“It’s a neat thing to look at,” says Claire Bryden, referring to the air raid siren near the corner of Dundas St. W. and Shaw St., a remnant of Toronto’s age of atomic anxiety. The sturdy, horn-shaped siren rests on a rusting column on the property of Bellwoods Centres for Community Living.
Few of these Cold War relics, which would alert the population to an imminent nuclear attack, remain in Toronto. One siren resides atop the York Quay Centre at Harbourfront. Others, like the one on Ward’s Island, disappear when buildings get new roofs.
Today, no one claims ownership of the surviving sirens. Call the City of Toronto and they refer you to the province. Call the province and they refer you to the Department of National Defence. Call the Department of National Defence and they refer you to … the city.
But Claire Bryden is happy to take possession of the one at Dundas and Shaw. Bryden is executive-director of the Bellwoods Centres, which provide homes for people with physical disabilities. The air raid siren, overlooked for decades, suddenly became of interest during construction of a new building. Because it was in the middle of the Bellwoods Park House property, which straddles old Garrison Creek (now flowing through an underground culvert), the siren had to be moved or removed altogether. A new public path, part of a Discovery Walk daytime urban trail from Fort York to Christie Pits, will go through the property right where the siren was.
What to do with the towering artifact? “Rather than throw it away, we decided it’s a piece of historical memorabilia,” says Bryden, who recalls air-raid-siren practice in her childhood. “It gives character, and we don’t see too many around.”
Happily, the architect for the new building, David Warne, an associate at Levitt Goodman Architects Ltd., was of similar mind. He thought the air raid siren should be cleaned up and preserved as a piece of urban archaeology. “At the corner of the property, it could be something of a landmark,” he says. “Lots of people are fascinated by older technologies, dead tech, a romanticized idea of the industrial era. It’s a piece of history that’s interesting.”
It took Warne about a week of calling department after department to find out who – nobody, it turns out – was responsible for disconnected sirens. “I called the City of Toronto Office of Emergency Management and they sent me to Emergency Management Ontario, who sent me to Public Safety Canada, and they sent me to DND, who got me the name of a captain. He was in charge of air raid sirens all over Canada. He seemed like an older gentleman who had been around at the time.
“He asked me to describe the thing, and when I did, he said, `Oh, that’s where that one was,’ and proceeded to tell me that in the ’70s they swept Ontario of all of these, and this one flew under the radar. They missed it because trees surrounded it.
“I asked him if it was `hot,’ and he said it had been disconnected. I asked if we could keep it there, and he said, `I don’t care.’
“We wanted to do it, because it’s such a beautiful object and takes the story all the way around.”
Andrew Burtch, an historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa who’s writing his PhD dissertation on civil defence in Canada post-1945, tells the beginning of the story. After World War II, an increasingly aggressive Soviet Union was causing anxiety in Western Europe and North America, and talk turned to evacuating cities in case of an atomic attack. As a 1956 U.S. report on evacuation warned, fearfully: “There is only one way to survive under nuclear attack: Don’t be there … to stay will be suicide.”
Canada decided to develop a “passive defence system,” loosely based on the model Londoners used during the blitz – warning systems, volunteer rescue and firefighting.
The three levels of government agreed to take responsibility for civil defence. But, says Burtch, “municipal governments didn’t attend the 1951 co-ordinating meeting, and it created a long and public dispute on where responsibility for survival lay. Each side pointed to the other as being responsible.”
Civil defence was chaotic and controversial in Toronto in the 1950s. The federal government delivered sirens to Toronto in 1952, but they gathered dust in storage for four or five years, because the city refused to pay for installation, insisting it was a federal and provincial responsibility.
In 1954, a city controller suggested that instead of air raid sirens, two light aircraft rigged with loudspeakers be sent up as a warning system in the event of an attack. Civic leaders were further incensed later that year when a defence official said Toronto was not one of the “vital points” in Canada to be defended if the country was invaded.
In 1956, the civil defence organization still hadn’t erected the sirens, but it did spend $400 for teacups and saucers for refreshments for volunteers who might appreciate some refreshments after a night’s training. (In 1959, Canada had 279,320 civilian volunteers drawn from the Legion, veterans and other community groups. “Everybody wanted uniforms and helmets,” Burtch says. “They wanted to be recognized. But most typically they got an armband.”)
When the sirens were finally installed, many were defective – a problem with the wiring. And in 1959, the question of the need for an air raid siren on the Toronto Islands was raised. “Where on earth would the residents go?” the mayor of Leaside asked. A 1961 Canada-wide air raid drill led many Torontonians to complain they couldn’t hear the sirens; others griped that the sirens woke their children.
“By 1967 civil defence was fighting for its life,” says Burtch. Then, in the 1970s, the threat of a nuclear attack began to decline, and with the development of new technologies – high-speed missiles and the like – the usefulness of a warning system diminished. Practical warning time went from three to five hours in the 1950s to less than 15 minutes in the missile age, Burtch notes.
Responsibility for remaining air raid sirens – some of which are listed in The Siren Archive website (www.jmarcoz.com/sirens/sirenarchive.htm) – is as murky now as it was in the beginning.
“The province owned the air raid sirens,” says a city hall official.
“Public Safety Canada might be a source of information – that’s all I can tell you,” says someone at the province.
“The sirens were owned by the cities,” says a spokesperson for the Department of National Defence.