If you think you’ve seen it all at your local museum, think again. A good museum is a permanent record of local history, but it also reflects the ever-changing dynamic of a community.
A small display at the Cold Lake Air Force Museum hints at some changes coming next year—among them, a section dealing with CFB Cold Lake’s role in the testing of cruise missiles in the 1908s.
“We’re hoping to generate a two-sided discussion featuring the protesters’ point of view as well as the military and technical point of view, and allow the visitor to decide which view resonates more with them,” said the museum’s curator Wanda Stacey.
The Canadian government of Pierre Trudeau began discussions with the US in the late 1970s towards an agreement to test the missiles in Canadian airspace. The cruise missiles were controversial because they could be equipped to carry nuclear weapons.
They represented a significant change in the technology of nuclear warfare. Unlike the massive installations that were required to house and launch ballistic missiles, the 20-foot-long cruise missiles could be stored virtually anywhere and launched from an aircraft hundreds of miles from the target.
While this would give NATO a strategic advantage during the Cold War, it also made it difficult for the Soviets to verify how many missiles there were, and where they were. This threatened the practicality of international nuclear non-proliferation agreements.
Part of the testing was to launch unarmed missiles over the Bering Sea and fly them along the Mackenzie River valley, ultimately landing them on the Primrose Lake Air Weapons Range near Cold Lake.
Some tests involved “captive carry” where the missile was attached to a B-52 bomber. In other tests, the missiles were launched into free flight and tracked as they navigated the route.
“The cruise missile testing happened in Cold Lake, but its effect was global,” Stacey said. “We’re searching for testimonials from the public, people such as the escort pilots who flew the CF-18s that would have escorted the cruise missiles on the captive carry or free-flight tests.”
The testing agreement, and the actual flights, drew protests across the country. Groups of protesters gathered in Cold Lake.
“There were hundreds of reporters and protesters that showed up,” Stacey said. “The base was sealed off, there was high security. Nancy Berger of the Lakeland Area Non-Nuclear Coalition organized the first mass protest, which happened in Grand Centre at the high school. And people arrived in buses from all over Alberta.
“There were over 600 people and everybody was unprepared for that big a scale of protest. After that, they realized that CFB Cold Lake had no fence, so that was that was an impetus to actually get the area fenced off. There were death threats against the base commander.
“It was pretty exciting stuff for a little town.”
Stacey said the museum is looking for all kinds of testimonials, artifacts, and memorabilia from military and security personnel as well as from civilians and protesters.
“Any protest paraphernalia like buttons or badges that might have have been distributed with hawk-and-dove wording, slogans or signs from protesters, buttons, newspaper articles, photos of protesters or photos of recovered missiles,” she said.
The important thing for the museum, she said, is to try and capture the mood of the time and not take a stance or make a judgment. It will be up to visitors to draw their own conclusions based on their own values and experiences.
“A lot of times people are under the impression that once you’ve been to the museum and you’ve seen it, that’s it—it’s just static and nothing ever changes,” she said.
“But things do change and it’s really important to keep our content new and relevant, maybe retelling old stories in a new way, providing an alternative viewpoint, and generating discussion and excitement over issues that might have been forgotten or swept under the rug over time.
“We just want to make sure that the museum remains a vibrant force in the community and and people know that there’s something new every single year.”