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Thankful for being above ground

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Have you ever noticed you don't tend to take advantage of the things your city has to offer in the way of culture and entertainment except when you either have kids or houseguests?

Thanksgiving weekend brought my parents out for a visit, and my first really big family Thanksgiving dinner hosted at my own home. I'm thankful the Turkey was cooked well and on time and that we were able to spend the holiday with family.

I was also thankful for a Saturday morning trek to see one of our country's most interesting historical remnants.

The Diefenbunker.

I'd heard of the bunker before I moved here but I didn't realize it was now a museum until Saint Boniface MP Shelly Glover told me she had taken her kids there the first time they visited Ottawa with her after she was elected.

Billed as Canada's Cold War Museum it is an interesting relic of the Canadian government during the 1960s.

Built for $50 million in the early 1960s (about $370 million in today's dollars according to the Bank of Canada) the bunker was staffed until the early 1990s although it was never actually used as intended.

Thankfully that means we were never the subject of a nuclear attack.

It is a four-story structure built into a hill in the town of Carp, about 30 minutes West of downtown Ottawa. From the surface all you see is a small warehouse/garage looking building next to a public library in the middle of farm land. You'd never know there is anything underneath.

But it includes dormitories, a bank vault, cafeteria, computer hub and even a cabinet room. It could have housed 535 people for 30 days following a nuclear attack. After the first 10 days though the fresh food would run out and the lucky Canadians inside would spend the remaining 20 days eating ration bags. Ham omelette breakfast, and Hungarian goulash or Salisbury steak dinner sounds great until you hear the food can last five years without going bad, is prepared by boiling and after five years members of our poor military were given the bags to eat before they spoiled.

It became a museum in 1998 and now gets over 25,000 visitors a year. It's off-the-beaten-track location probably hurts its admissions. That and the $14 entry fee which I am not convinced isn't just the government trying to get back some of the money it spent on the bunker in the first place.

But I learned quite a bit from the tour.

Including that Canada was kind of clueless about radiation poisoning and your likelihood of survival wasn't much better even if you were one of the lucky ones on the list to be protected inside the bunker should an atom bomb fall. The protocols for the bunker included storing the bodies of anyone who died of radiation poisoning in one of the kitchen's refrigerators for example.

It was also the first public building ever designated smoke free in Canada. Initially smoking was allowed and the offices still have ashtrays on them. But radiation poisoning aside, sticking more than 500 people below ground in a second-hand smoke filled bunker wasn't exactly the healthiest idea the government ever had.

Among the 535 people on the list to get into the bunker in the event of a nuclear attack were government MPs their secretaries, as well as support staff including cooks and secretaries. Opposition MPs apparently didn't make the cut but they shouldn't feel badly. Neither would the Prime Minister's family.

If you're in Ottawa and looking for something interesting, it's definitely worth a trip. Plus in the summer it is in the same place as one of the best farmer's markets around. Double bonus.

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About Mia Rabson

Mia Rabson is a born and bred Winnipegger whose interest in politics seemed clear when she dressed up as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for Halloween in the 7th grade.

Her interest in writing was no surprise to her parents, who learned early in Mia’s life that no piece of blank paper — or wall, for that matter — was safe in her hands.

She holds an honours BA in English from Queen’s University, a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario, and has completed a political journalism fellowship in Washington, D.C. with the Washington Centre for Politics and Journalism.

Prior to working for the Winnipeg Free Press, Mia briefly worked for the Detroit News in the paper’s Washington bureau.

Mia joined the Free Press team in February 2001, and in April 2001 was appointed to the Manitoba legislature bureau. In December 2004, she was appointed bureau chief at the legislature. She became the newspaper’s parliamentary bureau chief/national reporter in Ottawa in January 2008.

In 2008 she was nominated for a Michener Award with a team of reporters from the Free Press for its coverage of the province’s child welfare system.

She counts reliving the invasion at Dieppe, France, with veterans of the failed Second World War expedition and overcoming her fear of heights to touch the Golden Boy statue atop the Legislative Building among her favourite experiences as a reporter.

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