Frontier Science: Reflections on Northern Canada, Military Research, and the Cold War 

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Frontier Science explores the shadowy world of military research and the consequences of employing science to conquer nature in northern Canada during the Cold War. In this bog post, author Matthew S. Wiseman reflects on Northern Canada, Military Research, and the Cold War.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 marked the single largest attack on a European country since the Second World War. Armed conflict is of course vastly different today than it was 80 years ago when more than 1.1 million people served in the Canadian armed forces to defeat the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. But history suggests there are important similarities, too. Canada and its closest allies, Britain and the United States, poured billions of dollars into the war effort. One major result was the now well-known story of the Manhattan Project and the large-scale research and development (R&D) plan to create the world’s first nuclear weapon. As portrayed in the recent Hollywood blockbuster film Oppenheimer, achieving victory in the Second World War required brains and brawn, and the war catapulted scientists into the world of military research. Wartime military R&D occurred north of the Canada-US border as well, where scientists and engineers associated with Canada’s National Research Council devoted their time to the complex scientific, mathematical, technical, and medical aspects of war. Less well-known is the fact that Canada supplied and processed uranium for the Manhattan Project, providing a key raw material used in several experiments that led to the development of nuclear arms. 

More than 2,000 nuclear and thermonuclear devices were detonated around the world between the Trinity test in July 1945 and the signing of the Partial Nuclear Test-ban Treaty in August 1963. Explosions occurred at ground level, under water, and in the sky, releasing radioactive debris into the lower atmosphere, and affecting ecosystems and life in myriad ways. The world’s largest nuclear blast took place in October 1961 when the Soviet Union detonated a weapon nicknamed the Tsar Bomba over the archipelago Novaya Zemlya. The explosion decimated land and marine life in the Arctic Ocean north of mainland Russia, while the shockwave encircled the entire globe three times and shattered windows as far away as Finland. Canadians did not experience the direct brunt of the blast, but radioactive fallout from the debris cloud drifted over the North Pole and came down atop territory in northern Canada. In the weeks and months after the massive 50-megaton explosion, medical officials in the Radiation Protection Division of Canada’s federal health ministry conducted radiochemical analyses of northern vegetation and game to determine if the fallout posed a health threat to residents in the affected areas.  

Frontier Science by Matthew S. Wiseman

Research conducted years later would indicate that nuclear fallout generated during the Cold War spread around the globe and affected people and areas all over the world. During the 1950s and 1960s, however, military strategists and defence planners in Ottawa became particularly concerned about the growing security threat in the northern regions of the country. Canada had neither the resources nor the personnel to defend the vast territoriality of the North year-round, so military officials relied once again on the country’s leading scientists and engineers to support the armed services. The principal conduit for military R&D in Canada was a branch of the federal government known as the Defence Research Board (DRB; now Defence Research and Development Canada). Originally founded in April 1947, the DRB distributed funding from the national defence budget to fund scientists, engineers, and research technicians who conducted research with real and potential military applications. DRB funding paid for the design and development of the Alouette satellite, the Black Brant sounding rocket, the Iroquois flame-thrower, the pacemaker, and other weapons, equipment, and supplies needed to prepare the Canadian military during the atomic age.   

Frontier Science reveals the true story behind Canada’s military R&D program during the earliest decades of the Cold War. Under the DRB’s sponsorship, government, and academic scientists across the country accepted defence funding to conduct research for the three branches of the Canadian military: the army, navy, and air force. Much of this effort concentrated on preparing soldiers, sailors, and aviators to serve and defend their country in the Arctic. Scientists and engineers studied frostbite, hypothermia, acclimatization, manual dexterity, monotony, morale, and other physical and psychological realities of military service in cold and high-latitude regions. Researchers travelled north to Defence Research Northern Laboratory at Fort Churchill, a former and now-demolished military research facility that once gave outside visitors access to northern Manitoba for fieldwork and experimental trials. Soldiers often participated in tests of military equipment and personnel on the snowy barrens during winter and the swampy, bug-infested muskeg areas near Fort Churchill during summer. Some of the experiments extended to racial characteristics of human performance in northern climates, while others involved new pesticides and chemical compounds that inflicted environmental and ecological damage to military testing grounds. Others still studied military performance during high-altitude flights or during submariner dives in the frigid cold waters of the North Atlantic.  

Military R&D tends to be highly secretive and protected, which is certainly true of the military-sponsored research that occurred in Canada during the Cold War. Fortunately, the passage of time and the opening of previously classified military records provide a window into the past. History also provides an explanation of the present, an opportunity to seek answers and reflect. As conflicts escalate around the world, competition for scarce resources intensifies, and climate change leads to famine, drought, global migration, and other dire consequences, it is worth taking stock of Canada’s military history. In 2014, NATO allies pledged to increase defence spending to 2% of GDP by 2024; Canada has failed to meet this target, and Canadian officials currently seem reluctant to invest more in the country’s armed forces. The decline in defence funding for the military dates to the mid-1970s when a thaw in Cold War tensions between the superpowers and a massive re-organization of Canada’s federal bureaucracy changed political and strategic priorities in Ottawa. It is difficult to determine what it will take to move the needle on defence spending in Canada, but if the federal government decides to increase Canada’s military presence in the North, the defence department should look to its own institutional history – a record of success and failure alike. 

Learn more about Frontier Science by Matthew S. Wiseman, here.


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