Canada and the Cold War

The Cold War refers to the period between the end of the Second World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. During this time, the world was largely divided into two ideological camps — the United States-led capitalist “West” and the Soviet-dominated communist “East.” Canada aligned with the West. Its government structure, politics, society and popular perspectives matched those in the US, Britain, and other democratic countries. The global US-Soviet struggle took many different forms and touched many areas. It never became “hot” through direct military confrontation between the two main antagonists.

The Cold War refers to the period between the end of the Second World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. During this time, the world was largely divided into two ideological camps — the United States-led capitalist “West” and the Soviet-dominated communist “East.” Canada aligned with the West. Its government structure, politics, society and popular perspectives matched those in the US, Britain, and other democratic countries. The global US-Soviet struggle took many different forms and touched many areas. It never became “hot” through direct military confrontation between the two main antagonists.

Cuban Missile Crisis

An S-75 Dvina surface-to-air missile (SAM) in front of the Military-Historical Museum of Artillery, Engineer and Signal Corps in St. Petersburg, Russia.


The Cold War was rooted in the collapse of the American-British-Soviet alliance that defeated Germany and Japan in the Second World War. The Allies were already divided ideologically. They were deeply suspicious of the other side’s world plans. American and British diplomatic relations with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union severely cooled after the war, over several issues. In particular, the Soviets placed and kept local communist parties in power as puppet governments in once-independent countries across Eastern Europe. This was done without due democratic process. This situation led former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill to state on 5 March 1946 that an “iron curtain” had fallen across the European continent.

Gouzenko Affair

In February 1946, the Canadian government revealed that it had given political asylum to Igor Gouzenko. He was a Soviet cipher clerk stationed at the Soviet Union’s embassy in Ottawa. Just weeks after the end of the Second World War, Gouzenko left the embassy with documents that proved his country had been spying on its wartime allies: Canada, Britain and the United States. According to the documents, the Soviet embassy was home to several spies. They were connected to agents in Montreal, the United States and the United Kingdom who had been providing Moscow with classified information.

Igor Gouzenko
Igor Gouzenko on television, 1966. Over half of the convictions under the Official Secrets Act were a result of Gouzenko's defection.
In 1947, American financier and presidential adviser Bernard Baruch coined the phrase Cold War to describe the relationship between the US and Soviet Union. “Let us not be deceived,” he said, “we are today in the midst of a Cold War. Our enemies are to be found abroad and at home. Let us never forget this: Our unrest is the heart of their success.”

These revelations caused a potentially dangerous international crisis. Canadians targeted by Soviet espionage worked in sensitive positions. They were privy to diplomatic, scientific and military secrets. This included highly classified information concerning research on radar, code-breaking and the atomic bomb. Several historians and critics consider the Gouzenko affair, as it was known, to mark the beginning of the Cold War era. They also believe it set the stage for the “Red Scare” of the 1950s.

The Gouzenko affair led to widespread investigations in Canada, the US and Great Britain. In Canada, 39 suspects were arrested and 18 were convicted. Some of the most high-profile Canadians who were convicted included: Fred Rose, who was a member of Parliament; Sam Carr of the labor-Progressive Party (see Communist Party of Canada); and Canadian Army Captain Gordon Lunan.

Cold War Deep Freeze

The period 1947 to 1953 became the Cold War’s “deep freeze.” East-West negotiations on the future of Europe broke down and stopped. The international climate worsened with several high-profile events. Canadians were involved in some of them, including the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a western security pact designed to defend Western Europe against Soviet invasion; and the Korean War (1950–53) in which Canadian forces fought with the United Nations against communist North Korean and Chinese forces supported by the Soviets.


In the late 1940s, Ottawa and other Western capitals watched with concern as the Soviet Union created a buffer zone in Eastern Europe — the “iron curtain” — between itself and the West. The Soviet Union imposed its will on East Germany, Poland and other nations along the Soviet border. The USSR pursued a policy of aggressive military expansion at home and subversion abroad. There was real fear that France, Italy or other nations might become communist and eventually ally themselves with the Soviets.

In response, Western allies formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. At the core of the treaty was a security provision. It stated that “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” NATO was Canada’s first peacetime military alliance. Signed on 4 April 1949, it included 11 other nations: the United States, Iceland, Britain, France, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Portugal and Italy.

Korean War

NATO existed largely as a paper alliance until the Korean War. It was the first major conflict of the Cold War. It led the NATO states — many of them fighting in Korea under the banner of the United Nations — to build up their military forces. For Canada, this resulted in a huge increase in the defence budget and, eventually, the return of troops to Europe. By the mid-1950s, about 10,000 Canadian troops were stationed in France and West Germany.

More than 26,000 Canadians served in Korea, during both the combat phase and as peacekeepers afterward. The last Canadian soldiers left Korea in 1957. After the two world wars, Korea remains Canada’s third-bloodiest overseas conflict. It took the lives of 516 Canadians and wounded more than 1,000.

Patrol in Korea
Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry returning from patrol in Korea, 1951.

Arctic Sovereignty

Amid fears of Soviet aggression, the United States heightened its military capabilities in the Arctic. This posed a potential threat to Canadian claims to the North. (See Canadian Arctic Sovereignty.) The Department of Resources and Development, which oversaw Inuit affairs at the time, decided to populate Ellesmere and Cornwallis islands with Inuit, even though the areas were devoid of human population.

Cold War tensions brought unprecedented attention to the Canadian North. The current version of the Canadian Rangers was established in 1947. In the decades that followed, the Rangers developed as a sub-component of the Canadian Army Reserve.”

In 1953 and 1955, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), moved approximately 92 Inuit from Inukjuak (formerly Port Harrison), in Northern Quebec, and Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), in what is now Nunavut, to settle two locations on the High Arctic islands. The RCMP acted on behalf of the Department of Resources and Development. ( See Inuit High Arctic Relocations.)

Inuit Relocations
Kyak family from Pond Inlet, Nunavut on board the C.G.S. C.D. Howe at Grise Fiord. Back row, left to right: Moses Kyak, Lazarus Kyak, Mary (née Panigusiq) Cousins, Letia carrying Elizabeth in the amauti, and Leah. Front row, left to right: David, Carmen, Timothy, and Lily.

Domestic Concerns

As the Gouzenko affair showed, the Cold War was felt as much at home as abroad. There were communist “witch hunts” in Canadian government and society. These were perhaps more subdued than the ones in the US, but they had real consequences. Communists were identified and purged from trade unions. LGBTQ individuals, who were considered susceptible to blackmail and coercion, were purged from the federal public service and the armed forces. Canadian diplomats with allegedly questionable loyalties were put under suspicion. Tragically, diplomat Herbert Norman committed suicide in 1957. This came after almost a decade of various accusations and investigations by American intelligence agencies into his supposed communist associations; these remain shrouded in mystery and are still debated by scholars today.

Cold War LGBTQ Purge

Between the 1950s and 1990s, the Canadian government responded to national security concerns generated by Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union by spying on, exposing and removing suspected LGBTQ individuals from the federal public service and the Canadian Armed Forces. They were cast as social and political subversives and were seen as targets for blackmail by communist regimes seeking classified government information. These characterizations were justified by arguments that people who engaged in same-sex relations suffered from a “character weakness.” It was also believed they had something to hide because their sexuality was not only considered a taboo but, under certain circumstances, was illegal in Canada. As a result, the RCMP investigated large numbers of people. Many of them were fired, demoted or forced to resign — even if they had no access to security information. These measures were kept out of public view to prevent scandal and to keep counter-espionage operations under wraps. (In 2017, the federal government issued an official apology for its discriminatory actions and policies, along with a $145-million compensation package.) (See Canada’s Cold War Purge of LGBTQ from Public Service and Canada’s Cold War Purge of LGBTQ from the Military.)

Canada and the Cold War

Serious East-West diplomatic discussions resumed after the death of Stalin in 1953. But international tensions remained high for the next several decades. On a global scale, Canada contributed armed forces to peacekeeping operations throughout the world; this included areas divided between communist and anti-communist factions. Canadian political and military leaders were at times critical of American actions against communism in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia; but they still prepared for possible war against the Soviets in Europe.

By the 1950s, there was a growing concern that Soviet bombers would attack North America from the Canadian Arctic. In fact, NATO intelligence suggested that such an attack could occur as early as 1954. In response, in 1953–54, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) commissioned Avro to design and build the Arrow. It was an all-weather nuclear fighter jet meant to fly higher and faster than any aircraft in its class. (See Avro Arrow.).”

The Canadian NATO commitment in Europe included an army brigade group in West Germany and air force fighter jets capable of carrying nuclear weapons. For Canada’s government and its people, the fear of nuclear war remained ever-present throughout the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Canadians were active at various levels in trying to avoid such a calamity.

A crowd of people gathered on tarmac around the Avro Arrow at its unveiling in 1957.

Unveiling of the Avro Arrow in 1957.


On 1 August 1957, the Canadian and American governments announced they would integrate their air-defence forces under a joint command called the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD). At this stage in the Cold War, both Canada and the US feared long-range Soviet attack. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and the United States Air Force (USAF) would work together to ensure protection.

The “Diefenbunker” is an underground bunker designed to withstand the force of a nuclear blast. It was built between 1959 and 1961 in Carp, Ontario, during a peak in Cold War tensions. It was named after then-Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. It is now the location of Canada’s Cold War Museum. (See Diefenbunker, Canada’s Cold War Museum.)

SAGE "Blue Room" in NORAD underground complex at Canadian Forces Base North Bay, Ontario, 8 December 1972.

Bomarc Missile Crisis

In late 1958, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s Conservative government announced an agreement with the US to deploy American “Bomarc” antiaircraft missiles in Canada. This controversial defence decision was one of many flowing from the 1957 NORAD agreement.

Some argued that the missiles would be an effective replacement for the Avro Arrow, which the Diefenbaker government scrapped in early 1959. The missiles would theoretically intercept any Soviet attacks on North America before they reached Canada’s industrial heartland. (See Civil Defence.)

However, the government did not make it clear that the missiles would be fitted with nuclear warheads. When this came to light in 1960, a dispute erupted as to whether Canada should adopt nuclear weapons. In the end, the Liberal government of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson decided to accept the nuclear warheads in 1963. (See Bomarc Missile Crisis.)

Bomarc Missile
The decision of the Conservative government in 1958 to cancel the Avro Arrow and deploy two squadrons of the American Bomarc missile caused a crisis in Canadian defence policy.

Cuban Missile Crisis

On 15 October 1962, an American spy plane discovered that Soviet missiles were being installed in Cuba. This was seen as a direct threat to the United States and Canada. Canadian forces were placed on heightened alert during the crisis that followed. But Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s hesitant response aggravated US President John F. Kennedy; it fuelled already difficult relations between Canada and the US in the 1960s. The crisis brought the world to the edge of nuclear war. It ended on 28 October 1962, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to dismantle and remove the Soviet missiles in return for Kennedy’s promise not to invade Cuba. (See Cuban Missile Crisis.)


Aerial view showing missile launch site 3 in Cuba, October 1962.

Fall of the Soviet Union

The Cold War began winding down in the late 1980s amid new efforts at openness by the Soviet leadership and a surge of freedom movements inside the European communist states. This culminated in the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (which had separated West and East Germany since 1961) and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

See also: Civil Defence; Middle Power; Vietnam War; Camp X; Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

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Further Reading

  • Amy Knight, How the Cold War Began: The Igor Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies (2005).
  • Robert Bothwell, Alliance and Illusion: Canada and the World, 1945–1984 (2011).
  • Gary Marcuse and Reginald Whitaker, Cold War Canada: The Making of a National Insecurity State, 1945–1957 (1995).
  • Reg Whitaker and Steve Hewitt, Canada and the Cold War (2003).
  • Lawrence Miller, The Avro Arrow: The Story of the Great Canadian Cold War Combat Jet (2014).