Military feared FLQ would steal nuclear arms

Voici un texte qui fut publié dans le Ottawa Citizen, il y a quelques temps, montrant bien à quel point la menace felquiste était prise au sérieux.


DND braced for strike on missiles at Val d'Or

Monday 16 February 1998

Concerned that separatists would try to steal nuclear weapons stored in Quebec in the late 1960s, the military devised a plan to fight off any such attempts, a book by a defence analyst reveals.

Canadian Nuclear Weapons: The Untold Story of Canada's Cold War Arsenal, contains details of a 1968-'70 plan called Operation Rivet that called for the military to quickly provide reinforcements if separatists tried to seize one of the warheads.

The military was particularly worried that nuclear weapons stored at a base near Val d'Or, Que., 300 kilometres northwest of Ottawa, would be a potential target for separatists or demonstators opposed to nuclear arms.

Under Operation Rivet, troops would have been given live ammunition and tear gas to deal with the threat.

« The government was terribly concerned about losing a nuke in Quebec, » says the book's author, John Clearwater, a military analyst who works in the Department of National Defence's Access to Information branch in Ottawa.

The 400-page book, published by Dundurn Press, is to be released this week.

« You don't see quite the same level of concern for similar storage sites at the bases in Chatham, New Brunswick, or Comox, B.C., » says Mr. Clearwater, who obtained recently declassified military documents and federal cabinet notes made at the time about the nuclear weapons.

« The plan was specifically designed to protect the nukes at Val d'Or because that was the security concern. It's not that surprising if you consider what was happening then. »

At the time the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) was at the height of its terrorist activities.

From 1963 to 1970, the group was involved in more than 200 bombings. In the fall of 1970, the FLQ kidnapped British trade commissioner James Cross and Pierre Laporte, who was the province's immigration and manpower minister.

The federal government responded by invoking the War Measures Act and calling out troops to help deal with the crisis.

At its peak, the Canadian military had about 300 nuclear weapons at bases in the country and Europe. Mr. Clearwater writes that the last nuclear weapons, about 24 warheads, were flown out of Canadian Forces Base Comox, B.C., in June 1984.

The atomic bombs, which were shipped to Canada in December 1963, were owned by the U.S. and remained under the control of American officials, said M.r Clearwater. But the warheads would be used or dropped by Canadian military personnel in the event of war, he said.

Although the Canadian military had an exceptional safety record in keeping the nuclear weapons, Mr. Clearwater was able to unearth some reports of accidents involving the warheads.

In 1967, a fire broke out inside a Bomarc missile warhead in La Macaza, Que., about 150 kilometres north of Ottawa. The incident was so serious that it was classified as a "Broken Arrow," a U.S. military term covering the theft of a nuclear weapon, a fire or the release of radioactive materials, or an accident that might cause the detonation of an atomic warhead.

« That was the big Bomarc accident," said Mr. Clearwater. "Maintenance crews ripped the panels off the missile and found the guidance and radar package smoldering away right next to the warhead. »

The fire was put out, but Mr. Clearwater said a similar fire ina Bomarc missile in New Jersey melted the warhead and spewed radioactive material in the area.

Technicians at the Comox, B.C., base in 1967 lowered a missile from a parked aircraft, not realizing that the cables to launch the rocket were still attached to the wing. Normally that downward movement would ignited the missile's engine but luckily the system failed, said Mr. Clearwater.

Documents also reveal that the arrival of the first nuclear weapons in Canada in 1963 was not without government red tape. Customs officials intended to inspect each shipment of weapons from the U.S., and insisted that normal customs procedures -- such as clearly marking the item being shipped and the payment of import duties -- apply to the warheads. Those procedures were eventually waived but customs officers still insisted on being present at each delivery.

Mr. Clearwater also writes that residents of North Bay, Ont., were rather shaken when nuclear weapons were delivered to the military base in 1964. Two hours after the arrival of the third shipment of warheads, the city was hit by a mild earthquake. Panicked residents flooded police and the base with phone calls, fearing a warhead had exploded.

Mr. Clearwater also details the Canadian navy's unsuccessful attempts to acquire atomic weapons. The navy wanted to be able to drop the bombs from its Sea King helicopters and other aircraft. It had planned to build storage bunkers for 15 warheads in Shearwater, N.S., and went as far as modifying 55 of its Tracker aircraft to carry nuclear weapons for use against submarines.

In Europe, the Canadian military planned to use nuclear warheads in event of a war with the Soviet Union.  « We were going to use heavy nuke weapons to bomb airfields in Eastern Europe and on petrol dumps and tank formations, » Mr. Clearwater said.

The book also details the one known attempt to spy on a Canadian nuclear site. In that 1965 incident, three people from the Polish Embassy in Ottawa were caught by the military sitting in a parking lot at the Val d'Or base. A camera and binoculars were found in their car. Since the three had diplomatic immunity, they were simply told to leave the area, Mr. Clearwater writes.


David Pugliese
The Ottawa Citizen


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