North American Air Defense Command

Canada’s NORAD headquarters at CFB North Bay, 1972. ? J. Mercier / Library and Archives Canada / e010858630
McDonnell CF-101 Voodoo fighter jets were part of NORAD’s aerial defense operations. ? Department of National Defence / Canadian Armed Forces, not reproduced in affiliation with DND / CAF.

For the week of Monday December 21, 2020

On December 24, 1955, the U.S. Continental Air Defence Command in Colorado Springs reported spotting “a high-flying object,” identified as Santa Claus’s sleigh, heading south from the North Pole. These reports were part of a public outreach program to advertise advanced radar technology, established to warn of air threats to North America. The binational organization charged with monitoring these radars after 1957–1958 was originally known as the North American Air Defense Command (now, the North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD).

The history of NORAD can be traced back to the Second World War. Realizing that Canada would be unable to defend itself against an Axis invasion if Great Britain were to surrender, Prime Minster William Lyon Mackenzie King and American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt formed the Permanent Joint Board on Defence and agreed that Canada and the United States would work together in the event of an attack.

After the war, Canada and the U.S. concluded that the Soviet Union’s long-range, nuclear capable, bomber force needed to be tracked as early as possible to deter an attack. Both countries established command channels and bases in Newfoundland, eastern Canada, and the northeastern United States for future offensive and defensive operations. This was followed by significant improvements in aerial defence technologies, including radar systems, which over time became unmanned and situated farther north in response to new technologies, like long-range cruise missiles.

In 1951, Canada agreed to the construction of a series of radar stations funded in large part by the United States and known commonly as the “Pinetree Line.” Each station was staffed by 300 to 400 personnel and featured a 75- to 100-kilometre search radar, a height-finding radar, and a back-up search radar. The Pinetree Line was later joined by the mid-Canada and Distant Early Warning lines.

In 1957–1958, Canada and the United States formed NORAD as part of their Cold War deterrence strategy of expanding continental security efforts. In 1963, NORAD’s Canadian headquarters opened in North Bay. Nicknamed “the Hole,” this complex was 60-storeys below ground and capable of withstanding a four-megaton nuclear strike. It received radar feeds and was linked to the other NORAD regions through the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment computer system, which automated manual forms of aircraft tracking that had become too slow, following the introduction of supersonic aircraft, like the McDonnell CF-101 Voodoo. Today, NORAD has bases throughout the continent and continues to track Santa on Christmas Eve, while conducting year-round aerospace warning, aerospace control, and maritime warning operations in the defense of North America.

Continental Air Defence in the Cold War is a designated national historic event. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of National Historic Events, which evoke significant moments, episodes, movements, or experiences in the history of Canada.

Search the directory to find out more about Federal Heritage Designations.