North Shore residents of a certain age will remember conducting not just fire drills when they were growing up, but also what to do if a nuclear attack were imminent.
Standing about six metres off the ground at the east end of North Vancouver’s Victoria Park is the massive siren that would let them know when it was time. The air raid siren was installed at the site in 1960 as part of a national early warning system if the Soviets attacked.
As tensions with the Reds eased, the siren was decommissioned in 1988, and City of North Vancouver and Department of National Defence allowed the lease to expire.
Since then, it’s mostly been home to nesting birds.
OK, but the Russians are no longer a threat. (Or are they?) Why is it still there?
It was slated for removal in the 1990s but North Vancouver resident Bob Scott led a successful campaign, petitioning the city to acquire the siren from the Department of National Defence. The Cold War artifact was later designated as a municipal heritage site.
“It now stands – silently alerting us to be mindful of the past so that we can work together to create a peaceful future,” reads a plaque at the base of the pole.
In 2010, the city temporarily brought the siren down to repaint it and make some structural repairs. That triggered a debate from the public about whether it should be put back up.
When the city conducted public consultations, they found a 60/40 split separating those who wanted it returned and those who wanted it removed. Nearby residents said it was an eyesore and a reminder of a bleak time in Canadian history that besmirched the nearby cenotaph. Others saw its value for future generations.
“In some ways, those were kind of desperate times where we lived with this prevailing fear of an atomic war that haunted our nighttime dreams. I know even in the '80s I was practising duck and cover drills,” city resident and teacher Jeff Stuart told council at the time. “And I always lived with that fear that that mournful wail could take place and, one day, we'd have only 30 minutes left to say goodbye to everyone we really cared about.”
Stuart said that the people who marched for peace and those who delivered the world safely through the Cold War deserve monuments in their honour as well.
“Those are times we don't want to forget,” he said. “Not all history is pretty or beautiful.”
Council voted 6-1 to reinstall the alarm as a memorial.
“For some, looking at the air raid siren, it brings back some rather negative, unpleasant memories and, I want to recognize that. However, I think there's much to be learned by having the air raid siren there. I remember as a child when it was going off. It was quite eerie, actually,” said then-mayor Darrell Mussatto, prior to the 2010 vote. “I think it's something that should be remembered as a time when things were unstable, and we need to fight for peace as much as we possibly can on this planet.”
In 2022, the city posthumously awarded Scott one of its annual Heritage Awareness Awards for his work in seeing the alarm preserved.
Incidentally, the air raid siren isn’t the only lasting legacy of the Cold War on the North Shore. The founders of North Shore Rescue first met in 1965 as part of a civil defence group established to help rescue people from collapsed buildings, a likely consequence of nuclear attack. Thankfully, they discovered their skill set was in greater need for mountain rescues, which they still carry out today.