Note: This documentary includes archival audio, and is best understood by listening.
Unidentified voice This is actually very, very cool. Look at it. I wish I had a geiger counter.
Melony Ward Hear that? That’s the sound of me and my family walking in an underground tunnel. It’s dark. It’s freezing cold. The tunnel is lined with corrugated steel. There’s light at the end. It’s longer than a football field. Very much a Fallout vibe.
It’s the entrance to the Diefenbunker, a top-secret underground safehouse. It was built by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in the late 1950s. Top government officials could hop on the train across the street from Parliament, arrive at that same blast tunnel, and live underground. Why did Canada need a safehouse for its leaders? Ten years earlier — in August 1949 — the Soviet Union secretly tested its first atomic bomb. This was the Cold War.
I’m Melony Ward, publisher at Canada’s History. I have developed a fascination with the history of technology. Especially innovations that have led to the communications technology we have today.
During the Second World War and Cold War, governments around the world were chasing a technological advantage. The innovations came fast. And they were enormous. Going to the Diefenbunker and seeing all these old-fashioned radio transmitters — huge oscilloscopes, radio and radar equipment — this may sound weird, but it reminded me of my kitchen growing up. We had those machines scattered around the house.
In the late 1950s, my father was a sector superintendent for radar technology in the Arctic. He was in Cape Dyer, Baffin Island. In what is now Nunavut. He managed the biggest station on the Distant Early Warning Line, a Cold War radar defense network.
Today, we take our wireless tech for granted, watch cat videos, text friends, hail an UBER, no matter where we are. It’s the water we swim in. Wireless technology has its roots in military applications, that were all about surveillance. So, let’s get back to those Cold War roots....
Archive clip, Knowlton Nash, CBC It’s plainly stated here, the United States is going to the brink of war...All American military forces around the world are on a special alert tonight, including the Strategic Air Command.
Melony Ward The US and the Soviet Union never actually declared war on each other. They knew if one side pressed the nuclear button, the other would too. There was an acute tension in the air. It felt like World War Three could be tipped off at any moment. And worse, there was a fear it could be triggered by accident. Like one Friday morning in November 1979. A computer signal set off alarms at NORAD headquarters. It showed the launch of Soviet missiles. Canada and the US prepped their bombers for a counterattack.
Archive clip, George McLean, CBC A faulty computer signal which triggered a missile scare at NORAD headquarters in Colorado has the Soviet Union in an uproar. Today the Soviet news agency TASS says another computer error could have irreparable consequences for the entire world. Brian Stewart has more
Archive clip, Brian Stewart, CBC Just before 11 o’clock Friday morning, air defence computers flashed a clear message. Soviet missiles had been launched. Target: North America. Two Canadian and eight American interceptors were immediately scrambled. And strategic bombers were about to go, when the error was spotted, within six minutes.
Melony Ward The world had been on the edge of a full-scale nuclear war and only a handful of people knew it. The error was discovered in a matter of minutes and disaster averted. But there was a real fear that the world could have ended. I remember feeling that nuclear war was inevitable.
Archive clip, CBC Ottawa, this is the DO, how are you reading me now? Ottawa, read you fine square Right, there are some breaks in the DEW line the Commander is just checking. Commander in Chief, Sir, this is the Commander, Northern. I’ve been advised by intelligence section there are some breaks in the Distant Early Warning line in the Eastern portion near Greenland.
Melony Ward That’s from a film NORAD made about what nuclear doomsday would look like from the control centre. The military commander is so calm, analytical.
Archive clip A strength of 12 unknown objects, assumed to be hostile. Meanwhile, DO, I understand that we have received the nuclear authority from the Canadian government. Good, check out the authentication. Got ours....looks like we’re in business.
Melony Ward The two sides of the Cold War had an unspoken agreement. Not to trivialize, but it makes me think of two kids –– you don’t knock my sand castle down, and I won’t knock yours down. Except with bombs. The world would stay safe and secure because of the nuclear arsenal. No side would act first, because they knew the other side would respond with a bomb.
Archive clip, US Army The price of peace in this atomic era is strength, and constant readiness to defend ourselves and our homes from any aggression. A single blow can destroy the mightiest nation if the blow is allowed to fall.
Melony Ward The fact of mutually assured destruction was a kind of insurance against aggression. This is where the Distant Early Warning Line, or DEW line, came into to play.
Archive clip, AT&T Archives and History Centre The nation’s leaders decided on a tremendous undertaking. This was to build a radar early warning line north of the Arctic Circle. Starting at the northern most tip of Alaska, it would stretch 3000 miles across the continent to Baffin Island, opposite Greenland. Distant Early Warning Line, they named it. DEW Line it became.
Melony Ward The DEW line was built during a peak period of Cold War tension starting in the mid-1950s. A continental defence system; a string of radar stations that spanned North America, and later, Greenland and Iceland. The shortest route for a nuclear missile — from the USSR — to reach cities in the United States — was to take a path right over the North Pole. A path that required using Canadian airspace.
Archive clip, AT&T Archives and History What was once the impassable Arctic, now provides the quickest routes for attack from a wide sector of Europe and Asia.
Melony Ward If the Soviet Union launched atomic weapons using that shortcut, the DEW radar technicians would alert North American Aerospace Defense Command. That would give the US Air Force three to six hours warning to take defensive action. So, if the Arctic was so impassable, how did these huge Distant Early Warning stations get built?
Archive clip, AT&T Archives and History At the proposal to create such a line in that distant wilderness, old Arctic hands shook their heads in doubt. But the DEW line had to be built there. Men had to conquer that unknown frozen wasteland and transform it into a vital outpost of western civilization.
Melony Ward An unknown frozen wasteland? The contractors for the US Department of Defense considered the Arctic empty and an unthinkable place to live. But that southern view of the Arctic — it was false. Families have lived, worked, travelled, and prepared meals in the Arctic since time immemorial. I wanted to better understand DEW line stations and their effects in the Arctic during the Cold War.
The DEW was the largest, and most remote, construction project in North America at the time. Absolutely everything had to be brought from the south by sea or air. Every stick of wood, nails, tools, fuel, snowploughs, technical equipment. Tractors were even dropped by parachute. Design and construction were happening at the same time. They had two short Arctic summers to get it done. How did this mega project get built so quickly? What were its effects on the people who worked there, and who have always lived there?
I spoke with Matt Farish. He’s an associate professor at the University of Toronto and collaborator on the book “The Coldest War: A History of the Distant Early Warning Line.” I asked him, “Who built the DEW line?”
Matthew Farish This is one of the most compelling and complicated aspects of the story, I think, is the actual design, development, construction of the line. I think the simplest way to understand it is that it was a project of the United States Air Force in close relationship with Canadian government partners, that is then contracted out through a series of contracts and subcontracts down the line, so to speak. The key industrial or corporate actor is the Western Electric Company, which is the engineering arm of the massive Bell system that we are all still familiar with. And so Western Electric then goes out and subcontracts and arranges for a dizzying number of contracts of smaller firms, construction companies, transportation companies to get the materials up to the high Arctic and then actually have this built.
Melony Ward So what did these DEW line stations look like? Have you seen pictures of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome from Expo 67? Or Cinesphere at Ontario Place? They’re geodesic domes. The DEW stations had those domes too, before they became symbols of utopia. They looked like weird giant golf balls — alien space stations — just plopped on the land. They housed the radar equipment and kept it safe from the elements.
Matthew Farish They would often look like a cluster of low slung, seemingly temporary or pre-fabricated buildings. Some people referred to them as submarines. They look like trailers essentially. They are very simple in design and they would be clustered up, some distance from, not very far from a kind of major radar facility, complete with the famous radome, or golf ball that we associate with military radar.
Melony Ward The harsh climate and terrain required hundreds of people to move quickly. Matt said hundreds more were needed once the stations were up and running.
Matthew Farish They would be employees of the contractor who would come up for stints — six months or a year at a time, often — to work on the line across a small number of employment categories from radar technicians, to engineers, to the folks who actually maintained the property. It was a very small number at some of the secondary or tertiary stations — maybe four or five people sometimes. But then at these major stations, there would be more of a support staff. There would be labourers, this is where we see Indigenous labour as well, particularly young Inuit men working at certain stations.
Melony Ward And while the region was seen as uncharted territory by the military — there were, of course, long-standing communities in the Arctic. How did the DEW affect Indigenous lives, economies, and culture? Who is included in the DEW line narrative?
Matthew Farish There are interesting repercussions as people move off the land and into some of these new communities or communities that now have DEW line stations. There are complicated ripple effects across families as men leave seasonal work to move on to a DEW line station for work, and their partners and kids are not permitted on the station.
You might call it a “military modernization” piece, as a bringer of a certain kind of technology, but also, I think more importantly, a certain kind of normalized southern lifestyle carried by these southern employees who are coming up north and consuming certain kinds of food, and living on these stations and watching movies and so on that come into a relationship, a complicated series of relationships, with Indigenous lives in the North.
Melony Ward Inuit peoples helped build and operate the DEW stations. But their families, ways of life, and economies were terribly disrupted. Didn’t anyone think about this when the DEW was being planned?
Matthew Farish There is virtually no reference to northern people on the part of the US military or the US scientists who are thinking about the DEW line. But, in Canada the story is a little bit different, particularly because the federal government is grappling with complicated understandings of quote-unquote responsibility for Indigenous peoples in the North and elsewhere and so the DEW line enters into this stew of debates and discussions — many of them quite paternalistic but some of them more thoughtful. Once it was decided that this needed to be done and that it should be done, forget the costs, forget the effects on the land and the lives of people — it needs to be built. And the sort of sheer combination of hubris, and confidence, and determination, and shortsightedness as well about putting this in place. And it’s not at all to excuse any of it, but that determination overrode every other possible calculation of consequence.
Melony Ward Matt also told me about a sociologist from the late 1950s named JD Ferguson. The Canadian government sent him north along with a group of students to research the impact of the DEW on northern communities — communities that were primarily Indigenous.
Matthew Farish He understands the DEW line as being a significant piece of a huge change that is sweeping the North and really pointing out to his superiors and other people who are reading his reports back in Ottawa that as much as you like to talk about trying to limit the consequences of something like the DEW line on Northerners, it’s impossible.
Melony Ward So it’s not just in hindsight that we can recognize the damage the DEW caused to Indigenous peoples. There was recognition as early as the 1950s.
Matthew Farish My recollection is that he felt that his work was effectively shelved. Given that kind of Cold War national security imperative that seemed to overwhelm other kinds of concerns about civil rights, or about understanding the ripple effects in terms of economic and social life in northern communities. And so, this was a project that, in that Cold War logic of national security, had to be built—of continental defence—had to be built, and damn the consequences, frankly, at the end of the day.
Melony Ward The consequences were substantial. On lives, but also on the land.
Matthew Farish In the last couple of decades, there’s been an enormous attempt to clean up Northern radar facilities at a cost of something like 500 million dollars of our money, so the kind of uncanny echoes of this coming back in the latest versions of Northern militarization you have in particular contractors owned by or employing significant numbers of Indigenous to clean up the waste of the DEW line and other activity that was put down there in the 1950s.
Melony Ward In 1998, a year before the creation of Nunavut, CBC North reporter Timothy Sawa looked at the toxic legacy of the DEW line in Tuktoyaktuk.
Archive clip, Timothy Sawa, CBC All the building waste that was supposed to be buried is now being stored on site. Hundreds of huge orange metal transport containers line the area filled with the waste. Signs on the containers warn community residents: Danger. PCBs. An international study now shows that people in the Arctic are exposed to some of the highest levels of chemical contamination in the world. It found that Inuit children are at risk.
Melony Ward To understand the impact of military radar on a community, I talked to Barry Anderson, who lives in Makkovik, Newfoundland & Labrador. His community is next to a small radar station.
Barry Anderson My name is Barry Anderson and I’m from Makkovik, Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s a newly developed land-claim area in northern Labrador. I’m the AngajukKak, or mayor.
Melony Ward In his youth, he had lots of experience with the radar station down the road from his town.
Barry Anderson I was born and raised here in Makkovik. My dad and some of my uncles are also from here, worked and fished here all their lives, and would tell stories about the DEW line site. I’m also a Canadian ranger with the department of national defence. So I’m a master corporal at that organization. we do maintenance checks on the radar sites, that’s automated now on the north coast of Labrador now. And we do that bi-annually twice a year just to ensure the domes and everything is in place, there’s no rips, tears, things like that. Any damage, wind damage or things like that to sites we report back to North Bay, Ontario, that’s where the headquarters in Gander.
Melony Ward There’s still a military surveillance presence in the North — the North Warning System. Barry is part of that as a Canadian Ranger, part of the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve. He monitors the former gap radar site and has seen the environmental consequences.
Barry Anderson They’re still there. You see a whole bunch of little derricks that’s pumping fuel that was discarded by the Americans into the sand. The radar site at Hopedale, the next community north of here, ot had a major impact on the community there for sure, because it was right in tow and right to this day they can’t build in certain areas because of the tar and PCBs that’s discarded there. It’s too difficult to clean up, I guess. Young people would think it’s bedrock, but it’s just solid oil, on the rocks, on the ground up there, and the community is still dealing with it. There is a high incidence of cancer and stuff in the area so…it’s probably all from the same discarded PCBs and that kind of thing right?
Archive clip, US Army Two countries, working together to provide their own long-range defense. An unparalleled example of harmonious cooperation between sovereign nations.
Melony Ward Was everything and everyone really working together so harmoniously? I don’t think so. The DEW line clean-up was declared complete in 2014, but the environmental and community effects are still felt. There’s such myth making around the idea of the North. Snow laden, empty, untouched. That’s the idea of the North, but it’s not the lived history. It’s not the history of Barry Anderson and his community. It’s not the present of many communities that developed around, or had contact with, military radar installations. I went to visit someone else who spent a lot of time in the North. This time, a former DEW line worker from the south. Brian Jeffrey.
Melony Ward I’m just driving along Donald B Munro drive, out in the middle of a beautiful white snow field, past Farmland Road and then, all of a sudden there are these geodesic domes and they’re just there on the roadside. So, I’m pulling over to see what this is. It’s CSS Canadian Space Services limited, so apparently these geodesic domes still have a function. Aetheon... I’m going to get out of the car and see what’s going on. Fortunately they’ve plowed. This area is under 24-hour video surveillance. I don’t know, I may not be allowed in here.
After traipsing through a restricted area, I figured I’d better get out quickly. I drove another ten minutes to the home of Brian Jeffrey, just near the Diefenbunker in Carp, Ontario. He worked as a radar technician — or radician — on the DEW line in the early 1960s. We settled into his basement radio room, filled with memorabilia from the DEW line.
Brian Jeffrey This is my…I guess the term is man cave.
Melony Ward Nice man cave. It’s a nicer man cave than I’ve ever seen.
Brian Jeffrey It’s a ham shack.
Melony Ward I wondered: how does someone end up working at a radar base in the Arctic?
Brian Jeffrey I got sucked into going up there by my mother, who wanted to get rid of me I think. She found an ad in the paper. I was working at the National Research Council at the time, looking after a computer there, which was, turns out…
Melony Ward Very early computer. We’re talking 1957, so…
Brian Jeffrey This was the very first computer ever sold in Canada.
Melony Ward So what did you do on the DEW line?
Brian Jeffrey I was what was called a radician, which is radar technician. As a radician, you spend four hours of your shift watching radar and other four hours doing maintenance, usually preventative maintenance, as very seldom do things break. The main station had around 50 maybe 75 on a really bad busy day. Aux sites were normally 15 people, 14-15, or which seven of us were technicians and then maybe a couple more in the summertime when you’ve got work going on. The “I” sites I think when I was there, we were five of us, so that was it, and I was there for six months. But that was my doorway into the sector crew, which was the elite of the elite technicians. I said that’s where I wanted to be, and they said well you go to an “I” site for six months and we’ll…nobody wanted to go to an “I” site, absolutely nobody. You’re the only technician, you cannot leave the building, theoretically, because you have to be there instantly when the alarms go off to change the ... whatever needs to be done.
Melony Ward You can imagine that some of the communications were highly secret, and could only be reviewed by military officials with proper clearance.
Brian Jeffrey Each main station would have five or six military personnel. The Canadian ones were primarily Canadian with a US officer, and ones in the US were primarily US with a Canadian contingent. So there were always both at the main sites.
Melony Ward There were certain messages that came into the stations that they would hand to the military personnel because they had higher security clearance.
Brian Jeffrey They probably would have been encrypted. Each station had one if not two cryto-technicians. They were always American. Canadians were never allowed to encrypt or decrypt messages. We simply weren’t trained. It would be a twicks basically.
Melony Ward A twicks is basically the Morse Code message.
Brian Jeffrey We couldn’t understand. It was gibberish until you feed it through the crypto-machine. It’s like the German one, Enigma. You type in the things and the message comes out.
Melony Ward Did it actually look like that?
Brian Jeffrey No, in fact I’ve never seen one. I’ve seen pictures of them, but we were not allowed back in that area. But during the Cuban Missile Crisis we doubled up on the radar, there was two of us there, and we stopped doing any maintenance unless something broke. We were not sure if there was going to be a south to come home to. And we also knew that nobody was going to come get us. 15 people in the middle of nowhere? Ain’t gonna happen.
Melony Ward No south to come home to. The isolation of the DEW line and anxiety about the state of the world changed him. For the rest of his life.
Brian Jeffrey A lot of people don’t understand how such a small part of life. I’m 79 now. That was three years of the 79. Why does it live so big? Why is it such an enormous event? I think it was because it was a unique experience shared by so few people. There is a brotherhood, unspoken brotherhood. Someone once said, once a DEW liner, always a DEW liner.
Melony Ward So many players. So many lives affected. Some for a few months; some for generations. The Cold War sense of duty — the doing what needed to be done — it can’t be detangled from the intrusions into ways of life. It affected individuals, communities, and nations. And its reality in the Arctic means we can’t think of the North as an idea. It’s a land, with history. And people.
Decades on from the end of the Cold War, I can’t help but marvel that there’s probably as much communication power right now in the palm of my hand, than there was at Cape Dyer or the Diefenbunker. That power, so much a part of our contemporary life, owes so much to militarization of technology, the militarization of the Arctic, as well as their terrible consequences.
This program was produced by me, Melony Ward, with assistance from Sarah Martin.
Special thanks to Nancy Payne and Kylie Nicolajsen. Our sound editor is Andrew Workman. Thank you to the CBC Licensing, and the AT&T Archives and History Centre.
You can get more stories about Canada’s history by subscribing to our magazine — it’s called Canada’s History. The website is easy to remember: Canadashistory.ca/subscribe
Skip social share links