Apr 302016
Civil Defence Calgary

A BIGDoer.com then and now – where we take an old photo showing a building or street scene from way back when, return so the location seen and shoot an image that’s similarly composed. Fun or what? The subject this day is an interesting one and for the then bits we’ll take some screen captures from the National Film Board of Canada Cold War era film, “Operation Lifesaver” many scenes which were shot in and around Calgary.

The film dates from the mid-1950s. It chronicles an official “Civil Defence” exercise whose goal was to to see if it was even possible to evacuate a large population in a swift and orderly fashion, should war break out and a Canadian city be targeted. The apocalypse is set in motion, so get out now! In theory it’s a workable scenario I guess, but in a real life or death situation, I can’t help the plans would all fall apart. Did they consider panic as part of the equation?

Calgary then and now – Civil Defence: a comparison of city scenes from an old Cold War era film and how they look today. Written and photographed by Chris Doering and Connie Biggart (CCDMA)

The enemies of course were the “Eastern Bloc” countries, lead by the Soviet Union. They and the US and their allies (aka the “Western Bloc”) had little love for each other and for much of the 1950s and 1960s tensions were particularly high between then. It was a huge stare down and both parties had terribly itchy trigger fingers. It wasn’t a matter of if war would start, but when. And Canada, as a land mass was smack dab in the middle between them. If planes and missiles were set in motion, no matter from what side, they’d take the shortest line, up and over the pole, passing over this country in the process.

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It’s unlikely many missiles would be pointed directly at Canada. By itself the country was not that important strategically and militarily when compared to its Super Power neighbour to the south. Still, the Soviets might send a couple our way just to show us who’s boss. KaBoom! “That will teach you to pal around with the Americans!”

Or course, with all those planes and projectiles flying above, it’s completely plausible that some bombs or warheads might find their way to Canadian soil after being shot down or due to navigational mix-ups or mechanical problems. One destined for the US or Russia might end up here!

No matter how they came, a nuke is a nuke and if the potential is there, one should make preparations. Built military bases, radar installations, bomb shelters and of course organize Civil Defence forces. Prepare for war. Nuclear war! And for the next decade or two that that’s what the US and allies, under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO, did.

Frayed nerves remained the norm for some time and was not until the 1970s and 1980s before things calmed down. Tensions never fully ceased however and even today the two sides butt heads from time to time.

As it turned out the evacuation test documented was the only one of it’s kind on this scale ever attempted in the country. While claimed a success, research suggests otherwise and overall participation by the public was low. It’s be safe to say everyone, the average Joes, and I bet even some within the agency that organized the event, thought of it as a futile effort. If the big one is to drop, there will be no where to hide, so why even bother.

I understand preparations were many, many months in the making and doing it all couldn’t have been cheap.

The scenes from the movie used here include two where children are sent home as the exercise starts, sirens wailing the whole time. In the third image, a family packs the car and prepares to leave the city, their destination, a small town an hour’s drive (or so) to the north.

The first task in this project was to find out where everything was. We weren’t told and so would have to rely on our detective skills. In the end, we had it figured out in no time. The locations are all on or very near Centre Street a bit north of 16th Avenue. At the time, this was not far from the edge of town – in some scenes you can see the bald prairies off in the distance. Reminder: most of Calgary’s growth happened after the 1960s.

Notice the streets in then photos were unpaved. How primitive.

Our photos were composed using a special in-camera technique we’ve developed (the impressive sounding “BIGDoer Grid Method” HaHa) that allows us to line up the scene to a high degree of accuracy, in camera. We could “shop” everything into place (cough, cough, ghosting) but we’d rather do it right, using nothing but our wits and skill and not technology.

There are lots more scenes from this movie that we can use as then and now fodder and we fully expect to shoot more of this series as time permits. We spoke with the National Film Board regarding use of stills and they were okay with it. The NFB, as it’s called, is a government agency and in their own words produces films ”which explore the world we live in from a Canadian point of view”. The organization dates back to the late 1930s.

Civil Defence: protection of non-combatants, so the general public, in times of world tensions or all out war.

Spelling conventions, In the US it’s spelled Defense and in the UK and many Commonwealth Countries, Canada included, anywhere from sometimes to often, but never always, it’s Defence with a “C”. Our spell checker agrees with the UK version. The Operation Lifesaver film titles, even though the production is from Canada, used the US spelling.

More posts related to the Cold War…
Canadian Forces Station Alsask
In Event of Nucular Attack!
Cold War Shelter

If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!

Date: March, 2016.
Location: Calgary, AB.
Article references and thanks: Canadian Civil Defence Museum Association, Fred Armbruster, Calgary land records, National Film Board of Canada.
All shots were taken from public property.

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Civil Defence Calgary

From the Civil Defence film “Operation Lifesaver” and the same location today.

Calgary Civil Defence

A siren wails and the kids rush home – the same spot sixty years apart.

Cold War Civil Defence

A mad rush to leave the city…things are little calmer today.

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12 Comments on "Calgary then and now – Civil Defence"

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Adele Simpson
Adele Simpson

Looking back, “Operation Lifesaver” is actually quite hilarious! Thinking that we would have enough time to evacuate if a nuclear bomb struck. Or that a basement shelter would save us.

Marlene Bird
Marlene Bird

I remember it very well,it was a very frightening time for me as I was still trying to get over WW2…

Joan LeBlanc
Joan LeBlanc

I grew up across from St Paul! Easiest walk to school ever.

Marlene Young
Marlene Young

Oh, cool. I haven’t heard an air raid siren since I was a kid!

Julian Hatch
Julian Hatch

The last time I heard an air raid siren was August ’91. I was in Rochester NY for technical training. Went to bed after watching the Soviet Generals’ coup on the news, and was woken about 3 am by the siren. Spent a very bad few minutes before determining that nothing on radio or TV was covering an apocalypse. Local news footnote next day mentioned the siren being set off by failed insulation.

Paul von Huene
Paul von Huene

I don’t remember hearing the sirens, but I think there was one at Colonel Irvine/Highwood Pool. There were “Evacuation Route” signs on northbound 4 ST. NW.