Story by Adrian Brijbassi
CARP, ONTARIO — Edward Snowden had nothing on Igor Gouzenko.
Snowden’s leaks of classified information over the Internet has embarrassed the Barack Obama administration and the United States’ National Security Agency. It’s spurred unprecedented changes in the US government’s spying practices. That’s big. The repercussions of what Gouzenko did is even more immense. His actions, by many accounts, sparked the Cold War. That decades-long era of paranoia, subterfuge and xenophobia divided the world between east and west. It dominated politics and life in the last half of the 20th century.
Many historians say the standoff of civilizations began in Canada’s capital, where a man working at a job that was not dissimilar to Snowden’s position as a systems administrator for the NSA shocked the world. Gouzenko, a cipher clerk whose duty was to decode and encrypt messages for the Russian government, turned over 109 secret documents to Canadian authorities. He did it on September 5, 1945, declaring his adoration for Canada and his desire to defect. For several years, Gouzenko appeared at public hearings with a hood over his head, an unfortunate disguise that made this supporter of democracy appear like a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
The bizarre details of “The Gouzenko Affair” are documented in one of several exhibit rooms at The Diefenbunker, a museum unlike any museum.
When you descend into The Diefenbunker, the feeling that you’re walking into an X-Files episode may set in. A long, circular corridor resembling an aircraft hangar leads to the facility that was once a headquarters for Canada’s Cold War activity.
Warm Up to Canada’s Cold War Museum
Precious little has changed since the nation’s Department of Defence stopped using the facility in 1994. The Diefenbunker, so named because its creation began during the tenure of former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, is an odd place and it’s the oddities that make it so fascinating. It gives an insight into the nation’s tactics of subterfuge and reconnaissance, shedding light on activities that have gone on without public knowledge.
Rather than being dour and serious, The Diefenbunker embraces its quirkiness. There are themed holiday events — including a Valentine’s Day offering in the 1970’s-era cafeteria and a Halloween dance party amid hallways where once only government officials with the highest level of clearance were once allowed. A Zombie Adventure encourages visitors to go spooky as they explore the space. There was a whiskey-tasting event in November.
A museum since in 1998, The Diefenbunker has the unique characteristic of a time capsule. There’s discovery, charm and humour in the anachronism of the place. Still, it is a war museum first and foremost. That means there are horrific images, too, including photographs of the death and suffering incurred during those awful times when the Cold War turned hot with nuclear warfare.
Recently, The Diefenbunker was named a Canadian Signature Experience, attractions and activities designated by the Canadian Tourism Commission as culturally unique and significant. In my experience, these spots are among the best places visitors to Canada — and Canadians themselves — should visit. The Diefenbunker is certainly deserving of the honour and it is also the strangest member of the CSE collection.
You can buy ration packs, if you want. There are gift items from the ’70s and ’80s for sale. The rooms where so many decisions of importance were made look utterly inefficient compared to our high-tech society. Paper is everywhere, so-called “super computers” that did far less than whatever device you’re reading this article on take up hundreds of square feet in the museum, furniture pieces that appeared modern are utterly utilitarian — and uncomfortable.
It’s a walk back in history as much as it is a peek behind the secret world of the nation’s government. Like all good attractions, The Diefenbunker offers visitors both entertainment and an experience that truly is an eyeopener. Perhaps best of all, it will demonstrate to you how far we have progressed — and in more ways than one.
MORE ABOUT THE DIEFENBUNKER
Location: 3911 Carp Road, Carp, ON (see map below)
Getting There: From downtown Ottawa, travel west on Highway 417 (Trans-Canada Highway) and take Exit 144 toward Carp. After exiting, the museum is 25 kilometres (15 miles) on the left.
Admission: $14 for adults, $13 for seniors, $10 for university students, $8 for youths 6-18 years of age; $40 for families
View Larger Map