Underground NORAD Complex became “ground zero” during Cold War

Familiarity is said to breed contempt; what is familiar, fails to impress.  The Department of National Defence (DND) appears to have succumbed to this psychological syndrome.  It has recently announced plans to decommission the Underground NORAD Complex.  The Complex may be Canada’s most significant military heritage site.  It is certainly the most fortified.  You can be forgiven for not knowing about this military facility.  Until recently, it was a secret military installation. 

The Complex is a sprawling, three-story, modern-day fortress built under 600 feet of solid granite directly below Armed Forces Base North Bay.  Built to withstand a direct hit by a 4-megaton nuclear blast, and protected by three 19-ton steel blast doors, it was designed to provide life support for 400 people following a nuclear attack.  The Complex became “ground zero” in the most dangerous military conflict the world has ever seen, the Cold War.  Lying between the United States and the former Soviet Union, it is where Canada maintained world peace by preventing nuclear war.  Does history get more momentous?

With development of the hydrogen bomb and advanced missile technology, NORAD determined that the Complex no longer serves a viable military purpose.  In 2006 it moved its air defence operations above ground.  The Complex has been declared surplus and is currently sitting vacant.  Likely, the DND will demolish the facility and allow it to flood.

Due to its historical importance, the Complex has been designated as a “Classified Federal Heritage Building” by the National Historic Sites Directorate.  Section 6.1.10 of the federal government’s Treasury Board Policy on Management of Real Property provides that Parks Canada must be consulted before a heritage building is dismantled or demolished.  Further, it provides that best efforts must be made to find an appropriate alternative use for the property.

The DND has not indicated that it has consulted with Parks Canada about demolishing the Complex as required by law, nor has it told Canadians about the efforts it has made to find appropriate alternative uses for the Complex.  I suspect that no meaningful consultations were held, and that no serious efforts have been made to find appropriate alternative uses for the Complex.

The Complex is a remarkable one-of-a-kind structure that would cost over $500 million to build today.  It has enormous potential as a tourist destination.  It could be developed into a national historic site or park by Parks Canada.  Alternatively, it could be developed into a national museum – perhaps a Museum of Modern History – by the Ministry of Heritage. 

The Complex is built into a hill covered by hundreds of acres of forest.  It is accessed through two portals connected by a three-kilometer tunnel large enough to drive a bus through.  Visitors could access the facility through the South Portal located on the picturesque shores of Trout Lake.  Upon reaching the nuclear blast doors, visitors could be taken on a tour of the facility including the Command Centre were NORAD personnel surveyed the northern hemisphere for incoming Soviet missiles.  The Command Centre became the prototype for high-tech military command centres seen in countless movies and TV shows. 

The DND has expressed security concerns about transferring the Complex to a “third party” due to its location below an active military base and NORAD facility.  It is difficult to imagine, however, what enemy agents might do from 600 feet below ground that they could not more easily do from the public parking lot next to the new NORAD Command Centre.  Further, as the “third party” would be another department of the federal government, either Parks Canada or the Ministry of Heritage, the DND could be assured that all required security measures are being implemented. 

The federal government should at least commission a feasibility study into preserving the Complex and developing it into a tourist destination as a national historic site, park, or museum – before the DND floods it.  This is a reasonable request. 

If you agree that this extraordinary Canadian heritage site should be preserved, please email Nipissing–Timiskaming MP Anthony Rota at Anthony.Rota@parl.gc.ca, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at pm@pm.gc.ca, and let them know.