Government of Canada recognizes Second World War civilian cryptographic bureau as a national historic event

News release

The Examination Unit contributed to the Allied war effort and the development of Canada’s foreign intelligence capacity

August 3, 2021                                      Ottawa, Ontario                                      Parks Canada Agency

Among Canada’s many contributions during the Second World War, the Examination Unit (XU) was a civilian cryptographic bureau that contributed to Allied efforts to break the codes and ciphers used in communications signals between 1941 to 1945.

Today, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, the Honourable Jonathan Wilkinson, announced the designation of the Examination Unit as a national historic event under the National Program of Historical Commemoration, on the recommendation of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

When the Second World War began, Canada had no civilian cryptographic bureau dedicated to decrypting communications signals. With no way of reading the messages that Canadian military and censorship officials were intercepting, the government had little choice but to depend on Britain for foreign intelligence. The founding of the XU in 1941 represented a step by the Canadian government to simultaneously gain more independence and become a valued intelligence partner.

The XU reported to the Department of External Affairs (now Global Affairs Canada) but operated under the administration of the National Research Council of Canada, as a way to hide its budget and keep its work a secret. Reports generated by the XU during the war contributed to an understanding by Canadian government officials and ministers of the value of foreign intelligence for Canadian decision-making.

National historic designations reflect the rich and varied heritage of our country and provide an opportunity for Canadians to learn more about our diverse history. The Government of Canada, through the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, recognizes significant persons, places, and events that have shaped our country as one way of helping Canadians connect with their past. By sharing these stories with Canadians, we hope to foster understanding and reflection on the diverse histories, cultures, legacies, and realities of Canada’s past and present.

The designation process under Parks Canada’s National Program of Historical Commemoration is largely driven by public nominations. To date, more than 2,200 designations have been made nationwide. To nominate a person, place or historical event in your community, please visit the Parks Canada website for more information:  

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“Canada’s Examination Unit – with women making up roughly 40 percent of its total known workforce – offers a fascinating glimpse into Canada’s Second World War intelligence activities. This specialized bureau established cryptography as a function of the federal government and helped give Canada a seat at the table when the time came to negotiate post-war intelligence alliances. On behalf of the Government of Canada, I am pleased to commemorate the national historic significance of the Examination Unit.”

The Honourable Jonathan Wilkinson,
Minister of Environment and Climate Change and Minister responsible for Parks Canada

“The Examination Unit’s work formed a part of the Allies’ codebreaking and monitoring of enemy communication that played a critical part in helping them achieve victory – some say it shortened the war by as much as two years. Many of those who worked at the Examination Unit went on to help establish what is now known as the Communication Security Establishment, Canada's national cryptologic agency.”

Diana Pepall
Author, Canada's Bletchley Park: The Examination Unit in Ottawa's Sandy Hill, 1941-1945
Nominated the Examination Unit for designation as a national historic event

Quick facts

  • Created in 1919, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada advises the Minister of Environment and Climate Change regarding the national significance of persons, places, and events that have marked Canada’s history. Together with Parks Canada, the Board ensures that subjects of national historic significance are recognized under the National Program of Historical Commemoration and these important stories are shared with Canadians.

  • The system of national historic sites and designations in Canada helps to tell the stories of who we are and connect us to our past, enriching our understanding of ourselves, each other, and our country. Heritage places provide a wide range of cultural, social, economic, and environmental benefits to their communities.

  • Parks Canada is committed to working with Canadians in our efforts to tell broader, more inclusive stories in the places that it manages. In support of this goal, the Framework for History and Commemoration, outlines a new, and engaging approach to sharing Canada’s history through diverse perspectives, including shedding light on tragic and difficult periods of Canada’s past.

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Joanna Sivasankaran
Press Secretary      
Office of the Minister of Environment and Climate Change

Media Relations
Parks Canada Agency

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