins as Home: Militarization Meets Everyday Life in the Fifties (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 41
8 Burtch, 1.
9 This issue is illustrated in this article detailing an interview between Worthington and a reporter in 1951: “Speed Up Civil Defence or Kill It- Worthington,” The Gazette (Montreal, QC), Aug. 30, 1951, https://www.newspapers.com/image/419738283/.
10 Burtch, 41



Figure 3. Source: Canadian Civil Defence Museum and Archives  “You Can’t Avert Disaster by Ignoring it…!”,  Poster, 1950’s.

Each of the civil defence posters in the series presents the viewer with a comic scenario – typically, a sequence of disastrous events that might occur if the lessons of Bea Alerte and Justin Case are ignored. Along with their foils – a hapless and scruffy looking blond-haired woman and red-haired man – Bea Alerte and Justin Case offer a particular representation of Canadian identity. Based on a letter sent by F.F. Worthington to all Provincial Civil Defence Coordinators asking for feedback on four posters and six ink blotter designs featuring the cartoon characters, the series was most likely developed and distributed in the latter half of 1954.[23] A 1955 memo from the Distribution Section of the ISD to H.W. Adams, then information director of Civil Defence Canada, describes the arrival of tens of thousands of copies of the posters in French; it seems a large number were distributed in both anglophone and francophone regions.[24]  Some communities, however, were limited in their access to civil defence messaging. Correspondence between the Ontario and Federal Civil Defence Coordinators reveals the rejection, due to resource constraints, of a request to produce materials accessible to Italian, German, Dutch, Ukrainian, Polish, and Scandinavian communities in metropolitan Toronto.[25] This is one example of how certain groups were marginalized in civil defence planning due to the inaccessibility of materials and training.

The illustrative style of the posters relies on graphic cartooning, a visual technique commonly deployed to convey humor and satire. In a 1954 letter addressed to F.F. Worthington from C.R. Stein, Civil Defence Coordinator for British Columbia, Stein expresses his apprehension about the proposed designs due to their “jocular” tone, arguing that the lighthearted approach may be “slightly dangerous and may even prove to be a boomerang”[26]. It is not clear why designers chose this humorous style, but one can speculate it was meant to diffuse the panic and fear the public may have felt in the face of atomic uncertainty.


Disaster May Never Occur Here

Figure 4. Source: Canadian Civil Defence Museum and Archives, “DisasterMay Never Occur Here Poster”, 1950’s.


“Disasters Occur In Peacetime Too. Don’t Wait For War….”

Figure 5. Source: Canadian Civil Defence Museum and Archives, “Disasters Occur In Peacetime Too. Don’t Wait For War….”, 1950’s.

In postwar Canada, citizenship was a highly contested category.[27] The Bea Alerte and Justin Case campaign provides a perspective into how Canadian civil defence programming imagined and produced good citizenship: it was a lesson in obligation to collective security as nation building. This approach has a precursor in World War I propaganda campaigns where the relationship between nation building and militarization became cemented. As argued by James (2009), in his comparative study of visual culture and World War I propaganda posters, graphic messaging reflected new developments in military technologies while persuading and cultivating public support of war efforts. Visual communication reflected national interests but also drove modernization via preparedness activities. The message of war was one of economic development and nation-building: “through the viewing of posters, factory work, agricultural work, and domestic work, the consumption and conservation of goods, and various kinds of leisure all became emblematic of one’s national identity and one’s place within a collective effort to win the war. It was in part by looking at posters that citizens learned to see themselves as members of the home front”.[28] Modernity married nation building with good citizenship in the pursuit of the war effort. Graphic messaging in Canada during the Cold War similarly reflected and produced particular social, cultural, and political norms. One can analyze the Bea Alerte and Justin Case posters for the visual metaphors that reveal identity formation as elements of modern state building.  

Citizenship is not a static category and during the intense period of post-war modernization in Canada, national belongings were constituted at the nexus of race, class, gender, and sexuality. The white, middle-class, nuclear family, was the imagined household ideal, headed by the working man as universal citizen. Despite the many women who had taken on factory work in World War II due to men’s conscription, the Cold War period of modernity returned the belief that a woman’s sphere of influence was in the home.[29] 

F.F. Worthington, the lead civilian advisor to Civil Defence Canada beginning in the late 1940’s, was a retired Major General and thirty plus year veteran of both World Wars`[32]. Some scholars have argued that he and his wife Clara – known as “Larry” Worthington – were the archetypes for the creation of Bea Alerte and Justin Case characters[33]. Certainly, the Worthington’s were a typical example of the kind of family who embodied the ideals of the white nuclear family, fulfilling postwar expectations of Canadian citizenship. Worthington conformed to culturally determined perceptions of the military veteran as the embodiment of the ideal male citizen.[34] His spouse Clara embodied the feminized ideal: she was a mother, homemaker, and military wife, maintaining the domestic sphere while Worthington dedicated his service to the country.[35] 

While the link between the Worthingtons and the cartoon mascots of Civil Defense Canada are speculative, one can analyze the posters for how Bea Alerte and Justin Case represent and reproduce certain citizenship roles. The purposeful naming of the characters is the first indication of what these roles might be – Justin Case’s activities are more action oriented – his motto is to “be ready”, whereas Bea Alerte’s message is one of watchful caution. The visual address of the poster campaign is one of pedagogical instruction – the correct behaviour is modeled for the viewer, invoking an identification with the characters who sign off their exhortations with their names in handwritten font. The subtle appearance of the Civil Defence Canada logo on Bea Alerte’s handbag [Figure 1, 6] and Justin Case’s sweater [Figure 1, 2, 3, 4,5] literally brands them as representatives of the nation.



Figure 6.  Source: Canadian Civil Defence Museum and Archives, “Civil Defence Depends On You”, 1950’s.



Figure 7.  Source: Canadian Civil Defence Museum and Archives, “It’s Sound Insurance”, 1950’s.

One can see a similar dichotomy between the “good” and “bad” citizen in the graphic illustrations of Justin Case and the red-haired man. These characters provide cues as to desired forms of masculinity.

In the poster series, Justin Case is depicted as being in control, calmly assessing each risky situation and drawing on his preparedness skills to take the right action. His objectivity is contrasted by the behaviours of the red-haired man, who often appears to be absent-minded, irrational, and oblivious (sleeping under a coconut tree in Figure 5, for example). Masculine ideals paralleled the modern emphasis on rationality and progress, with unintended and complex consequences. Some argue that middle-class domestic aspirations robbed men of a perceived “rugged masculinity.”[44] This paradox is communicated graphically in the poster depicting Justin and his counterpart about to mount horses [Figure 7]. Justin’s confidence is a stark contrast to his companion who has a pillow tied to his backside in anticipation of falling off. Whereas Justin seems to have mastered the dichotomy between domestication and wildness, comfortable with all the tasks that might be required of the masculine ideal in a civil defence crisis, the red-haired man is depicted as the antithesis of bravery, capability, and resilience.

Like the relationship between Bea and the blond woman, Justin’s facial characteristics reveal him as the red-haired man’s senior. He often performs the role of an advisor, which could be interpreted as paternalistic or fatherly. Furthermore, their age difference may imply something about the histories of these two men.[45] In the postwar climate, the male veteran was often considered the pinnacle of Canadian society, their military service framed as the ultimate service to the country and an act of exemplary citizenship.[46] Since the Bea Alerte and Justin Case poster series was created in the early 1950’s and circulated for a number of years, the red-haired man may have been too young to have fought in World War II. Justin Case, on the other hand, could speculatively be old enough to be a veteran of the either the first or second World Wars, further cementing his status as embodying many of the ideals of normative masculinity during the postwar period in Canada.


41 Dummit, 2.
42 Ibid., 17.
43 Ibid., 2.
44 Ibid., 5.
45 Robert Rutherdale, “New ‘Faces’ for Fathers: Memory, Life-Writing, and Fathers as Providers in the Postwar Consumer Era,” in Creating Postwar Canada: Community, Diversity, and Dissent, 1945-75, ed. Magda Fahrni and Robert Rutherdale (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008), 241-267.
46 Dummitt, 30.


About the Exhibit

This digital exhibition was created by Executive Director and Founder Fred Armbruster of the Canadian Civil Defence Museum


This material was produced with the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 

We would like to acknowledge The Canadian Civil Defence Museum and Archives: Canada’s Cold War Museum for permissions for source materials. We also want to acknowledge Fred Armbruster as new artist, as he digitized the full collection. The collection now fully remastered gives Fred Armbruster the full copyrights on all Canadian Civil Defence Posters.

Exhibit planning team

Fred Armbruster

Trent Holmes

Rights statement

The Canadian Civil Defence Museum and Archives and Fred Armbruster are the rights holders for digital images in this exhibition.


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