Sunday, July 1, 2012

When Canada Outdid Herself: Memories of Expo 67

Dedicated to the memory of Abraham Schwartzberg (1921-2007)

This summer marks 45 years since Canada and more specifically Montreal, in order to commemorate the country’s centennial, hosted the 1967 International and Universal Exposition, known to all as Expo 67. And thanks to my perspicacious father, I was privileged to be able to attend most of it. That might not seem meaningful but I was only 7 years old when the fair officially opened on April 28, 1967 (various V.I.P.s toured it a day earlier) – I turned eight on June 27, about a third of the way through Expo’s six month run – and, according to my Expo passport that my mother dug up in Montreal, the stamps indicate that I went to about 75-76 pavilions, which was most of them. There would been the odd duplication but knowing my father, he would have wanted to maximize the experience and see as much of the event as was humanely possible. Expo is on my mind this year, too, because journalist John Lownsbrough has written a book on Expo, part of The History of Canada series, entitled The Best Place to Be: Expo 67 and its Time (Allen Lane, 2012). It’s a bit dry - Lownsbrough doesn't bring Expo to vivid life as well as he could have - but it’s also comprehensive and a valuable corollary to my own admittedly limited memories of Expo, though I do recall much of what I saw that summer.

Over that eventful summer, my parents hosted about 45 houseguests, from the rest of Canada and the United States, including American relatives who came from Wisconsin, New York and New Jersey. My parents each went 35 times to Expo 67, and assumed the duties of alternately taking me along with them. Sunday was when the whole family, including my younger brother and sister went to Expo’s amusement park, La Ronde, for the rides and later on partook of hamburgers and French fries and soft ice cream, half vanilla and half chocolate, which I like to this day. It was a magical time. There was consistently good weather, or what my mother called ‘Drapeau weather’, a testament to Montreal’s indefatigable mayor Jean Drapeau (whose last name translates as flag in French). He became the friendly face of the exhibition to the rest of Canada and the outside world. 

But pretty much everything else, in addition to the weather, fell perfectly into place in 1967, for a remarkable, record setting event (over 50 million visitors, a record that stands to the day for exhibition attendance) that really did change the way Canada saw herself and how outsiders, particularly our American neighbours, viewed this relatively new country. In fact, so comprehensive and inventive was Expo that I remember, less than a decade later, watching the U.S. bicentennial celebrations, which were nice, on TV and thinking to myself that we did it so much better in our celebratory year. One upping the U.S. isn’t something that happens very often but Expo 67 trumped anything they came up with in 1976.

The crowds came out  in droves to Expo 67
With about 90 pavilions on tap, and 60 or so (the actual number is in dispute; it’s either 61 or 62) of them national pavilions, there was much to see on the site. I still remember the striking U.S. pavilion, with R. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome – Expo’s monorail actually went through the pavilion, miles above the ground (how cool was that!) – and Moshe Safdie’s futuristic Habitat apartment complex, which still exists. The huge U.S.S.R. pavilion and the opulent Iranian one also impressed me. Other memories were more personal. My family took great pride in the Judaism pavilion and also that of Israel, the former erected just over 20 years since the Holocaust decimated the Jewish people and the latter a tribute to the still young modern state of Israel’s place among the nations. (In those enviable days the world seemed to love Israel, particularly after she utterly vanquished her Arab foes in the Six Day War of June 1967.) My parents were European immigrants to this country and I can only imagine how they, especially my father, must have felt seeing their religion acknowledged that summer in such an important world exhibition. (As Lownsbrough points out in his book, it also marked the first time Protestants and Catholics in Canada worked in harmony on such a project, that of the Christian pavilion. Islam didn’t have its own pavilion but the sultan of Morocco, writes Lownsbrough, had a minaret erected at the entrance of his pavilion, though Pierre Dupuy, Expo’s Commissioner General, had wanted an actual mosque to grace the site of the pavilion.)

Expo was meant to have a futuristic feel to it, with themed pavilions, Man the Explorer, Man the Creator, Man the Producer etc. reflecting that as did La Ronde. I recall seeing TV phones and the promise that in the future, likely long before 2012, the prediction that we would all be talking on such devices. (Cell phones were not predicted.) I also still remember a funny comedy routine with (Jack) Burns and (Avery) Schreiber playing on TV in a loop at that time. (Why them, of all the possible comedians out there? I couldn’t tell you.) And of course there was the 360 degree screen showing of the Expo 67 film at the Telephone Pavilion, which surrounded you on all sides with nine screens of indelible Canadian images, from a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game - the Leafs last won a Stanley Cup in 1967 dashing Montreal's hopes to do so in the year of Expo - to Quebec’s Winter Carnival, to images of parks, mountains and lakes. Produced by Walt Disney productions, it played the patriotism card, perhaps to excess, but so what. It was a thrilling cinematic experience nonetheless. (That along, with the U.S. pavilion, and probably Israel and the Judaism one, was something that warranted a repeat visit from us. Lownsbrough, who only went to a few pavilions because the line-ups were so long, saw much less of it then I did, and though I remember we bypassed the experimental Labyrinth multi-media pavilion because there were always lineups there, I don't remember line-ups being a general problem though they're often mentioned in The Best Place to Be. I suspect I was so enthralled with being part of the Expo experience that I didn't mind the line-ups even if in reality there were many of them. I really don't remember experiencing any myself.

An aerial view of Expo 67 and its two manmade islands
Lownsbrough’s main, salient point in his book is that Canada came of age during Expo 67, whose main theme was Man and his World / Terre des hommes. Part of that process is the pride in one’s accomplishments. And, if nothing else, with an economy in better shape than most and a multicultural experiment that largely works, we continue to do so. We can usually do it, too, without that annoying belief in (or display of) our so-called exceptionalism, a quality that’s so often characteristic of our American friends. (That’s not to say, we can’t be smug on occasion about ourselves. We sometimes are.) The Best Place to Be meticulously documents the process of how Expo came to be Expo, relies on the memories of that summer from all manner of well-known Canadians who were there, including author Susan Swan (The Wives of Bath); CBC producer Mark Starowicz (who, in 2004, made a short but decent documentary on Expo 67 entitled Expo 67: Back to the Future…); Louise Arbour,  the former U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights, who tells some uproarious stories of how her lack of English led to many amusing misunderstandings when she worked as an Expo phone operator taking calls from visitors to the fair; William Thorsell, who went on to become editor-in chief of Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail, and political activist Judy Rebick, who alone among the interviewees seems not to have understood what Expo really meant. (She wanted the politics of the outside world, the anti-war protests and the like to be reflected in Expo, but the exhibition was all about the unity of man and not disharmony among and within nations.) In the process of reading Lownsbrough’s book, I learnt much that I didn’t know and couldn’t have known at the time even if I wasn’t a kid. Expo, for one, a prestigious Category One exhibit, was initially awarded to Moscow, but the Soviets pulled out, largely, writes Lownsbrough, because they realized having outsiders visiting and essentially poking about in their repressive affairs was not an experience the country’s leaders welcomed. 

Montreal had less than four years to put it all together, a goal the usually self-deprecating Canadian press and some politicans felt was highly unlikely. But how wrong they were! Jean Drapeau, after initially opposing the idea of Expo when he was mayor briefly in the late '50s, became the main impetus to getting the event off the ground. But many others, including Dupuy, Philippe de Gaspé Beaubien, Expo’s Director of Operations; Robert Shaw, Expo’s Deputy Commissioner General; Yves Jasmin, Director of information, advising and public relations for Expo; and the unheralded Pierre Sévigny, who helped formulate the successful bid for Expo 67; all had a hand in its success. (Drapeau tended to hog the limelight and often took credit for everything – though he did coin the term Expo 67 – but he was invaluable in using his political contacts to get things done, against odds others would have found insurmountable.) 

Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau
It was often said about Drapeau that he “knew which balls to squeeze.” But I know Drapeau more as the megalomaniacal mayor who put the city and province into hock by getting the 1976 Olympic Games, which my parents were still paying for thirty years after the fact. (Expo had a comparatively small deficit, about $220 million, and it was always an intended and expected one; the net benefits, in so many invaluable ways, outweighed that consideration.) Reading The Best Place to Be reminds me again how much Drapeau envisioned for Montreal, building a spanking new modern subway and a terrific concert hall, Place des Arts, mainly because Expo was on the way. All of this causes me to reflect, sadly, on how I now live in a city, Toronto, whose picayune mayor Rob Ford can’t see beyond a balance sheet and wouldn't know vision if it smacked him in the face. I can’t help but wonder, too, what might have happened if Toronto, then less populous than Montreal and even more culturally insignificant, might have fared if it had taken on the onus of hosting the centennial world’s fair. Lownsbrough writes that was a possibility, due to Progressive Conservative Prime Minister’s John Diefenbaker’s concerns of slighting English Canada if the offer wasn't at least made to Canada’s première English metropolis. Reportedly Toronto Mayor Nathan Phillips passed on the offer, figuring it was better if Montreal went broke hosting the fair instead. Could a Toronto Expo have hastened Toronto’s ascendancy to where it is today and conversely permanently retarded Montreal’s still potent international profile? Obviously, we’ll never know but it bears speculation.

Senator Robert Kennedy visiting Expo
I think, too, that my father (who was a concert, lecture and arts maven) realised that, finally, Montreal, was growing up. He tended to periodically visit New York city to soak up its superior culture, museums, art galleries and such but now Montreal had  rich culture on tap at Expo 67, from the Bolshoi Ballet to Britain’s best theatre troupes to concert appearances by Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier and Duke Ellington, among many many others.(The Quebec censors’ controversial and embarrassing banning of Larry Kent’s ‘drug’ movie High, from the Canadian Film Festival part of Expo, was a remnant of the old, culturally conservative Quebec.) I still remember how thrilled my father was – he didn’t usually display that emotion – when he shook Mayor Drapeau’s hand at the Place des Arts. Even more, I recall his enthusiasm when he stood next to Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, who was one of many famous visitors – including Robert Kennedy, Jacqueline Onassis, Queen Elizabeth II, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and even Mitt Romney’s dad, Michigan Governor George Romney – to Expo. (Selassie’s appearance, too, would have held special resonance for my father, an educator who spoke six languages fluently, in that Emperor Selassie is reported to have been descended from the Queen of Sheba, who, according to biblical Jewish lore, encountered Israel’s King Solomon.)

For my part, I do know and likely saw The Ed Sullivan Show’s broadcasts from Expo – a very big deal, that was – but as a suburban Jewish kid who had never been anywhere, except Ste. Agathe, Quebec with my grandparents once, I knew very little about the outside world. So visiting the African pavilion, or those of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Republic of China (Taiwan) or any other ‘exotic’ nation, did impress itself upon me. I’m not being condescending here but this was an education in the world for someone, who like a good many Quebecers, French and English, led an insular existence. Canadians, in general, according to Starowicz’s Expo doc, didn’t travel much, even within the country until Expo came along. Nor, until Expo 67, whose pavilions also served food from the various countries in attendance, did they experience multi-cultural cuisine in what was still a mostly monolithic British descended place. I’d like to take a long look at the many pamphlets and brochures, still in my mother’s home in Montreal, which I collected at Expo, to see how much propaganda they contained. (The Soviet ones certainly did. Even as a child I recognized that fact.). But even so, they opened a door into my perceptions of the world, though I didn’t necessarily translate that into much travel, but more a general interest in current affairs and world culture.

From my adult vantage point, Expo strikes me as uniquely non-political, especially since so many international events taking place in Canada, afterwards, from the 1976 Olympics to the recent G20 nations meeting in Toronto, were tainted by politics, violence, excess or all three. There were a few minor political incidents, itemized in Lownsbrough’s book, which I didn’t know about, such as the pulling of a specific photo from an exhibit before Expo opened, the program book listing the picture was even destroyed, because it offended the Greeks and the arguments among those who questioned whether Expo was tilting too much towards the French, or English side of Quebec. In Canada itself, that debate would soon come to define the coming political crisis revolving around the wish of some French Canadians in Quebec to pull the province out of Canada, something that, in fact, nearly came to be in 1995. Lownsbrough observes in his book that, depending whom you spoke to at the time, Expo 67 was either boasted of as a proud Canadian achievement or a successful Quebec initiative. I'd say it was both.  The fair was officially bilingual but not enough to satisfy many, on both sides of the linguistic divide. (Man and His World / Terre des hommes actually continued in reduced form until 1981, with some pavilions, such as the U.S. and French ones, donated to the city after Expo 67 closed. Most of them are gone now but some, such as the French and Quebec exhibits have morphed into new configurations; the Montreal casino was built on their sites. La Ronde, now run by the American Six Flags Entertainment Corp. is still around, though I haven't gone in at least 20 years.)

La Ronde
And there were some major political incidents, to be sure, from Kuwait’s pulling out of the fair after the Six Day War, in protest of Israel’s being part of the exhibit – notably the front line Arab foes of Israel, Egypt and Syria, then briefly untied as the UAR, didn’t leave Expo – to the infamous declaration from French President Charles De Gaulle in Montreal supporting Quebec independence (Vive le Quebec libre!). I’m not a diplomat, but I would have dis-invited De Gaulle from his Expo visit as the rightfully angry Federal government demanded – Dupuy, apolitical to the end, said no. (I disagree with that stance, but De Gaulle’s visit to Expo did allow him to be rebuked by Mayor Drapeau, who rightfully pointed out that France had never displayed the slightest interest in Quebec’s affairs until his visit, and in any case Quebec could take care of its own affairs within a united Canada.) But mostly Expo proceeded as smoothly as one could have wished.

Startingly, one of my co-workers, in her 20s, had no idea what Expo was, which is disturbing. Yes, she wasn’t born then, but I suspect it’s not being taught, or if it is, it's not being emphasized much in the nation’s schools – though it’s a highly significant slice of Canadian history. (I can still sing Bobby Gimby's tuneful Centennial song Ca-na-da, the big hit of the summer of Expo 67, one  that even American filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola  (The Godfather) sang when he was interviewed by Critic at Large's David Churchill earlier ths year.) But the bigger problem comes from the part of the Canadian character, Expo 67 aside, which still downplays our best achievements. Unlike the Americans who have immortalized their many world fairs in literary novels (E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair), evocative non-fictional books (Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City) or popular films (Vicente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis), we don't celebrate ours in that manner, including Vancouver's bash in 1986. In fact, I can't think of a single Canadian novel or film set amidst the backdrop of Expo 67's wonderful fair. Our loss. My gain – and most 7/8 year olds didn’t do much more than visit the odd pavilion or go to La Ronde once or twice – is to have seen and experienced so much of Expo 67 even if I can only remember parts of it. In that regard, The Best Place to Be provides invaluable insight into that time and place. It really was the best place to be. Thanks to my father, I was able to do just that.

Happy Canada Day!

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute, and has just finished teaching a course on American cinema of the 70s.


  1. Please note: in the penultimate paragraph you've mis-spelled the name Dupuy "Dupuis" (but did spell it correctly earlier in the piece).

    1. Shlomo SchwartzbergJuly 16, 2012 at 7:37 PM

      Thanks for catching that. The correction has been made.

  2. A remarkable account of Expo 67 by someone so young at the time. Thank you.

    I enjoyed John Lownsbrough's book and he's coming to Montreal this week to present the paperback version of it. We conversed on man occasions in the preparation of the original.

    I was totally immersed in Expo and preparing with friends to help in recalling its 50th in 2017.

  3. Montreal at his best time! Thanks