One Brief Shining Moment

The world’s fair that put Canada (fleetingly) on the map

Expo 67 has come down to us through the filter of nostalgia as a unique moment of national achievement. So successful was it that it appeared to change the way we Canadians thought about ourselves. We were not the boring, sober-sided backwater of a country we thought we were. Instead, the fair revealed us to be young, sophisticated, modern, edgy. And judging by the acclaim lavished on it by the international press, the rest of the world thought so too. For a while at least, it was hip to be Canadian. Expo was the greatest thing we had ever done as a nation, pronounced journalist Peter C. Newman. “It’s fabulous,” he wrote. “It’s the sun and the moon and the stars…” Our historian-in-chief, Pierre Berton, even wrote a book titled 1967: The Last Good Year, in which he called the fair a “miracle,” “one of the shining moments in our history, up there with the building of the Pacific railway or the victory at Vimy Ridge.” Because it took place in Quebec, Expo seemed to suggest that we were on the brink of an era of good feeling, a rapprochement, between the two “founding peoples.”

It did not take long for the air to leak out of the balloon. “The bright promise of the Centennial Year and Expo 67 did not last as long as the Centennial Year itself,” observed the novelist Hugh MacLennan. It turned out that the fair was obscuring our fundamental divisions, not healing them. In all the enthusiasm, we had momentarily forgotten the bombs that had been going off in Quebec for several years, and the fact that two weeks before Expo closed René Lévesque quit the provincial Liberals in order to create his own sovereigntist political formation. When Charles de Gaulle uttered his intentionally provocative words from the balcony of the Montreal City Hall—“Vive le Québec libre!”—and was immediately sent packing by an irate prime minister Lester Pearson, it turned out the French president had a better sense of what the future held than all the bright-eyed Expo boosters.

Which is not to say that the fair was not a whole lot of fun for a whole lot of people. For many Canadian boomers, being at Expo was like being at our very own Woodstock, without the drugs. As the 50th anniversary approaches, I am sure the reunion get-togethers are already being planned. But was it really the pivotal event in the history of the country that its enthusiasts would like to believe? This is the question that John Lownsbrough investigates in his new book, The Best Place to Be: Expo 67 and Its Time.

Full disclosure: although I was old enough to join the more than 50 million people who visited Man and His World, as the fair was called, I was immune to Expo fever. I spent the summer of 1967 working the night shift at the Vancouver General Hospital mopping floors outside the morgue to earn money for university that fall. I suppose a few people I knew made the trip back East to attend the fair, but not many. It was far less of a consequential event in British Columbia than it was in Ontario and Quebec. Indeed, one of the shortcomings of Lownsbrough’s book is that it is so Ontario- and Quebec-centric. He makes little attempt to illustrate how the enthusiasm for the fair in Central Canada might have filtered out to the regions, and, if it did not, how the fair can be said to be a pivotal national event.

There are a couple of reasons why governments invest hundreds of millions of public dollars in mega events like Expo. The first is economic. They are seen to be an investment that repays itself many times over in the tourist dollars that accrue to the host country. They are also a useful cover for the construction of infrastructure—roads, rapid transit, skating rinks, etc.—that otherwise would have to be funded in ways that are less popular with tax payers. The second reason is ideological. An event like Expo 67 offered a unique opportunity to market Canada to its own citizens and the rest of the world. In this sense, Expo was a highly successful branding exercise in which Canada was made over as a self-confident, stylish, grownup and most importantly successful (i.e., united) country.

The remembrances of mega events like Expo 67 (and the Vancouver and Montreal Olympics as well) have developed a familiar narrative arc that resembles a drama in four acts. Act I presents the challenge. The small-minded naysayers worry that the job cannot be done and a multitude of problems (labour unrest, terrorist plots, escalating costs, whatever) threaten to prove them correct. In Act II the visionaries defy the skeptics and bring things to a triumphant completion. The event opens on time and the crowds love it. Act III reveals an emboldened country with a brand new vision of itself. Canada (or Vancouver, or Montreal) will never be the same again. Act IV is a bit of a downer. The bookkeepers take the stage to remind us how much it all cost. But the audience is usually not paying much attention by this point. The bookkeepers are accused of being shortsighted; their accounting is drowned out by extravagant (and unprovable) claims of spinoff benefits. “You can’t put a price on feeling good about yourself,” people tell each other as they happily exit the theatre.

This narrative pattern goes all the way back at least to the World Exposition in Chicago in 1893, so wonderfully described by Erik Larson in his history of the event, The Devil in the White City. John Lownsbrough is unlucky enough not to have discovered a serial killer at work in Montreal in 1967 but his account of Expo follows this familiar dramatic arc. He reminds us that Canada almost did not get the fair at all. The Soviet Union, poised to celebrate its 50th anniversary, was the selection committee’s first choice and Canada only stepped in when the Soviets withdrew. Most of us probably think Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau thought up the fair, but the idea was first proposed by Progressive Conservative senator Mark Drouin during a visit to the Brussels World Fair in 1958. In fact, Drapeau was initially cool to the idea. Lownsbrough credits Pierre Sévigny, a Cabinet minister in John Diefenbaker’s government, with persuading key Quebec politicians to come on board. (That is the same Pierre Sévigny who is better known for his dalliance with Gerda Munsinger, the prostitute and suspected spy.) Once Drapeau changed his mind, however, he became the most determined Expo booster of all. When second thoughts set in and many people were wondering if Canada, like the Soviets, should bail out, he simply refused to give in. (As an example of Drapeau’s hands-on enthusiasm, Lownsbrough describes how the mayor at one point suggested that the Eiffel Tower, which had been built in Paris for the 1889 Exposition, be disassembled and re-erected in Montreal. When this display of chutzpah got no support, he suggested building a replica tower, and when that idea too got a thumbs down he commissioned an architect to design Expo’s own giant tower, called Drapeau’s Erection by the officials who finally scuttled the whole idea.)

Against the odds, Expo was ready to open, on time, on April 28, 1967. Lownsbrough is generous with his accounts of some of the lesser-known officials who actually made it happen: people like Pierre Dupuy, the career diplomat who served as the fair’s commissioner general; his deputy Robert Shaw, an engineer from Revelstoke, British Columbia; Colonel Edward Churchill, the person in charge of getting the site built; and Philipe de Gaspé Beaubien, the “mayor of Expo,” the person in charge of running it.

The world came to Montreal that summer, and Lownsbrough spends perhaps a bit too much time documenting the visits of various celebrities. The Shah of Iran apparently liked asparagus consommé and cheese, while Broadway star Carol Channing brought her own food and Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, was never without his incontinent Chihuahua, Lulu. More interesting was American president Lyndon Johnson’s visit. “It was a way of killing two unpleasant ceremonial pigeons with one stone,” writes Lownsbrough, “visiting Expo, in which he took almost no interest, and calling on Prime Minister Pearson, whom he disliked.” Johnson came and went by helicopter, hardly lingering long enough at the site to be heckled by a few protestors who were surprised to see him. But the most notorious visitor was de Gaulle. The French president’s impolitic declaration at city hall ignited a diplomatic firestorm. Pearson responded icily that Canadians were a free people and did not need to be liberated by anyone. As if to rub it in, during his visit to the Expo site the next day the General spent two minutes at the Canadian pavilion and 45 minutes at Quebec’s. Then, pretending to be insulted by Pearson’s remarks, he cancelled a scheduled visit to Ottawa and left for home. (This incident resonated internationally as well, and still does. Last year while on a holiday in Italy I met a local television journalist who, immediately upon learning I was a Canadian, wanted to discuss the de Gaulle affair. I think it was the only thing he knew about the country.)

Expo was famous for its architecture, of course. Safdie’s futuristic housing complex, Habitat, was one of the pavilions, as was Buckminster Fuller’s 20-storey geodesic dome (the “Skybreak Bubble”)—not to forget Canada’s own pavilion, Katimavik (“gathering place”), an inverted, nine-storey pyramid built at a cost of $21 million, more than any other country had spent. But one of Lownsbrough’s most interesting chapters is about the innovative use of film at the fair. “Never before Expo 67 had film in such variety, scope and sheer quantity been on such overwhelming display,” he writes. Some of this was at the pavilions themselves. A Place to Stand, a 17-minute, narrator-free, multi-image evocation of Ontario (who could forget its theme song, Ontari-ari-ario?) won an Academy Award for its maker, Christopher Chapman. The film was so popular that it later got a theatrical release in regular movie houses. It was, notes Lownsbrough, “a propaganda bonanza for the province of Ontario.” At the same time the annual Montreal Film Festival, taking place under the aegis of Expo, was where the Hollywood classic Bonnie and Clyde made its world premiere (the New York Times critic hated it) and Allan King’s provocative Warrendale won best Canadian feature. As Maclean’s magazine gushed, “Expo is a many-screened splendour. Everywhere you look there are movies, movies, movies.”

What about Act IV; what did Expo 67 cost? In the years and months leading up to its opening, the estimates kept climbing. At the end of 1966 the deficit was expected to be $82 million; it turned out to be three times that. In true booster spirit, Drapeau kissed it off. “No true Canadian would say the cost was too high,” the mayor proclaimed. Lownsbrough seems to agree. “Expo was a good investment,” he concludes, “for Canada and for Montreal,” although he presents little evidence for this claim. It was the same for the 1976 Montreal Olympics and the 2010 games here in Vancouver, both of which saddled the cities with long-term debt. According to the boosters, the costs to the taxpayer are always worth it in ways that no one can calculate. If you don’t agree, well, you’re just a curmudgeon.

In the end, Lownsbrough believes that Expo was “a golden moment” with important long-term impacts on the country. It helped to overcome our reflexive inferiority complex toward the United States, he argues, and contributed to a stronger, more assertive sense of national identity. Perhaps he is right, though it is difficult to isolate Expo from a welter of events that were occurring at the end of the 1960s: the war in Vietnam, economic nationalism and the rise of the New Left, the emergence of the hippie counterculture, the appearance of urban terrorism in Quebec. All these things had far more influence on the zeitgeist than Expo. The fair seems more a symptom of this general cultural upheaval than a contributing cause.

That said, there is no denying that Expo was a remarkable high point in the year-long centennial celebration. Lownsbrough’s enthusiastic account reminds those who lived through it—and explains to those who did not—just why, for a brief moment at least, Montreal and Expo 67 were “the best place to be.”