Backgrounder Article from  Parks Canada

Continental Air Defence in the Cold War

Following the Second World War, Canada and the United States joined in an alliance to defend the continent against the threat of a Soviet air attack. Canada’s contribution, in terms of personnel, funding, engineering and scientific knowledge, was crucial to the defence of Canada and indeed, North America, at a time when the continent was perceived to be in grave danger. While significant throughout the Cold War (1945-1991), Canada’s primary task of defending against a Soviet bomber attack was pivotal during the 1950s when such an attack was the main threat. The network of radar stations and squadrons of manned aircraft across Canada represented a principal means of detecting and intercepting the enemy.

In the 1950s, under some pressure from the United States, which feared an attack by the Soviet Union, Canada agreed to take part in assembling a system of defence that was unprecedented in terms of its technological sophistication, complexity and geographical reach across the country. The two countries cooperated in the construction of three radar lines across Canada (Pinetree, Mid-Canada and Distant Early Warning or DEW). They also built air bases on their respective sides of the 49th parallel to facilitate the use of fighters in intercepting the enemy. Canada’s bases were soon equipped with the Canadian-made CF-100 aircraft. By the end of the decade, the alliance had been formalized under the umbrella of NORAD and construction was underway on a Canadian nerve centre at North Bay, Ontario where data from northern and eastern Canada was coordinated and analyzed, and, when necessary sent to the continental headquarters in Colorado. In the 1960s, Canada’s contribution to this system, though still significant, became somewhat less central as other weapons such as intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched missiles became a greater danger than bombers. By the end of the 1970s, however, improvements in technology once again made bomber attacks a serious first strike possibility, and in 1985 Canada took a significant part in establishing a new, more sophisticated radar line.

As the outgrowth of cooperation between Canada and the United States, continental air defence raised serious questions concerning sovereignty, particularly in relation to Canada’s policy on nuclear weapons and over the issue of who controlled Canadian air space and territory. Canadian leaders showed considerable reluctance to acquire nuclear arms and Canada gradually evolved a policy on the subject that diverged from that of the United States. In regards to the question of territorial sovereignty, the huge costs involved led Canada to accept American involvement in various aspects of air defence in Canadian air space and on Canadian soil. Only when nuclear war seemed less imminent at the end of the 1960s did Canada begin taking more military control over its skies and territories.

The social and environmental effects of continental air defence were felt in dozens of communities across Canada. In Toronto and other smaller urban centres, defence needs led to employment in industries producing military equipment, particularly aircraft. Manned military installations employed local civilians, largely in trade capacities. In the many smaller, remote communities across the country where airfields, weather stations and radar stations were located, the arrival of the military often led to an economic boom and eventual bust. However, the impact was particularly profound in the Arctic where the military’s airfields, radar stations and weather stations hastened the transformation of Inuit life through the introduction of wage labour and a more sedentary way of life.

  • The Cold War refers to a period between the end of the Second World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This period was characterized by a deep ideological divide between the United States-led capitalist West and the Soviet-dominated communist East, which resulted in considerable military and political tension.


Title of the Image: Avro CF-100 Mk 4b fighter-interceptor
Source of the Image:  Canadian Military History Gateway – Part of Department of National Defence

Image Titled: Avro CF-100 Mk 4b fighter-interceptor
Copyright: Canadian Military History Gateway ¿ Part of Department of National Defence

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Hon. Catherine McKenna Parks Canada History and Archaeology

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