This past August, The Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum, hosted the SSHRC funded symposium “Mapping the Cold War: The Spatialization of Preparedness,” in collaboration with The Laurier Centre for the Study of Canada (LCSC). This interdisciplinary workshop brought together artists, academics, and heritage professionals to discuss the significance of Canadian Cold War preparedness infrastructures and their heritage interpretation and management.

Participants discussed different aspects of Cold War infrastructure over the two days of the meeting. Sean Campbell, research lead at the Diefenbunker, gave a fascinating introduction to the Carp site, including the heritage challenges of representing over four decades of history.  This was followed by a presentation by Region of Waterloo archivist Charlotte Woodley and LCSC Director Kevin Spooner, who explored the history of another surviving bunker in Kitchener-Waterloo, and current debates about the status of its preservation.

Photo: The Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum

The bunker served as a municipal emergency government headquarters during the Cold War and more recently as a boat storage area for the Kitchener-Waterloo Rowing Club. The change in the use of the bunker highlights the questions surrounding Cold War commemoration in Canada and if bunkers across the nation should be preserved as heritage sites. Woodley and Spooner emphasized the importance of archival research and preservation in their presentations, as these sources are integral to the reinterpretation of historical events.

The second session focused on some of the technical aspects of Cold War infrastructure, such as the Nuclear Detonation and Fallout Reporting System and Canada’s Defence Research Board, as presented by Andrew Burtch, Cold War Historian at the Canadian War Museum. These federal systems were created to measure the rise and fall of the fallout following a nuclear attack in thirteen Canadian target cities. These discussions emphasized the role of the military, particularly the Canadian Air Forces, in testing atomic bombs, dominance on CBC broadcasting, and survival exercises. Matt Farish followed with a talk about the making of survival geographies in the Arctic, the role of Canada’s Defence Research Board in colonizing the Canadian North and the subsequent impact on Indigenous communities.

The third session focused on decolonizing archival practices. Public historians Krista McCracken and Skylee-Storm Hogan illustrated how heritage approaches can silence Indigenous participation and representation, thereby repeating the violences of settler colonialism.  They emphasized the development of heritage practices that engage community reciprocity and accountability. The importance of accountability was also highlighted by Sara Matthews’ discussion of photographic archives and an ethics of care, particularly the responsibilities of non-Indigenous researchers to engage with First Nations principles of ownership, control, access, and protection.

The fourth session explored aesthetic responses to the Cold War through the visual and performing arts. Mary Kavanagh discussed two creative projects that engage with the residual effects of nuclear sites, highlighting how art can open the historical archive to interpretation and reinvention. Julie Salverson narrated excerpts from her work Shelter: An Atomic Opera, a dark-comedic romance that explores the vicissitudes of atomic technologies alongside the development of the nuclear family.

The symposium’s final session focused the role of the digital humanities in collections management, preservation, and interpretation. Sara Matthews, Gohar Ashoughian, and Mona Elayyan, based out of Wilfrid Laurier University, discussed the development of an online exhibition animating Canadian propaganda posters created during the Cold War. Overall, the symposium created lively conversation among participants and opportunities for new synergies and connections.


Session 1: Moderated by Inderbir Singh; presented by Charlotte Woodley and Kevin Spooner

Session 2: Moderated by Kevin Spooner; presented by Andrew Burtch and Matt Farish

Session 3: Moderated by Sean Campbell; presented by Krista McCracken, Skylee-Storm Hogan; and Sara Matthews

Session 4: Moderated by Sara Matthews; presented by Mary Kavanaugh and Julie Salverson

 Session 5: Moderated by Matt Baker; presented by Sara Matthews, Gohar Ashoughian, and Mona Elayyan

Photo: Sara Matthews