Exercise Tocsin B-1961

13 November 1961

Tensions had been mounting between the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact partners and the United States and its NATO allies. In April 1961, some twelve hundred Cuban exiles, backed by the CIA and supplied with American arms and landing craft, had made a failed attempt to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and topple Fidel Castro. The Cuban Communist leader had come to power two years earlier after having deposed Fulgencio Batista, the corrupt and repressive, American-supported dictator.

The following month, Canada tested its civil defence plans in the event of a nuclear war. In cities across the country, the wailing of more than two hundred sirens warned Canadians to take cover. The Canadian Emergency Measures Organization issued a booklet to households indicating what they could do in the event of a nuclear attack. Called The Eleven Steps To Survival, Canadians were told:

Step 1: Know the effects of nuclear explosions

Step 2: Know the facts about radioactive fallout

Step 3: Know the warning signal and have a battery-powered radio

Step 4: Know how to take shelter

Step 5: Have fourteen days emergency supplies

Step 6: Know how to prevent and fight fires

Step 7: Know first aid and home nursing

Step 8: Know emergency cleanliness

Step 9: Know how to get rid of radioactive dust

Step 10: Know your municipal plans

Step 11: Have a plan for your family and yourself

In the introduction to the booklet, Prime Minister Diefenbaker stated: Your personal survival can depend on you following the advice that is given and the survival of many others may depend on how well you have heeded the advice contained therein. The government also provided plans on how to build a backyard bomb shelter.

Mid-August, East Germany began the construction of the Berlin Wall cutting off West Berlin by land, and denying an escape route to the West by East Germans seeking freedom. In early September, the U.S. military detected four, above-ground Soviet nuclear explosions. Subsequently, radioactive fallout, 320 times higher than background radiation levels, was detected in Ottawa. Federal Health Minister Jay Monteith warned that should such high levels of radiation be maintained, they “could well be a hazard to health.” At a state banquet in Moscow, Indian Prime Minister Nehru told Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that it would be stupid to start a war. Khrushchev replied that the Soviet people did not want war but “could not look on calmly while Western powers make military preparations on a hitherto unparalleled scale.” With war rhetoric rising, Prime Minister Diefenbaker warned Canadians in early November that “war is not as improbable as we hope,” and that if comes, Canada will be a battleground. Earlier he had told the House of Commons that should there be an attack on Canada, he and his wife would not leave Ottawa for safety but would rather take cover in the bomb shelter at 24 Sussex Drive.

bomb, Nagasaki, 9 sept 45, Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack

Atomic bomb explosion over Nagasaki, Japan, 9 August 1945, taken by Charles Levy

During the morning of Monday, 13 November 1961, unidentified but presumed hostile submarines were detected in large numbers in the North Atlantic and in the Hudson Bay. Soviet tanker aircraft were also detected near the Aleutians. The Canadian armed forces increased it level of military alertness at 8.30am EST. This was stepped up to the next level at 10.30am and yet again at 12.30pm, sending staff to emergency centres across the country. Troops left possible target areas. At 2.30pm, key government officials and senior defence officers, including Defence Minister Douglas Harkness, Health Minister Monteith, Defence Production Minister Raymond O’Hurley, and Justice Minister Davie Fulton, were dispatched to Camp Petawawa, 150 kilometres north-west of Ottawa that was to become the government back-up centre in the event of war. (The underground, bomb-proof base in Carp now known as the Diefenbunker, which was designed to shelter the Governor General, the Prime Minister, and other senior government and military leaders in the event of nuclear war, was still under construction.)

At 6pm, the Canadian military was placed on maximum alert. Shortly afterwards, NORAD (North American Air Defense Command) radar spotted 36 hostile airplanes heading towards Canada between Greenland and Ellesmere Island. Another 20 were detected off the Aleutian Islands in the Pacific. At 6.50pm, Prime Minister Diefenbaker and six Cabinet colleagues went underground at 24 Sussex Drive where they issued an Order-In-Council invoking the War Measures Act. Defence Minister Harkness was appointed Acting Prime Minister and given almost dictatorial powers to respond if necessary. Diefenbaker also approved the signal to alert unsuspecting Canadians to the deteriorating military situation and to take shelter. He also prepared to address the nation across all radio and television stations in a special broadcast of the Emergency Measures Organization.

At precisely 7pm, more than 500 sirens from coast to coast, 45 in Ottawa alone, began a steady three-minute wail, their strident call telling citizens that a nuclear attack was expected. By that point, more than 110 “penetrations” of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line in Canada’s far north had been detected as Soviet bombers streaked across Canadian territory at 600 knots per hour. At 7.10pm, the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) gave Diefenbaker a fifteen-minute warning that a missile attack was underway. Air raid sirens across the country gave the “take shelter” warning, a three-minute rising and falling sound that announced a nuclear strike was imminent.

It total, two waves of Soviet bombers, the first of 150 aircraft, the second of 110 as well as two waves of missiles, mostly heading for U.S. targets, were detected. Fourteen Canadian cities were destroyed by five-megaton nuclear bombs, including Vancouver and Courtney in British Columbia, Edmonton and Cold Lake in Alberta, Fort Churchill, Manitoba, Frobisher, NWT, North Bay, Sault Ste Marie, and Welland in Ontario, Chatham, New Brunswick, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Goose Bay in Labrador, and Stephenville on the Island of Newfoundland. Ottawa was destroyed at 10.10pm, with the epicentre of the blast situated just north of Uplands Airport. Toronto and Montreal were hit at 10.45pm and 10.51pm, respectively. The Soviet attack on North America lasted until 4am the next morning. Some 30 U.S. cities were destroyed, including Detroit, hit by a ten-megaton bomb that also killed tens of thousands in neighbouring Windsor.


Bomb, Canada emergency Measures Organization, Govt of Canada, Mikan 4717891

Bomb, Canada emergency Measures Organization, Govt of Canada, Mikan 4717352

The corner of Sparks Street and Elgin Street, Central Post Office, c. 1961, before and after a nuclear attack on Ottawa, Canada Emergency Measures Organization, Government of Canada, Library and Archives Canada, Mikan 4717891 and 4717352.

The death toll was staggering. The Army Operations Centre at Camp Petawawa estimated Canadian dead at roughly 2.6 million, including Prime Minister Diefenbaker, with an additional 1.6 million injured, many critically. Fire, radiation sickness, and exposure was expected to claims hundreds of thousands of additional lives in coming days and weeks. In the Ottawa region, the death toll was placed at 142,000 dead, 61,000 injured and 30,000 experiencing radiation sickness. On the upside, 90,000 people had been rescued though many thousands remained trapped in burning buildings and debris. Emergency teams of soldiers and hundreds of thousands of volunteers fanned out across the country to help the survivors. Jack Wallace, the Deputy Director of the Emergency Measures Organization noted that while the Saint Laurence Seaway system had been knocked out at Montreal, Welland, and Sault Ste Marie, the railway service could be quickly restored. While casualties were high, over 14 million Canadians had survived the multiple attacks. He also estimated that one half to two-thirds of industry could be quickly made operational and one-half of hydro power was still in commission. There was also sufficient food to feed all Canadians. Canada had come through the nuclear attack severely damaged but intact, with a nucleus of a national government still functioning at Camp Petawawa where fallout was considered light.

Thankfully, this horrific scenario was just that…a scenario called Exercise Tocsin B-1961 that played out on 13 November 1961 as part of Canada’s test of its emergency civil defences. However, all the events described leading up to the test are factual. While the test may seem fanciful to today’s Gen. “Xers” and Millennials, for those who grew up in the 1950s and 60s, it was very real. The Cold War was a time of great worry and stress. Exercise Tocsin B-1961 was held exactly one year before the Cuban missile crisis when the world held its breath as the United States and the Soviet Union played a high-stakes game of “chicken,” where one false movement by either side could have led to a global nuclear holocaust.


Canadian Civil Defence Museum Association, “Steps to Survival,” http://civildefencemuseum.ca/.

Emergency Measures Organization, 1961. Eleven Steps to Survival, Ottawa: Queen’s Printer.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1961. “Tocsin B Alarm Goes Off Accidentally In Ottawa,” 13 November.

————————-, 1961. “Nuclear War Test: PM Among ‘Casualties’ As Toll Tops 3-Million,” 14 November.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1961. “Stupid To Start War Nehru Tells Khrushchev,” 7 September.

————————–, 1961. “Don’t Want War,” 7 September.

————————–, 1961. “War Not Impossible, PM Warns,” 10 November.

————————–, 1961. “Attack Warning Study Alarms Inside Buildings,” 13 November.

————————–, 1961. “Exercise Tocsin, Ottawa ‘Destroyed,’ 175,000 Toll.

————————–, 1961. “Cabinet Met Underground,” 15 November.

————————–, 1961. “Government Counts Tocsin Toll,”


Bombing of Parliament Hill

18 May 1966

One bright mid-May morning in 1966, a nondescript, middle-aged man walked into a mining supplies store in Newmarket, north of Toronto, and asked to buy some dynamite. The young clerk asked him what he intended to do with the explosives, and whether he knew how to use them. The man replied that he was prospecting, and needed the dynamite to blow up some tree stumps. He reassured her that he knew how to handle explosives. He had worked in mines in the Northwest Territories. Satisfied by his responses, the clerk sold him six sticks of Forcite, a gelatin dynamite composed of sodium nitrate, along with six detonating caps and six feet of fuse with a burn rate of one foot per minute. A background check was not required. After the man had thanked her and left the store, the clerk realized that she had erred; the fuse burnt one third faster than she had told her customer. But it was too late to correct her mistake; the customer had vanished. Little did she realize that her error would have fateful consequences.

Paul Chartier

Paul Chartier, The Bomber of Parliament Hill, The Citizen, 19 May 1966

Wednesday, 18 May 1966 was a cool, cloudy, spring day in Ottawa. The big news in the nation’s capital that morning was the previous night’s vote of non-confidence in Lester B. Pearson’s minority Liberal government. The motion had been put forward by John G. Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservative Party over tight money. The vote was unexpectedly close, 118-111. Most of the smaller opposition parties and independent MPs had supported the Conservative motion. That afternoon, the public galleries were packed with spectators, eager to hear the latest opposition salvoes against the government during Question Period which commenced at 2pm.

Among the spectators who had arrived to watch their country’s leaders in action were hundreds of school children. Also present was a middle-aged gentleman wearing an overcoat. It was the same man who had purchased the Forcite in Newmarket five days earlier. Entering the Centre Block of Parliament like any tourist visiting the Hill, he made his way to the Public Gallery on the third floor. But he was turned away; the gallery was full. Trying again, he went to the Ladies’ Gallery at the other end of the Commons chamber where an obliging commissionaire allowed him to enter and take a seat to watch the proceedings. He had an excellent vantage point. Facing him was the Speaker’s Throne.  On his left was the governing Liberal Party, while on his right were the opposition parties. As it was Question Period, the House was full. Both Prime Minister Pearson, and Opposition Leader Diefenbaker were in attendance. At 2.45pm, the man, still wearing his overcoat, left his chair to go to the men’s washroom located just a few steps across the corridor from the Ladies’ Gallery. He asked the guard if his seat could be saved. The guard said no; there was no reserved seating. But it was unlikely that somebody would take his seat as Question Period was almost over. Thanking the commissionaire, the man left. Minutes later, the Centre Block was rocked by a bomb blast emanating from the third-floor men’s washroom. Acrid fumes filled the hallways, seeping into Commons chamber.

On the Commons’ floor, there was confusion. Parliamentary business stuttered to a halt amidst calls for medical assistance. Diefenbaker rose to say “…someone had just passed away within the precincts of the House of Commons.” Prime Minister Pearson announced that “It appears that was an explosion” and “that a man has been killed under circumstances which are not yet quite clear.” The House temporarily adjourned.  Security staff escorted the deputies to safety. In the meantime, three doctor MPs hurried to the scene of the explosion. Groping their way through thick smoke, and stumbling over pieces of wood and masonry shards that littered the floor of the bathroom, they came across the mutilated body of a man stretched out in front of the urinals lying in a pool of blood. There was nothing that the doctors could do. Dr Philip Rynard (PC—Simcoe-East) pronounced the man dead. Dr Hugh Horner (PC—Jasper-Edison) said that it looked like the man had been carrying an explosive device when it went off.

Chartier's body being removedChartier's body being removed

Chartier’s body being removed from Centre Block, Parliament Hill, 18 May 1966, CBC News

The initial assumption that it was a suicide was quickly dispelled. It was something far more malevolent—an attack on Parliament itself, the first since Guy Fawkes had tried to blow up the British Parliament in 1605. There had been nothing like it in Canadian history. While there had been incidents of incivility, and in 1964 a protester had thrown a bottle of animal blood from the Public Gallery onto the floor of the House of Commons, there had never before been outright violence.

Police quickly put a name to the bomber—Paul Chartier, an emotionally disturbed, unemployed security guard, age 45. They tracked down his recent movements and where he lived—a rooming house in Toronto. At his lodgings, they found several sticks of dynamite, fuses, and two crude bombs. Police also uncovered some writings titled Young Years, which provided details of Chartier’s life, and his growing conviction that the world was against him.

Chartier, born in 1922, had grown up in small-town Alberta, one of nine children, his parents having moved west after World War I from Quebec. While his parents and siblings had made successes of their lives, Chartier drifted from job to job. He worked briefly in the mining industry in Yellowknife before joining the Royal Canadian Air Force during the war. While in the Air Force, he got into some minor trouble before being discharged in 1945. He then went into the hotel business, first with a brother, and later for himself. Married in 1951, both his hotel business and marriage failed within a few years owing to his growing mental instability. Abusive to his wife, his unsocial and erratic behaviour drove customers away. Subsequent careers in the dry-clearing business and as a truck driver also ended in failure. It was never his doing; it was always somebody else’s fault. After going bankrupt in 1961, Chartier left for the United States, where for the next several years he wandered around the country. For a time, he worked as a hotel security guard in New York. By 1966, however, he had returned to Canada. Unemployed, he found a room in a boarding house in Toronto. About a month before the fatal blast, he took a trip to Ottawa to check out Parliament Hill, staying under an assumed name at the YMCA.

Chartier returned to the Ottawa area the day before the explosion, renting a cheap $3 per night room at the Saint Louis Hotel in Hull. There, he assembled a pipe bomb weighing several pounds, and smuggled it into the Centre Block hidden under his overcoat. After viewing Question Period from the Ladies’ Gallery, he went to the bathroom to light the fuse of his homemade explosive device with the intention of throwing it at Canada’s leaders assembled in the House of Commons below. But the bomb exploded prematurely while he was making his way out of the lavatory cubicle towards the washroom door, severing his right arm, and inflicting massive injuries to his torso and face. He died within seconds of the blast. On his body was a speech titled If I was President [sic] of Canada. It was a speech he had wanted to deliver to deputies. Roughly two weeks earlier, Chartier has written a letter to Lucien Lamoureux, the Speaker of the House of Commons, asking for permission to address the House. The clerk of the House of Commons replied that only sitting elected Members of the House had the right to speak in the Chamber. Consequently, “there was no possibility whatsoever of agreeing to your request.” The rejection was the final straw, and set in motion Chartier’s attack on Parliament.

In the rambling, and sometimes incoherent, speech, Chartier made it clear that he had planned the bombing for about a year, and that it was his intention to “kill as many as possible for the rotten way you are running this country.”  He added “as for “Mr Pearson and Mr Diefenbaker, they sound like a couple of kids, jealous of one another as to who is going to get the biggest share of money and scandal…I blame parliament for divorces, separations and suicides and a lot of people are in jail not being able to make a living.”

At the inquest into Chartier’s death held four months later, experts testified that had Chartier managed to throw the bomb into the House of Commons chamber, one could have expected at least a dozen deaths, and many injured. It was only through luck, or Providence, that the mining supplies company clerk had misinformed Chartier of the burn time of the fuse. Added to this was evidence that Chartier himself had made a mathematical error when calculating the length of the fuse. This error reduced the time he had still further.

The blast shattered Canadians happy illusions about themselves, and about Canada as a calm, peace-loving nation. Was Canada so different from its America neighbour whose president had been assassinated three years earlier? If evil was in our midst, how would it affect our way of life? In an editorial, the Citizen newspaper opined that the “easy atmosphere of the Centre Block has always been one of the glories of our parliamentary life. The unguarded secure passage of our leaders through the corridors, made safe only by the good sense of the Canadian people, is surely worth preserving.”

Security on the Hill was reviewed after the blast. The Speaker of the House noted that it was “not easy to reconcile enforcement of strict security regulations with the degree of freedom of access to the building and the galleries that the Canadian people have come to expect when visiting parliament.” He strove to find a “reasonable balance.” Nevertheless, six months after Chartier tried to blow up members of parliament, a group of university students tested Parliament Hill security, by bringing into the Centre Block a tape recorder (a large, bulky machine back in 1966) concealed under a coat. They then went to the same washroom as Chartier had on the third floor, before visiting the Public Gallery to tape the proceedings as proof of their successful entry. They were never stopped. Subsequently interviewed on CJOH-TV, the students were threatened with fines and jail rather than applauded for demonstrating the continued gap in parliamentary security. After a cool meeting with Speaker Lamoureux, the students were let off with a warning, their test of Hill security considered a prank.



CBC Digital Archives, 1966, “Bomb in Parliament misses its target in 1966,” http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/society/crime-justice/general-3/bomb-in-parliament-misses-its-target-in-1966.html.

Fontana, James, 2005. The Mad Bomber of Parliament, Borealis Press: Ottawa.

Hanlon, John, 2007, “The Day We Broke the Silence of Centre Block,” The Ottawa Citizen, 20 October, http://www.canada.com/story_print.html?id=c882ed16-7e48-48cd-95c8-b2df5af38ed7.

House of Commons Debates, 1966. 27th Parliament, 1st Session: Vol.5.

Lamoureux, Lucien, 1966. “Statement by Mr Speaker Respecting Security Precautions,” The Citizen, 19 May.

The Citizen, 1966. “Grudge bomb meant for MPs,” 19 May.

—————, 1966. “The Bomb Explosion,” 19 May.

The Gazette, 1966. “Assassinations: no reason to be smug in Canada,” Montreal, 19 May.

—————, 1966. “Explosion In Parliament’s Centre Block Takes Life of 45-Year Old Bomb Carrier,” 19 May.