PHOTOS: © LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—E000990870; E000990869; E001096688; E000990869; E000756918
Deirdre McIlwraith was 24, a graduate of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and fluent in French and Spanish when she landed a job as a protocol officer with the Canadian Corporation for the 1967 World Exhibition, the organization that planned, built and ran Expo 67 in Montreal.
McIlwraith worked at the Restaurant Hélène de Champlain, the venue used to host lunches for visiting dignitaries and heads of state. She officiated at events for Princess Grace of Monaco and Princess Margaret, the sister of Queen Elizabeth II. She remembers the representatives of the Ivory Coast in equatorial Africa, who were uniformly tall, spoke impeccable Parisian French and were elegantly dressed in the latest fashions from France. She vividly recalls a tiny, frail and elderly Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, who arrived with his dog and insisted that it sit under the table next to him and be served ground filet mignon. She recounts a tense lunch in late July when Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau rebuked French President Charles de Gaulle after his infamous “Vive le Québec libre” speech delivered from a balcony at city hall.
McIlwraith was on duty for dozens of such lunches, but what she remembers most vividly was the exuberance and almost breathless excitement of the ordinary people who flocked to Expo 67 from every corner of Canada and around the world from the moment the gates opened to the public on Friday, April 28, 1967. “Right away, the fair was a hit,” she says. “It was fantastic. It was wonderful to feel that Canada was meeting its potential. You really felt anything was possible–that we could have a bicultural, bilingual Canada, that we could have the best of Europe and the best of North America.”
Expo 67 was a celebration of Canada’s first 100 years and it occurred at a time when Canadians were in a celebratory mood. After the Great Depression and World War II, the 1950s and 1960s brought unprecedented prosperity and optimism. It was a time of striking medical advances, big families, increasing urbanization and the creation of generous social programs. Immigration was also enriching Canadian society. Newcomers from southern and eastern Europe, from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, were making the country more diverse, more tolerant and more exciting. There were very disturbing developments internationally such as the Cold War and the conflict in Vietnam, but they were considered by many to be largely other people’s problems and nothing to put a damper on Canada’s centennial or its world fair.
The fair opened “officially” on April 27 while hundreds of workmen scrambled to put finishing touches on pavilions, restaurants and other facilities. Governor General Roland Michener, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, Mayor Drapeau, all 10 provincial premiers and 53 heads of state toured the fair and then some 7,000 invited guests got their first peek. Expo was built at a cost of $415 million on two islands in the St. Lawrence: Île Ste-Hélène, a natural formation that was enlarged by millions of tonnes of fill; and the totally man-made Île Notre-Dame. The site spanned nearly 1,000 acres, which was room enough for 39 restaurants, 62 snack bars, an amusement park called La Ronde, parking for thousands of vehicles and the pavilions of 62 participating countries as well as hundreds of corporations.
Many of the official guests were star struck by what they saw, especially the space-age geodesic dome that housed the American pavilion, the 10-storey, futuristic housing development called Habitat ’67 that consisted of randomly stacked dwelling units, and an internal transportation system of hovercrafts, Venetian-style gondolas and two elevated railways. Quebec Premier Daniel Johnson described Expo as “more wonderful, more beautiful that anyone had ever predicted,” and the prime minister told a journalist: “Anyone who says we aren’t a spectacular people only has to see this.”
After the politicians, the dignitaries and the VIPs left, ordinary Montrealers and others from further away began lining up for the public opening at 9:30 the following morning. The first person through the gates was Al Carter, a 39-year-old jazz drummer from Chicago who had paid $12 for a seven-day Expo passport bearing the number 00001. By the end of that day, some 335,000 people had visited the fair, twice as many people as expected. On Sunday, April 30, attendance hit an astonishing 530,000, which would prove to be Expo’s biggest one-day crowd and which pushed the total for the first three days over the one million mark.
Then the reviews began to appear and they were almost universally laudatory. Time magazine devoted seven pages to Expo in its May 5 issue and was giddy in its descriptions. The crowds, Time reported, were “stirred, made happy, thrilled and dazzled by a world spectacularly bigger than themselves.” The magazine went on to describe Expo as “a Centennial adventure in which a Canada newly brimming with self-confidence is playing host to the world and perhaps finding itself into the bargain.”
Not to be outdone, the New York Times newspaper declared that: “The sophisticated standard of excellence…almost defies description.” The Economist magazine stated that: “The acclaim won for the man-made islands in the St. Lawrence may have done more for Canadians’ self-confidence than any other recent event.” Among domestic commentators, few could surpass Peter C. Newman’s observation that: “This is the greatest thing we have ever done as a nation (including the building of the CPR)…if this sub-Arctic, self-obsessed country of 20 million people can put on this kind of show, then it can do almost anything.”
By the time the fair closed its gates for good on Sunday, Oct. 27, Expo 67 had achieved renown as one of the most successful world exhibitions since the first of its kind was held in London, England, in 1851. The only serious rivals were the Paris world fair of 1900, which enjoyed the participation of 58 countries and drew 50.8 million visitors, and the 1958 Brussels exhibition, which drew some 41.4 million people. Expo 67 attracted 50,306,648, more than 2½ times the entire population of Canada at the time.
For Montrealers, the end of the fair was an emotional event. “The mood that prevailed during Expo’s 185th and last day was a curious bittersweet mixture of joy and pride and sadness,” wrote the Montreal Gazette newspaper’s Nick Auf der Maur. Staff at various pavilions handed out horns and flags bearing the Expo logo and the words “Au Revoir Expo,” but as Auf der Maur noted: “These failed to achieve a holiday atmosphere. Despite the large crowds everywhere, the day was more of a fond, personal farewell in a summer of romance.”
That Expo 67 had made such an impact was all the more remarkable given its origins.
In the late 1950s, Conservative Senator Mark Drouin began pushing the idea of hosting a world’s fair to celebrate Canada’s centennial. But in 1960 the Paris-based Bureau of International Exhibitions (BIE) awarded the 1967 universal exposition to Moscow since that year the Soviet Union would be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The Soviets worked on the project for two years and then scrapped it as too costly.
Mayor Drapeau and a small group of talented, ambitious Montrealers saw their opportunity. They would convince the BIE to award the fair to their city, and they did. The bureau made its decision on Nov. 13, 1962. That left Montreal with just 4½ years to get ready for an event that would normally take seven.
The biggest miracle about Expo 67 may be that it was finished and opened on time, and those who built it have treasured the memory ever since. “My wife thought I was crazy to accept a position,” recalls director of operations Philippe de Gaspé Beaubien, who went on to found the Quebec-based broadcasting company Télémedia Inc. “We had to work night and day. I lived in a room on top of the Hélène de Champlain and my children used to come and see me there on the weekends. Fortunately, I have a very strong and supportive wife.”
“The part that was really exciting for me was to see the emergence of the pavilions,” says Montreal stockbroker Daniele Touchette, who was a hostess and led visiting foreign delegations on tours of the construction site. “At first, there was nothing there. You’d see scale models and then you’d see one pavilion coming up and then two and three. It was so exciting.”
Diana Nicholson was a 22-year-old, bilingual American when she became one of the first 100 employees of the Expo corporation. She was hired as a liaison person in the public relations department and was supposed to handle communications with French West Africa and Latin America. That quickly changed. “I spent about a year travelling across Canada to every kind of exhibition or show conducting public briefings on the project,” she says. “I remember travelling with this enormous scale model, which turned out to be totally inaccurate because we didn’t really have any idea of what we were going to be putting in various places.”
One of the first challenges was to develop a theme for the fair, a task assigned to a select group of intellectuals, artists, scientists and administrators, including the novelists Hugh MacLennan and Gabrielle Roy. They met for three days in May 1963 at Montebello, Que., and came up with Man and His World, which was inspired by the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry story Terre des Hommes and the line “To be a man is to feel that by carrying one stone you contribute to the building of the world.”
The Expo corporation and the City of Montreal spent about nine months trying to settle on a site. Developers, landowners and speculators lobbied for a dozen or more properties in and around Montreal, but the mayor had his own unique plan. The fair would be built on two islands in the St. Lawrence River, one substantially enlarged, the other built from scratch with 25 million tons of fill from the new 34-kilometre long subway system.
Many thought the idea ridiculous, including the prime minister. In a letter to Drapeau, Pearson dismissed the plan as “one of the silliest things I have ever heard,” and added: “With four million square miles of land we should be able to find a plot some place.” But there was no swaying the mayor. On Aug. 12, 1963, Pearson himself pulled a lever and a front-end loader dumped the first 25 yards of earth onto Île Ste-Hélène. For the next seven months, a truckload of fill was deposited every four minutes, around the clock and by June 26, 1964, the city turned over the islands to the Expo organization.
The man who built the fair was Colonel Edward Churchill, a retired army officer recruited from a cushy government job in Ottawa. He had 878 days to get the job done and it nearly killed him. After months of long days that frequently ended at midnight, he collapsed from exhaustion during a conference and required a stay in hospital. Churchill adopted the United States space program’s critical path technique for co-ordinating and advancing multiple tasks simultaneously. Every single project on the islands was broken into stages from planning right through to completion to ensure that there were schedules and that people stuck to them.
Another big challenge was to convince the world to participate, and that task fell to Expo’s commissioner Pierre Dupuy, a career diplomat recruited from the Department of External Affairs. He visited 125 countries, met 90 heads of state, travelled more than 250,000 miles, enlisted every Canadian diplomat abroad to work on the nationals in their countries and succeeded wildly.
Nicknamed Mr. Energy by his staff, Dupuy convinced 62 nations to participate, a new record for a world fair, and they came from every corner of the world, including Great Britain, France, Germany, Venezuela, Jamaica, Barbados, Cameroon, Ghana and Tanzania, Korea, Burma (now Myanmar), Iran and Kuwait.
Of all the pavilions and exhibits, two became landmarks that captured the futuristic spirit of the entire enterprise. The first was America’s geodesic dome, which was designed by the architect, inventor and visionary Buckminster Fuller and known as Bucky’s Bubble. While some fairgoers found the exhibits pedestrian, the structure itself was striking–a sphere 250 feet in diameter and 200-feet high with a cathedral-like grandeur inside. The exterior was made of acrylic panels attached to a honeycomb-like frame of steel tubes, and it was transparent. That gave the dome “a light, fairy-tale feel,” according to author Pierre Berton, who added: “At night, lit from within, the dome was sheer fantasy.”
The other structure that became an enduring symbol of the fair was Moshe Safdie’s Habitat ’67. Safdie was a 28-year-old architect who was born in Israel, but grew up in Montreal and developed the concept in his master’s thesis at McGill University. It consisted of 354 pre-fabricated, concrete boxes, which were hoisted into place with cranes and placed helter-skelter to form 158 apartments. “Just about every rule, precedent, practice, custom and convention is broken by Habitat,” Ada Louise Huxtable of the New York Times wrote. But she went on to describe it as “a significant and stunning exercise in experimental housing.”
Habitat ’67 remains in use to this day as a housing development, though most of the units are privately owned. In 1976, a fire destroyed the acrylic exterior of Fuller’s dome, but it was replaced and the structure now houses a museum called the Biosphere. The amusement park continues to operate as La Ronde, but there are few other physical reminders of Expo 67.
The passage of time has also erased much of the goodwill and idealism that made Expo possible. The kidnapping crisis of October 1970, the election of separatist governments in Quebec, the exodus of English Montrealers and the economic decline of Montreal all served to erode the optimism and camaraderie that allowed Canadians to dazzle the world. “It was a very interesting time,” says Beaubien, now in his 80th year. “Our minds expanded.” And so did our sense of what it meant to be Canadian and what we could achieve when we worked together.