Civil Defence Training HQ on Granville Street

Crop of CVA 228-545 – N 13, N 14. May 1953. Lew Parry Film Productions. Shows the current Granville Bridge under construction in 1953 and Vancouver Civil Defence Training HQ in its temporary location (1396 Granville) adjacent to and south of the Continental Hotel at the foot of the Bridge.

The property identified in the image above as Vancouver’s Civil Defence Training HQ was originally occupied by NeoLite — a neon sign company. [1] The space was only a temporary site for the civil defence HQ from 1951-1953 mainly because the real estate was needed by the new Granville Bridge (some of the concrete of which is visible in the foreground of the photo).

What was its Function?

The civil defence training group was committed to keeping Vancouverites and British Columbians as safe as possible in the event of an act of a war or national emergency. [2] A major component of CD was the training of an auxiliary police force. The force was made up of of volunteers who were trained by regular police officers. The auxiliary police had a slogan: “If we never need what we learn in civil defence we lose nothing, but if we never learn what we need, we may lose everything” (Sun, 6 Oct 1951). The civil defence HQ also trained volunteer fire personnel.

By 1961, the range of CD training available had broadened beyond training auxiliary police and fire personnel to include training in first aid, home nursing, and rescue survival (among other courses) (Sun 18 Sept 1961).

In the early years (1951-55, say), civil defence was able to draw a healthy number of volunteers, and was seen as a very important task. This was mainly because WW2 was such a recent memory. Not only were there many former ARP (Air Raid Precautions) volunteers in the city from that conflict, but there were many WW2 veterans living in Vancouver then who had seen with their own eyes what destruction was wrought in European cities in the recent war. These people did not need to be persuaded of the importance of preventing a similar outcome in Vancouver.

Civil Defence Takes a Dive

By 1966, however, civil defence had declined significantly in the city’s priorities. Typically, precious few volunteers could be found in the HQ (by then it had moved to Howe). The civil defence head in Vancouver, Group Captain Alexander Lewis, had this to say:

The public shows no interest during periods of peace. They are like an ostrich — they like to keep their heads in the sand; they prefer to forget war….At the time of Cuba [missile crisis] we were inundated with calls about radio activity and fall-out shelters….I sometimes wonder if the amount of money that is spent and the amount of work we put in is not out of all proportion to the number of people we train.

Sun, 2 Aug 1966
CVA 1184-2733 – Exterior view of the Neolite Co. building with a Perfex bleach neon sign on the roof (prior to it becoming Vancouver Civil Defence Training HQ). 1943. Jack Lindsay.

Group Capt. Lewis wasn’t the only one thinking such thoughts. Such questions had occurred to city aldermen, too. By 1966, the city’s civil defence outlay seems to have been principally for the rental of the HQ at Howe: $600 a month. But even that modest sum was considered by City Council to be too much to pay for civil defence and within a year, the headquarters had been vacated and became the new Vancouver City Police Academy (which had moved from, apparently, an unsatisfactory site on the PNE grounds).

‘Civil Defence’ to ‘EMO’ to ‘Search & Rescue’

In the mid-’60s, the civil defence function performed by the Training HQ and other related groups in the province had changed its name, collectively, to the Emergency Measures Organization (EMO) — a group that seems to have been a creature of the federal government. The EMO seemed not to have much continuing relevance in the City of Vancouver after the late 1960s. But it was relevant in the mountainous area of North Vancouver. In 1972, for example, the following EMO action was reported in the press:

A North Vancouver Emergency Measures Organization rescue crew led three people to safety Sunday night after three were stranded on a ledge on Grouse Mountain.

Sun, 22 Nov 1972

You could be forgiven if you concluded that the reported rescue by EMO volunteers sounded a lot like the sort of thing you hear reported today of North Vancouver search and rescue teams. Indeed, the function of the EMO in North Vancouver seemed gradually to morph into the search and rescue organization that exists today in North Vancouver.

The Continental Hotel being demolished ca 2015. MDM Photo


  1. NeoLite moved to a location at the corner of Burrard and 2nd Avenue after leaving the Granville site. NeoLite was one of several neon sign companies operating in Vancouver at this time. The most famous (and extant) of these firms was Neon Products, which was located on Terminal Avenue.
  2. While the CD Training group was focussed on educating volunteers, another major organization, the Ground Observer Corps, with direct ties to the RCAF, was a more hands-on bunch. The observer corps – a BC-wide, indeed a nation-wide, group of volunteers – were to watch the skies and report in to HQ descriptions of any planes they spotted. The corps headquarters would then check the ground-observed flight info against the flight manifests submitted by each legitimate pilot prior to them taking off. If the airplane reported by the corps didn’t have a manifest and/or it seemed to be suspicious, the RCAF would be ordered, potentially, to ‘scramble’ its fighter planes (Sun, 6 Nov 1954). The headquarters of the corps was at 1363 Howe Street, the same address as the CD Training HQ was moved to after leaving its Granville location — so the two arms of civil defence in Vancouver were at the same site. The Ground Observer Corps folded by 1960, when the same functions it had performed with human observers could be more efficiently carried out electronically. The CD Training arm was mothballed a few years later, in 1967 (Province, 3 May 1960).

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4 Responses to Civil Defence Training HQ on Granville Street

  1. jmv says:

    Great post, very timely!

  2. mguibord says:

    Great stuff, Murray. CD pins are not uncommon, so I do come across them. Stands to reason those folks had be trained somewhere. And I so remember the tearing down of that beautiful mural. Didn’t realize that was the Continental. Thanks! Maurice


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