In 1959, the builders of Regency Acres, a 700-home subdivision in Aurora, Ontario, offered something no other homebuilder in the country could: a private, family-sized nuclear fallout shelter.
The shelters at Regency Acres were the first to be offered as a standard feature of a new home in the Greater Toronto Area. One of the prevailing fears of the time was that the Soviet Union would drop an atomic bomb somewhere over the United States (maybe even Canada,) obliterating a city and raining toxic radioactive ash over the surrounding hundreds of kilometres. Naturally, the Soviets’ ability to instantly and completely destroy anything with a given 35 square kilometre radius spooked the United States and Canada. A year before a plane dropped the Tsar Bomba, the Canadian government under Prime Minister John G.
An example of the country’s official fallout shelter design was built at Queen’s Park, near the corner of University and College. Ernest Tate, a 26-year-old stationary engineer, painted “Ban the Bomb” in brown paint across the south side of the shelter in July 1960. A month later, the Combined University Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament protested at the shelter on the 15th anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb.
Despite the protests, Prime Minister Diefenbaker said “each and all of us” should build a shelter.
It was true: no fallout shelter could shield its occupants from the power of a nuclear explosion. Toronto and Canada’s nuclear preparations were tested later that year during a mock nuclear attack called Tocsin B.
Defence Minister Douglas Harkness watched with his cabinet from a cramped nuclear shelter in Petawawa, Ontario as the country was blasted into oblivion. Responding to a recent Canadian Institute of Public Opinion poll that found 36 per cent of Canadians believed a Soviet attack was imminent—and that the majority population had little idea of what action to take in an atomic blast—Wallace Goforth and Sidney Katz sketched how such an attack might play out in Maclean’s (June 15, 1951).
In the first wave, a fleet of more than 50 Soviet bombers would, in a pre-dawn surprise attack, pepper major North America cities and targets—including nine Canadian targets identified as high-value. Toronto officials were among the first in Canada to recognize the need for local disaster planning to address the new threats of the atomic age. Tasked with developing a plan outlining a response to the possibility of atomic weapons being dropped on Toronto, Mann worked from Canadian and British wartime civil defence manuals and American resources, as Andrew Burtch explains in his just-published and invaluable history of Cold War Canada, Give Me Shelter (UBC Press, 2012).

Despite a lack of cohesive leadership from the various levels of government, the Canadian public was anxious for information about seemingly imminent Soviet attacks and how to respond. In an early attempt to raise public awareness, in March 1952 the federal government exhibited at the Canadian National Sportsmen’s Show in Toronto. The first generation of plans to respond to a nuclear attack called for the orderly evacuation of major centres—including Toronto—based on the assumption that any attack would come by manned bombers and be detected by early warning systems.
In these early years of the atomic age, Anne Fisher argues in her masters thesis on Cold War civil defence in Canada, nuclear bombs had been discussed in terms of conventional weapons.
The continuous technological improvement in warfare also meant that the USSR could deliver nuclear payloads by intercontinental missile, virtually eliminating any opportunity for early warning detection. Bomb shelters had long fascinated the public and public displays were common, even before the federal government officially encouraged private citizens to build their own basement and backyard shelters through the publication and distribution of millions of information booklets on the topic.
In August 1955, more than 60,000 visitors inspected a functional, above-ground bomb shelter erected outside Old City Hall by the Telegram.
The McCallum family was certainly more upbeat in September 1961 when they emerged from a fallout shelter outside the CBC headquarters after a week. Many Torontonians constructed fallout shelters, including Lady Eaton and mayor Nathan Phillips—who also had access to an underground operations centre for Metro officials beneath an Aurora farmhouse.
Crime writer Ted Wood was typical of the do-it-yourself bomb shelter enthusiasts in the Toronto suburbs. Many homeowners kept their shelters secret for fear of ridicule from apathetic neighbours; or they built decoy entrances to thwart neighbours who might, in the event of a nuclear emergency, try to storm their enclosure.
As with the evacuation plan, the utility of fallout shelters was soon surpassed by the rational acknowledgement of the realities of the atomic age. The fallout—the radioactive ash ejected by the explosion—would float on the wind, raining down toxic material over hundreds of kilometres. The exercise imagined what would happen if 12 major cities across the country were subject to a co-ordinated attack by surface-to-air nuclear missiles and bombs dropped from planes. Then, parachuting in, a second wave of commandos would blow up bridges, mines, communications lines, and industrial works to sabotage Canada’s ability to respond.
Efforts by some in local government to prepare the city and its citizens for possible nuclear holocaust were starved for lack of commitment and public funds.

And the blast of the newest hydrogen bombs, according to one expert quoted by Burtch, would leave a 16-kilometre-wide crater at ground zero, flatten everything in all directions for eight to 16 kilometres, and scatter radioactive fallout further still, depending on weather patterns. With prices ranging from $400 to $10,000, Maclean’s (December 2, 1961) reported, the majority of bomb shelters were built for upper-income professionals. Rather than being effective against radioactive fallout, Burtch notes, the likelihood was that shelters in or adjacent to major centres like Toronto would simply serve as tombs in the event of an attack.
A fallout shelter was built at 24 Sussex Drive by a government architect and a member of the Emergency Measures Organization. Fowler’s book Fallout published in the Toronto Star detailed in ghoulish detail the catastrophic horror that awaited a city struck by an atomic bomb. Federal efforts often amounted to little more than publicity campaigns, leaving it to citizens themselves to pursue do-it-yourself preparations like basement fallout shelters. As a new strategy, he suggested that Canadians—or at least those far enough from city centres to survive the initial blast—construct concrete-block shelters, outfitted with food and drink, sanitation equipment, bedding, and everything else to sustain themselves for an extended period. Although sources suggest that more fallout shelters were built in Toronto than elsewhere in Canada, because many were built secretly, there was never an accurate count of the number of shelters in the city, as Potter noted decades later. The scoffers will be the first to rush for my shelter, and that’s why I taught my wife to shoot—I may not be at home, and this is to protect my family. For just $1,500, Burtch reports, prospective owners could have an affordable, top-of-the-line basement shelter incorporated into the construction of their new home. Toronto Mayor Nathan Phillips also built a shelter in the basement of his Oriole Parkway home, a move that was met with a barrage of criticism. Dean, a lecturer and member of the University of Toronto’s Committee on Nuclear Disarmament, told the Globe and Mail later in the Tate story. What the city did investigate, however, was the idea of using the subway lines and Nathan Phillips Square parking garage as mass holding areas in the event of nuclear fallout reaching the city. Features of the shelter included 12-inch-thick, steel-lined concrete walls, bunk beds, and a hand-operated air filtration system, all kept behind the air-tight seal of a rolled, two-inch steel door.

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