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How tracking Santa evolved from the cold war (5 photos)

This week, Back Roads Bill reflects upon the importance of the Bomarc missile to Northern Ontario’s heritage

For more than 65 years NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command ) has been tracking Santa using satellite systems, high-powered radar and jet fighters – much of which stems from the cold war. There will be a return to this lead.

It is a far-flung thought and not so seasonal, but if there had been a nuclear war during this post-World War II period the skies above central Canada and northeastern Ontario would have had fifty-six near-Hiroshima-size detonations. We drive by this obscure history all the time and think little of what was.

Village Media readers eventually take one of the two Trans Canada Highways crossing Northern Ontario. Highway 11 North, heads north, coming or going from the City who has had two mottoes ‘Gateway to the North’ and then in 2018, ‘North Bay: You’ll Get Used To It.’

But look for these two locations. The first, on top of a hill, the Bo-mark Motel’s sign near the truck stops is a reminder of these namesake missiles. The second, about 7 km further up the highway address locator sign, #5785, west side is by the permanent trailer park houses and Bomarc Road. The new growth partially obscures the hill and the remains of what was one of the most strategic places in Canada.

At one time North Bay was tactically at the heart of the cold war and there are few reminders of what included nuclear missiles at ready. The cold war was a period of geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and the Western Bloc and the Eastern Bloc, which began following World War II to approximately 1991.

In the fall of 1958, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker's Conservative government announced an agreement with the US to deploy two squadrons of "Bomarc" (Boeing and the Michigan Aeronautical Research Centre) antiaircraft missiles in Canada. This controversial defence decision was one of many emanating from the 1957 NORAD agreement with the United States.

Throughout the Cold War, North Bay’s position as an important military base led to both pride and fear within the city’s citizens. While happy about the addition of many jobs and great prosperity, the people of North Bay were also worried about the city’s positioning if war ever actively broke out between the United States and the Soviet Union. The presence of Bomarc missiles in the city is an illustration of this tension.


Doug Newman, Captain (retired), Wing Heritage Officer, 22 Wing Heritage Officer, Canadian Forces Base North Bay knows his heritage. He describes the deployment plan. 

Each missile packed a 7 to 10-kiloton nuclear warhead; guided by NORAD personnel in the Underground Complex in North Bay, they would race out at three times the speed of sound, to as far as 640 kilometres, to their targets, then detonate—filling Northeastern Canada skies with 56 Hiroshima-size blasts—erasing their main Soviet bomber targets, and, hopefully, causing enough damage to the survivors that most couldn’t complete their missions and the rest would be easy pickings for the jet fighters.

Fighters would also eradicate the bombers that escaped the Bomarcs, the missiles having reduced the Soviet bomber contingent to a manageable number. The strategy was aimed at eliminating bombers. Bomarcs were not intended to engage and were impotent against, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

There were two Bomarc bases in Canada, one at North Bay and the second at La Macaza, Quebec, about 160 kilometres northwest of Montreal. Each base was armed with 28 missiles.

The missiles at the two sites were launched and guided to their targets by personnel at the North Bay, underground complex.

The Hiroshima atomic bomb was 15 kilotons. In essence, if we had gone to war, we would have filled the central Canada to northeastern Ontario skies with 56 near-Hiroshima-size nuclear detonations.

The historic Bomarc photo is described. 

The farthest missile has been set fully erect (launch position), the other is lifting to erect.

No Bomarcs were ever fired from North Bay. Their Canadian crews travelled to a U.S. base in Florida to launch Bomarcs.

One crew was so proficient in guiding its Bomarc that the missile slammed into the target, an unmanned drone jet fighter. The feat was like hitting a slap-shot hockey puck with a rifle bullet fired from the other end of the rink.

Usually, a crew guided their missile to 16 kilometres from the target, then the missile took over, flew in and exploded near the target, the detonation causing enough damage to knock it out of the sky. Of course, if fitted with a nuclear warhead the target would be vaporized. Either way, a direct hit wasn’t required. The Canadian crew managed the hit nonetheless.


The Bomarc (Boeing and the Michigan Aeronautical Research Centre) surface-to-air guided missile, with a range of 640 km, would be an effective replacement for the manned interceptor Avro Arrow, which Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s government scrapped.

It would theoretically intercept any Soviet attacks on North America before they reached the industrial heartland of Canada. Missiles were deployed at North Bay, under the ultimate control of the commander-in-chief of NORAD.

Doug explained,

Each Bomarc base was connected to its command and control centre via two telephone lines. The second line took over if the first broke down or had to be shut down, say for repair.

It was through these lines that, in war, they get ready to launch and then the fire commands were to be sent. The commands were transmitted as coded electronic signals.

If both telephone lines were bad—still operating, but poorly—they could pick up electrical noise from the outside world. At a Bomarc base in Maryland, the system interpreted the electrical noise as the ‘ready’ code.

To the horror of onlookers, a missile suddenly sprang erect and went through the launch sequence. Since the second command code, to fire, wasn’t received, the missile aborted, and the event ended peacefully.

This never happened at North Bay. And, to be fair, due to the measures in place in the Bomarc system, you have a better chance of winning the Lotto Max and 649 back-to-back, than for a Bomarc missile to receive both a faulty ready and faulty fire code.

That said, one person described the Maryland experience as like having your dog jump on your bed in the middle of the night, growl at your throat, then go to sleep at your feet.

For a time the government did not accept nuclear warheads for the Bomarcs, a reluctance that contributed to poor Canadian-American relations. 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 Dec. 31, 1963.

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 1972 along with the disbanding of the RCAF squadrons.

From 1979 to 2009, a Bomarc missile was mounted on a pedestal in Lee Park (Veteran’s Fields) in North Bay. The missile was removed to the National Air Force Museum in Ohio in 2009. Other than an interpretative plaque at the park, only the Hwy. 11 site remains.

“The missile was removed by the USAF and returned to the U.S. because the City of North Bay no longer had the means or money to take care of it. There is a common misconception that the Bomarc belonged to our base or was on loan to our base from the Americans; rather the agreement was strictly between the city and USAF. Other than storing the missile until it was mounted on the pedestal, CFB had no part in the loan.”

If you would like to learn more visit the nearby Canadian Forces Museum of Aerospace Defence (temporarily closed because of the pandemic) near North Bay’s Jack Garland airport/CFB North Bay.

There is no Ontario Heritage Trust highway sign on Highway 11 North to commemorate this significant historic site. The buildings have been repurposed a number of times and it is now a private sector storage facility. Drive up the short road to where there are some of the original buildings and some faded orange and white light poles from the era that was.

See the Google Earth map, it is an interesting reminder; you can still see the remains of the 28 silo-like bunkers at the launch site. And see this comprehensive short video (with Doug Newman) called The Hole In Reservoir Hill the NORAD underground complex that was part and parcel of the missile base, (start at the 2:00 mark, see the missiles at the 6:34 and 10:30 marks) the two portals to the underground installation can also be seen on the map.

Santa is on his way; take a look at how NORAD does it in real-time tracking the jolly fellow across the world and there is a holiday card from Back Roads Bill, mind you, he is just a stand-in. Happy Holidays!

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Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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