Open Letter to the Minister of National Defence

The Honourable Harjit S. Sajjan, P.C., M.P.
Minister of National Defence
Government of Canada

Dear Minister:

There are many forts across Canada that we no longer use for military purposes including the Fortress of Louisburg in Nova Scotia, Fort Chambly in Quebec, Fort Henry in Ontario, Fort Garry in Manitoba, and Fort St. James in British Columbia.  Please note that all of these forts are national historical sites, and also popular tourist destinations.  People are fascinated by military history which make forts particularly popular places to visit.

As you know, the most recent military fortress to be abandoned in Canada is also the best fortified.  The Underground NORAD Complex is a sprawling, three-story, modern-day fortress located 600 feet 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 for a month following a nuclear attack.  It housed a NORAD Command Centre which protected North America from attack by the former Soviet Union.  Due to its historical importance, the Complex has been designated as a “Classified Federal Heritage Building” by the National Historic Sites Directorate, Parks Canada.

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 is currently sitting vacant.

As the Complex is a military installation of global historic importance, and as every other vacated military fort in Canada has been designated as a national historic site, I submitted an application in 2019 to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC), Parks Canada, for the Complex to be designated as a national historic site. 

In its Criteria, General Guidelines & Specific Guidelines, the HSMBC sets out criteria for designating a place as a national historic site.  In particular, it states that:

A place may be designated of national historic significance by virtue of a direct association with a nationally significant aspect of Canadian history. An archaeological site, structure, building, group of buildings, district, or cultural landscape of potential national historic significance will:

a) illustrate an exceptional creative achievement in concept and design, technology and/or planning, or a significant stage in the development of Canada; or

d) be most explicitly and meaningfully associated or identified with events that are deemed of national historic importance.

Clearly, the Complex satisfies these two criteria.  It is without a doubt an exceptional achievement in concept, design, and technology.  How many other buildings in Canada are designed to withstand a nuclear blast?  More important, the facility is explicitly and meaningfully associated with a historical era that is of national historic significance.  It was ground zero in the most dangerous military conflict the world has ever seen, the Cold War against the former Soviet Union.  It is where Canada helped to maintain world peace by preventing nuclear war.  History does not get any more momentous. 

Readers might think that a remarkable military facility with global historical importance would easily qualify for designation as a national historic site, but they would be wrong.  The HSMBC only proceeds with the evaluation of a site once the consent of the owners has been secured.  Parks Canada duly sought permission from the Department of National Defence (DND).  I was informed by the Executive Director of the Cultural Heritage Directorate at Parks Canada that the DND would not grant its consent.  No reason was given.

I am sure that there is a very good reason why the DND withheld consent, I just cannot imagine what it is.  Every other vacated military fort in Canada has been designated as national historic site.  Designation is honorary in nature and commemorative in intent.  It does not affect ownership of the site, provide legal protection to the site, nor does it give the public a right of access to the site.  All that generally happens is that a commemorative bronze plaque is installed. 

The DND has expressed concern 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 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 the Ministry of Heritage or Parks Canada, the DND could be assured that all required security measures are being implemented. 

As Minister of National Defence, please tell Canadians why a vacant military facility located 600 feet underground cannot be designated as a national historic site?  I call on the DND to consent to having the Underground NORAD Complex designated as a national historic site.

As you know, the DND has declared that the Complex is surplus to its needs, and recently announced plans to decommission the facility.  Likely, it will be allowed to flood.  Section 6.1.10 of the federal government’s Treasury Board Policy on Management of Real Property provides that:

6.1.10 Where their minister has administration of heritage buildings: conservation advice is sought for recognized heritage buildings; consultations with Parks Canada are undertaken before demolishing, dismantling or selling a recognized heritage building and before taking any action that could affect the heritage character of a classified building; and best efforts are made to arrange for appropriate alternative uses of under-utilized or excess classified and recognized heritage buildings, first within the federal government and then outside the federal government.

As Minister of National Defence, please tell Canadians why a “Classified Federal Heritage Building” with global historical significance is being demolished and allowed to flood?  Further, please tell Canadians what consultations the DND held with Parks Canada about demolishing the Complex and allowing it to flood.  As well, please tell Canadians about the efforts that 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 could be developed into a national historic site or a national park by Parks Canada.  Alternatively, it could be developed into a national museum – perhaps a Museum of Modern History – by the Ministry of Heritage.  

As Minister of National Defence, please champion the Underground NORAD Complex.  Talk to Ron Hallman, President & Chief Executive Officer of Parks Canada, about developing the Complex into a national historic site or park.  Talk to the Honourable Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Canadian Heritage, about developing the Complex into a federal museum. 

It is time for the Government of Canada to 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. 

Other readers, please add your voice to this campaign.  Contact 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 that you support this initiative.  The government will only act if there is demonstrated support.

Follow this campaign on Twitter at @NoradComplex, on Facebook, or at the Underground NORAD Complex blog.

Yours sincerely,

Trevor Schindeler
Campaign to Save the Underground NORAD Complex
North Bay, Ontario

About the Underground NORAD Complex

Goal of this Campaign

The goal of this campaign is to have the Canadian government commission a feasibility study into preserving the Underground NORAD Complex in North Bay, Ontario, and developing it into a tourist destination as a national historic site, park or museum. 

NATO, NORAD and the Cold War

Until recently, the Underground NORAD Complex was a secret military installation, so most Canadians have no knowledge of its existence.  However, for over four decades it was Canada’s most important military site.  While operational, hundreds of Canadian and American military and civilian personnel worked in the Complex seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day protecting North America against an attack by the former Soviet Union.  

Following the end of World War II, the development of nuclear weapons led to a tense military stand-off between the “West” (including the United States, Canada, and several Western European countries) and the communist Soviet Union.  This is commonly referred to as the “Cold War”.  In 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed to provide collective security against the Soviet Union.  In 1957, in response to the increasing threat of a nuclear attack, the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) was formed to provide enhanced aerospace surveillance and defence.  NORAD put the Canadian air force and the United States air force under a joint command structure. 

The Underground NORAD Complex

Construction of the Complex began in August of 1959, and was completed in September of 1963 at a total cost of $51 million.  Taking inflation into account, it would cost over $500 million to build the facility today.  One-third of the cost was paid by Canada, and two-thirds was paid by the United States.  It was and remains a remarkable architectural achievement!

The Complex is a sprawling, three-story, modern-day fortress.  It is located 600 feet (183 meters) below Canadian Forces Base North Bay.  The depth is equivalent to a 60-story building.  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 explosion.  It is accessed through two portals connected by a three-kilometer tunnel large enough to drive a bus through.  The tunnel was designed to allow a nuclear blast to blow through one portal and out the other without damaging the Complex.  The South Portal sits on the shores of Trout Lake.  The North Portal is situated within CFB North Bay.

The “Main Installation” housed the air defence facilities including a Command Centre, an Intelligence Centre, a National Civil Defence Warning Centre, briefing rooms, a telephone switching network large enough to handle a town of 30,000 people, and an enormous Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) computer system. As well, it had other amenities including living facilities, barber shop, medical centre, gym, cafeteria, and chaplain’s office. The Complex was designed to remain functional while sealed up during a nuclear war. The “Power Cavern” provided an independent source of electrical power, water, and fresh air for up to four weeks while cut off from the outside world.

SAGE was a massive computer system that linked all parts of the Canadian and American air defence system including command and control centres, radar sites, air fields, and headquarters.  It provided for the high-speed detection and identification of aircraft, and the interception of unknown, suspicious and hostile aircraft.  Fully fuelled and fully armed jet fighters stood ready at air force bases across Canada and the United States.  Air crews were expected to scramble and be in the air within seven minutes of detecting a suspicious or hostile aircraft.

Ground Zero

Canada was in the unfortunate geographic position of lying directly between the United States and the Soviet Union – the two major Cold War adversaries.  If the conflict had turned “hot”, Canada would have become the primary battleground.  Soviet bombers carrying nuclear weapons, and later Soviet missiles, would have crossed Canadian airspace to reach the American cities, military bases and industrial installations being targeted.  Meanwhile, U.S. interceptors would have swarmed Canadian airspace to shoot down any attackers. 

With construction of the Complex, North Bay became “ground zero” in the most dangerous military conflict the world has ever seen.  For this reason, it may be Canada’s most important military heritage site.  It is where Canada helped to maintain world peace by preventing nuclear war.  Due to its historical importance, the Complex has been designated as a “Classified Federal Heritage Building” by the National Historic Sites Directorate, Parks Canada. 

Current Situation

With development of the hydrogen bomb and advanced missile technology, NORAD has determined that keeping air defence operations underground no longer serves a viable military purpose.  In 2006 it moved its air defence operations above ground.  The facility has been sitting vacant since then.  The Department of National Defence (DND) has recently announced plans to decommission the Complex.  As the Complex lies below the Trout Lake water table, it is likely that the pumps will be turned off and the facility will be allowed to flood. 

Why Preserve the Underground NORAD Complex?

Why is it important to preserve the Underground NORAD Complex?  Primarily because it is an extraordinary heritage site with enormous historical importance.  We should protect heritage buildings, not flood them.  However, beyond the value of maintaining a remarkable building that represents an important era of Canadian history, it would educate both Canadians and foreign visitors about the continuing dangers of nuclear war.  The threat of nuclear war has never gone away, and in recent years it has increased.  However, it is difficult for people to comprehend the danger that nuclear war represents.  There is no better way to appreciate the magnitude of the threat than by visiting the Complex and seeing the nuclear blast doors in person.  It makes it all very real.

At a minimum, the Complex should be preserved.  However, the Canadian government could develop it into a world-class tourist destination that could draw visitors from across Canada and around the world.  Parks Canada could develop it into a national historic site or park.  Heritage Canada could develop it into a national museum, perhaps a Museum of Modern History.  Visitors could access the Complex, which is built into a hill covered by hundreds of acres of forest, through the South Portal which faces the picturesque shores of Trout Lake.  The possibilities as a tourist destination are only limited by our imagination. 

This campaign calls on the Government of Canada to commission a feasibility study into preserving the Underground NORAD Complex, and developing it into a tourist destination as a national historic site, park or museum.