All the world on the St. Lawrence: The story of Montreal Expo 67.

expo 67 with mountie

Forty-eight years ago today, on April 27, 1967, the world’s fair officially called the 1967 International and Universal Exposition, commonly known as Expo 67, opened. The fair was intended to mark the centennial of Canada’s establishment as an independent country, as well as the usual world’s-fair motives of showcasing national pride and, if possible, turning a profit. This was the first world’s fair that followed the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, which in the eyes of many people (including the BIE, the international organization that governed world’s fairs) was done wrong, and the organizers of Expo 67 hoped to have a better show of it. More than being just another fair, however, Expo 67 managed to work its way into the hearts and the cultural heritage of Canadians, as well as becoming the last fond memory in the period of 1960s optimism and exuberance, before economic decline and more troubled times chastened the country with a sort of loss of innocence.

Montreal had a long and twisting road to capture the prize of world’s fair host. In those days potential host cities bid for the right to host world’s fairs in much the same way that cities do today, with much higher stakes and far more dollars at stake, for the Olympic Games. Therein too lies the conundrum: why would a city want to host a world’s fair? Most of them lose money, and, exactly like the Olympics, it’s difficult to figure out what to do with the buildings once the event is over. It seemed a dead issue when in 1960 the BIE chose Moscow as the host city for the next fair, but when the Russians dropped out in 1962, several Canadian politicians tried to revive the idea of hosting the fair in Canada. Toronto was also in the running, but Montreal’s mayor Jean Drapeau was more enthusiastic, and by early 1963 committees were being formed and plans drawn up for a 1967 world’s fair in Montreal.

This video is a great slide show of images from Expo 67, and the music is two of the songs that were associated with the fair.

The usual squabbles that precede a world’s fair–political wrangling on the committees, arguments about where to build it, analysts warning of financial doom, etc.–attended the birth of Expo 67, but Montreal’s party posed its own unique challenges. The planning phase straddled a contentious change of government between Conservative PM John Diefenbaker and Liberal PM Lester B. Pearson, as well as the then white-hot political and cultural differences between French Canadians (Quebecois) and the rest of English-speaking Canada, which had its flash point in Quebecois separatist movements. But the fair’s general manager Andrew Kniewasser was determined to go ahead, at one point defying computer models that said competing the massive landfill and construction projects in time for the April 1967 opening was a physical impossibility. Kniewasser also suffered continual meddling from the Canadian Parliament, which second-guessed nearly everything about the fair, right down to the design of the official logo.

But somehow, perhaps miraculously, almost all of the fair’s pavilions and exhibits were complete and ready to open to the public when the opening ceremonies were held on April 27. Prime Minister Pearson lit the flame from a ceremonial torch, very similar to how Olympic Games are opened, and reporters and VIPs–but notably no members of the public–were allowed to tour the grounds. Outside the gates, protesters opposed to the Vietnam War picketed the event, but the Quebecois separatists wisely stayed home. An atomic clock counted down to the opening of the gates to the general public the next morning, Friday April 28. An astonishing 330,000 visitors streamed through the fair’s gates on opening day, far exceeding Kniewasser’s most optimistic projections. The people of Montreal were ready and eager to embrace the exposition with open arms.

expo 67 australia pavilion by belanger

The Australian pavilion at Expo 67 contained an exhibit on the Great Barrier Reef, which included specimens of its marine life like these sponges and corals.

There was a lot to see at Expo 67. The theme of the fair was “Man and his World”–not very gender-inclusive, but hey, it was 1967. The national pavilions were among the fair’s highlights, most notably Canada’s, which was designed by several of the country’s leading architects, and the American pavilion, which was a partially see-through geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller. The Canadian pavilion featured a rotating movie theater that moved viewers around inside the building. The Australian pavilion featured kangaroos, which I guess one might expect. There was a special pavilion established by Bell Telephone which featured a 360-degree movie screen, designed (and the film made) by the Disney company. This same feature was later used at Disney World’s EPCOT Center 15 years later, which drew a lot of stylistic influences from Expo 67. There was also a special pavilion dedicated to showcasing Canada’s native peoples, which was controversial in depicting honestly–or trying to, anyway–some of the economic and social challenges faced by Indians in Canada, especially in the West. Controversial also was the American Pavilion and the negative remarks of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who is believed to have grumbled that “homosexuals” designed the displays which he didn’t like.

Johnson wasn’t the only leader to put his foot in his mouth. In July 1967 French President Charles de Gaulle visited Canada and Expo 67, and during a speech said the phrase, Vive le Québec libre!” (“Long live free Quebec!”) The phrase was interpreted as de Gaulle supporting the Quebecois separatists, and it created an international incident between the governments of Canada and France, who didn’t much like each other anyway. The firestorm of controversy–Pearson gave a nationally-televised speech in which he told de Gaulle that no part of Canada needed “liberating”–caused the French leader to go home early. But it had little effect on the visitors who wanted to come enjoy the fair. Indeed, a staggering 50 million people visited between April and October when the fair officially closed. That was more than twice Canada’s entire national population in 1967. This makes Expo 67 the most well-attended world’s fair, per capita, in history.

Through those cheerful numbers, though, you can glimpse the grim reality of world’s fair economics, which are almost universally bad. Despite that incredible attendance and all the money Expo 67 pumped into the Montreal and Quebec economies, Expo 67 still lost over $210 million (CDN). And it was considered a successful fair for losing only that much. Beautiful and thrilling as world’s fairs are, these numbers tell the story about why they’re so tricky to pull off.

un pavilion at expo 67

The UN Pavilion at Expo 67 was supposed to showcase international cooperation, but the world wasn’t cooperating too well in 1967.

Another grim reality: what do you do with all the expensive infrastructure for a world’s fair after it’s over and everyone has gone home? These stories usually end sadly too, but Montreal, again, did better than average. The “Man and His World” exhibits continued open for a few years, although they struggled financially, ultimately closing in 1971. A special architectural pavilion, Habitat 67, was ultimately turned into condominiums, and many of them are occupied today. Some broad green spaces became parks. But other parts of Expo 67 sat empty and deteriorated, becoming a strange dystopian-futuristic ruin, like something out of Logan’s Run. By the early 1970s the big economic bust that affected most Western economies had hit Canada. It was the end of the post-World War II prosperity boom. In just a few years Canada, and the world, had become a very different place.

I love reading (and writing) about these world’s fairs, because there’s a sense of joyful innocence surrounding them. That feeling is especially true of Expo 67. Many Canadians remember the fair very fondly, especially if they were kids or teenagers when it was going on. In 1967 the world was still big, bold and shiny, and the future was just around the corner. Clothes were groovy and colorful, pop music and culture was rich and evolving, and rockets to the moon were streaking across the sky. That was the perfect time for a world’s fair. Perhaps a happy, forward-looking world like the kind on display on the St. Lawrence River that summer was always a bit of an illusion, but it seems to have been a happy one.

The header image at the top of this article is credited to “Photographe inconnu” and is used under Creative Commons 2.5 (Attribution) license. The other photos are by Laurent Bélanger and are used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license.
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