For Montrealers and Canadians of a half-century ago, Expo 67 was a magical time in Canadian history. It was a time when everything seemed possible.
On opening day, the international exhibition housed pavilions from 120 countries. Long before anyone dreamed about the Internet, the exhibits opened doors to instant knowledge about the world. The theme of Expo 67 was “Man and his World.”
Where the women were is a good question that no one asked 50 years ago. We can now stand proud that Canada is among the leaders in striving for gender equality and, if nothing else, the insensitive branding of Expo 67 reminds us of just how long ago 1967 is.
And that was the thing about Expo 67. It was futuristic in almost every other regard. It was about celebrating Canada’s centennial year with an eye to the future. Expo was a prelude to boundless change and progress.
On the expansive fair grounds there was a minirail that stood high above the ground. It was breathtakingly beautiful as the quiet electric train brought you from island to island in the St. Lawrence River. The Montreal skyline was the backdrop.
The islands where the pavilions stood were a story in themselves. St. Helen’s Island was expanded while Île Notre-Dame was built from scratch. People laughed at mayor Jean Drapeau when he announced Montreal would build an island in the river.
The mayor laughed right back. Île Notre-Dame was successfully built with earth and rocks that were excavated while building Montreal’s subway. Today, the Montreal Casino and the Grand Prix race track are located on Île Notre-Dame.
Dignitaries, celebrities and world leaders came to Expo in great numbers. From the end of April through to the end of October 1967, the national holidays of various countries were celebrated at an open-air amphitheatre called Place des Nations.
Historically, the most memorable foreign leader to come and quickly leave was French president Charles de Gaulle. The old man was said to have gotten carried away with himself when he cried out from the steps of Montreal City Hall, “Vivre le Québec libre!”
His remarks fuelled Quebec separatists, and Lester Pearson, the prime minister during our centennial year, said no Canadian needed to be liberated from anything. He asked de Gaulle to leave the country. It took less than 24 hours for the French president to leave in a huff with no apology. The FLQ crisis followed three years later.
In the category of how some things don’t change in 50 years, it is worth noting that from June 1967 there were suddenly many closed pavilions. Most majority-Muslim countries left after Israel’s decisive victory in the Six-Day War. They left because of Canada’s support of Israel.
But, other than those two significant exceptions, Expo 67 remained free of controversy. It was a time when most Canadians felt good about the country’s 100th-year birthday party as they set their sights on building a Canada for the next century.
Centennial year was a time when the roots of official bilingualism and biculturalism were planted. It was a time when justice minister Pierre Trudeau began talking about the “the state having no place in the bedrooms of the nation.”
It was a time of buzz and excitement. Montrealers were so proud to show their city to the world – and the world came. Fifty million people passed through the Expo 67 turnstiles in six months. It truly was a time to realize dreams big and small.
My maternal grandfather was a retailer in the heart of French Montreal. He was a character, a man about town who always had a flower on his lapel. In 1966, he thought he needed a myna bird and in the excitement of the times he called the bird “Expo.” He patiently taught Expo how to talk. The bird’s main refrain was saying, “Hello Expo.”
Just before Expo 67 opened, my Grandpa Bob fell ill, and his dream of visiting those magical islands in the river seemed doubtful. In late October, just before Expo closed, my mother wrapped Bob in a blanket and, from a wheelchair, he realized his dream. He died five weeks later.
For me, the beauty of Expo 67 will always be about how important it was to appreciate a truly remarkable Canadian accomplishment.