Give Me Shelter

The Failure of Canada's Cold War Civil Defence

Andrew Burtch

  • Published: 2012
  • Subject Listing: History
  • Bibliographic information: 288 pp., 20 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: US rights only
  • Distributed for: UBC Press
  • Contents

What do you do when a nuclear weapon detonates nearby? During the early Cold War years of 1945-63, Civil Defence Canada and the Emergency Measures Organization planned for just such a disaster and encouraged citizens to prepare their families and their cities for nuclear war. By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the civil defence program was widely mocked, and the public was vastly unprepared for nuclear war.

Canada's civil defence program was born in the early Cold War, when fears of conflict between the superpowers ran high. Give Me Shelter features previously unreleased documents detailing Canada's nuclear survival plans. Andrew Burtch reveals how the organization publicly appealed to citizens to prepare for disaster themselves - from volunteering as air-raid wardens to building fallout shelters. This tactic ultimately failed, however, due to a skeptical populace, chronic underfunding, and repeated bureaucratic fumbling. Give Me Shelter exposes the challenges of educating the public in the face of the looming threat of nuclear annihilation.

Give Me Shelter explains how governments and the public prepared for the unexpected. It is essential reading for historians, policymakers, and anybody interested in Canada's Cold War home front.
Andrew Burtch is the historian for the post-1945period at the Canadian War Museum.

"Civil defence in Cold War Canada is largely uncharted territory, and this rich, pioneering study reveals the political, psychological, and practical challenges of trying to generate popular preparedness for the unthinkable: a nuclear holocaust at home. Burtch's complex yet lively narrative not only engages existing scholarly debates, but should launch new ones as well."
-P. Whitney Lackenbauer, co-author of Arctic Front: Defending Canada in the Far North

"In this fascinating study, Burtch eloquently illuminates a fundamental failure of national policy. Canadians did not adjust their thinking about civil defence much beyond overseas newsreel images of the Second World War and never seemed to take into account the possibility that war would come suddenly, exacting an enormous price for the absence of advance preparation. This story is told with wit and clarity by an author in command of his sources and measured in his judgment."
-Hector Mackenzie, Senior Departmental Historian, Policy Research Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade


1 From World War to Cold War, 1945-50

2 The Korean War and the Trouble with Civil Defence,

3 Publicizing Armageddon: Responsible Citizenship and
Civil Defence, 1948-54

4 Evacuation and Celebration, 1954-56

5 Emergency Measures, 1957-59

6 The Survival Army, 1959-62

7 The Path to a Shelter Program, 1949-59

8 Irresponsible Citizens, 1959-62

9 Cuba, Confusion, and Retreat, 1962-68