Bomarc Missile Crisis

The Bomarc Missile Crisis was a Cold War-era dispute over whether Canada should house nuclear missiles as part of its NORAD air defence agreement with the United States.

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 (courtesy Canadian Aviation Museum).

The Bomarc Missile Crisis was a ​Cold War-era dispute over whether Canada should house nuclear missiles as part of its ​NORAD air defence agreement with the United States.

Secret Nuclear Warheads

In the fall of 1958 Prime Minister John Diefenbaker's Conservative government announced an agreement with the US to deploy two squadrons of the American ramjet-powered "Bomarc" antiaircraft missile in Canada. This controversial defence decision was one of many flowing from the 1957 North American Air Defence (NORAD) agreement with the US.

It was argued by some that the surface-to-air guided missile, with a range of 640 km, would be an effective replacement for the manned interceptor Avro Arrow, which the Diefenbaker government had scrapped. The missiles would theoretically intercept any Soviet attacks on North America before they reached the industrial heartland of Canada.

Fifty-six missiles were deployed at North Bay, Ontario, and La Macaza, Québec, under the ultimate control of the commander-in-chief of NORAD.

The Canadian government did not make it clear that the version to be acquired, the Bomarc-B, was to be fitted with nuclear warheads. When this became known in 1960 it gave rise to a dispute as to whether Canada should adopt nuclear weapons. It led to anti-nuclear protests throughout the country.

Warheads Arrive

In the end the government did not accept nuclear warheads for the Bomarcs, a reluctance which contributed to poor Canadian-American relations in this period.

The Conservative government was divided over the issue. Its Cabinet failed to make a firm decision on whether Canada should honour its NORAD obligations and house the nuclear missiles, or maintain Canada’s opposition to the spread of nuclear weapons.

The Liberal Opposition said that it supported the NORAD obligations and would accept the nuclear warheads.

The Conservatives lost the 1963 election, in part over the Bomarc issue. The Liberals returned to power under Prime Minister Lester Pearson and decided to accept nuclear warheads for Canadian nuclear-capable forces. The Bomarc warheads were delivered to their sites on 31 December 1963.

Canada Signs Treaty

In 1969 Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's new Liberal government announced that Canada would withdraw its armed forces from their nuclear roles.

His government signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which took force in 1970. As part of this process the Bomarc missile was phased out of service by 1971.