It was an event that many felt was doomed to fail. It was looked down on and scoffed at before it was even held.
After it was all said and done though, it was not only a massive success but also a landmark moment in Canadian history.
I am talking about Expo 67, when the world came to Canada during Canada’s Centennial year.
This event has a lot going on, so buckle up, this is going to be a great episode
I have already covered the Canadian Centennial, itself a massive affair, so check that out on my podcast feed but the Expo 67, also known as the Universal and International Exhibition, or World’s Exhibition, was the highlight of the Centennial Festivities for the year.
The idea for Expo 67 begins with Senator Mark Drouin, who first came up with the idea of the world exhibition being held in Montreal to celebrate the Centennial.
Senator Drouin and Senator Sarto Fournier, the former mayor of Montreal, worked together to present the idea to the Bureau International de Expositions in Paris.
At first, their efforts were for nothing as they were turned down in favour of the 1967 World Exhibition being held in Moscow.
That all changed in 1962 when the USSR cancelled its plans and a new presentation was made to the Bureau by Jean Drapeau, the mayor of Montreal.
With that presentation, Montreal was awarded the World’s Exhibition, the first to be held in Canada.
To begin the process of preparing Montreal for the world’s visit in only five years, the House of Commons established the Canadian Corporation for the 1967 World Exhibition, a Crown Company. It was that company’s mandate to build and run the entire event.
The exhibition would be funded 50 per cent by the federal government, 37.5 per cent by the Quebec government and 12.5 per cent by the City of Montreal.
A conference was held by the three government levels bringing together educators, writers and intellectuals with the goal of choosing a theme.
In the end, the conference chose Man and His World.
O.C.S Robertson, a retired Canadian Navy commodore, would state quote:
“What we are trying to do, is show the problems of our time and what the possible solutions are. But the solutions wont be pipe dreams. We are trying to stay within what science and technology know now, and what can be done over the next twenty years.”
In late 1963, the Master Plan was completed and submitted to Parliament.
The next step was finding a site for Expo 67. There were many proposals put forward but it was Ile Sainte-Helene, a park in the centre of the St. Lawrence River, that was chosen for the expo site. The site was too small, so land would be added to the island by using silt and rock dredged from the bottom of the river. A new island, Ile Notre-Dame, would also be created next to the main island.
Mount Royal was in the running to be the site, but Drapeau was the one to choose the site of the island.
Almost as soon as the site was chosen, there questions of whether or not it could actually be feasible. A computer program also predicted that the event could not happen in time.
The process of construction began when Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson pulled a lever that caused a front-end loader to dump the first batch of fill to enlarge the island. Quebec premier Jean Lesage then used a bulldozer to spread the fill.
It was estimated that 25 million tons of till would be needed to build the islands.
It was soon found that river bottom sources of landfill were not sufficient for expanding the island. As a result, for months, dump trucks brought in earth from the Montreal Metro excavation to the site on a 24-hour basis. More fill came from the quarries of Montreal and the South Shore. This method caused the cost of building to balloon from the $10 million estimate to $40 million.
Interestingly, the land that was rising out of the harbour was not the property of the expo corporation, but the City of Montreal.
On June 20, 1964, the grounds the fair would be held on would be transferred to the corporation. From this point, the man behind the construction, Colonel Edward Churchill had 1,042 days to get everything built and functioning. To do this, he used a new management tool called critical path method.
Churchill, known simply as Colonel around the construction site, was the man for the job. During the Second World War, he oversaw the building of 192 airfields around Europe.
Maclean’s would write about his management tool, stating quote:
“CPM has its own mysterious jargon and involves yards of charts covered with lines and arrows pointing to little squares, circles and hexagons.”
Churchill kept everyone on schedule through sheer force of will it seemed.
Macleans described him on June 1, 1967 stating quote:
“There’s that broad, bulldog face under those fierce, bushy eyebrows, that raspy voice, surprisingly high-pitched, that infuriating habit he has of cutting in on what you’re saying. Before you finish answering one question, he’s peppering you with three others.”
Churchill also had a near legendary memory. Gilles Sarault, the chief engineer of the project, would say quote:
“He has an uncanny ability to pack five million things into his mind and remember them all.”
When he asked if Churchill remembered when they first met, Churchill responded quote:
“Sure I remember, and the bar bill was $22.”
On July 1, 1964, the site was finished and officially turned over to the exhibition corporation. It would then be divided into four areas that would have the entrance, three exhibition areas and the amusement area.
The theme for Expo 67 was divided into five groups, Man the Creator, Man the Explorer, Man the Producer, Man the Provider and Man and the Community. The exhibition corporation then invested over $40 million into the main theme and sub-themes.
The pavilions would be built by the nations participating in Expo 67. The nations would either build their own pavilion or combine with regional pavilions.
The Soviet Union would invest $15 million in its pavilion, while Czechoslovakia invested $10 million and the United States $9 million. The pavilions themselves were designed in many different styles. The Man in His Community pavilion was built from frames of Douglas fir harvested in Canada. The German pavilion was a 15-storey, multi-peaked tent of plastic to show how materials could later the design of buildings. The US and its Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome would become a prototype for that form of construction.
Various groups were also allowed to create their own pavilions. Seven Christian churches combined to make a Christian pavilion, while there was also pavilions for the United Nations, the European Economic Community, Judaism and a Youth Pavilion.
Across the 60 pavilions at Expo 67, 120 governments took part and there were thousands of exhibitors and sponsors in 53 private pavilions.
The logo for Expo 67 would be designed by Julien Hebert, using the ancient symbol of man, with the pictograms of man linked to represent friendship. It was put into a circular arrangement to represent friendship around the world.
Many federal politicians did not like the logo and there was an attempt to replace it through a motion in the House of Commons.
Macleans wrote in 1966 quote:
“This is Expo’s site. It is as big as downtown Toronto and most of it didn’t’ exist two years ago. It took more dirt fill than the pharaohs lavished on the pyramids to create these instant islands. If you spent an hour at each exhibit, it would take you about three months to see everything.”
One of the most interesting parts of the Expo 67 site was the Sky Ride, which was a fiberglass gondola that ran at 120 feet above the site, giving a sweeping look at Expo 67 and the Montreal skyline.
By 1966, the number of people working on Expo 67 was massive. There were 275 stenographers and 159 clerks, for example, who assisted 54 division heads cope with the three million sheets of paper per month flying across their desks.
By that year, Expo had also sent out over 17 million informational pieces across the planet in seven languages and Braille.
In the months leading up to the opening of Expo, 90,000 Canadians had booked advance hotel accommodations for the first six months of the Expo. The majority of the reservations came from Ontario, followed by British Columbia. Another 150,000 advance bookings came from the United States.
For many who doubted that everything could be finished on schedule, Expo 67 made believers of them. Macleans would write on Jan. 1, 1967 quote:
“Even skeptical visitors to the site are now coming away persuaded that the enthusiasts have been right all along. Expo is literally the greatest show on Earth.”
At the time, Macleans estimated four million Canadians and six million international visitors would come to Expo.
As we will see later in this episode, they were way off.
Expo would open on April 28, 1967 and on that day, everything was done except Habitat 67, which was still a work in progress.
The official ceremonies for Expo 67 were held the day previous on April 27, 1967 and this was an invite only event. Governor General Roland Michener proclaimed the event open as Prime Minister Pearson lit the Expo flame. At the opening ceremonies, there were 53 heads of state, 1,000 reporters and 700 million viewers and listeners around the world.
Pearson would say quote:
“I feel very proud today, but even more so yesterday, when I had the very special, almost childish sense of pride in my country when I was at the opening of Expo. I think everybody felt that way.”
He would add quote:
“Anyone who says we aren’t a spectacular people only has to see this.”
The next day, the Montreal Gazette published the largest issue in its history to that point, 152 pages, with five sections highlighting the Expo.
It all opened officially for the public the next day with a countdown using an atomic clock that opened the exhibition at exactly 9:30 a.m. EST.
The first person to walk through the Expo gates was Al Carter, a jazz drummer from Chicago who was presented a gold watch for the honour.
The cost to attend Expo 67 was $12 for a week’s admission, or $100 today. Teenagers and children both paid much less to attend.
As soon as you walked into the Expo site, there was an electronic billboard that was 40 feet wide and 30 feet high that showed wait times at pavilions, the daily program, the weather, and where tickets were still available for shows.
Throughout the site, there were also 240 women wearing miniskirts, selected out of 3,000 who applied. They were the hostesses who assisted guests with directions and more, and they had to speak at least English and French, although some spoke many more like Sonia Saumier, who spoke seven languages.
It was expected there would be a crowd of 200,000 for opening day. In fact, between 310,000 and 350,000 people showed up.
The Montreal Gazette reported that computers were unable to keep up with the first day attendance, with the counting mechanism breaking down during the day. So many people were going to the 132-acre amusement park that the Gyrotron, the largest and most expensive part of the park, broke down for much of the day.
Lester B. Pearson also attended the first day and stated he was wrong for his doubts that the project could be finished in only four years.
Macleans would write quote:
“All roads lead to Expo 67. Or give it the proper title, the Universal and International Exhibition 1967. It is the first true world’s fair ever to be held in North America. It is also Canada’s largest single Centennial project.”
The Montreal Star would write quote:
“It is the most staggering Canadian achievement since this vast land was finally linked by a transcontinental railway.”
The opening day was not without problems. Vietnam war protestors picketed during opening day and there were threats from the FLQ that they were going to disrupt the exhibition but they ended up being inactive during the entire period of the exhibition.
Throughout the run of Expo 67, there were many musicians who came out to perform including Thelonious Monk, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.
On May 7 and 21, The Ed Sullivan Show was broadcast from Expo 67 with The Supremes, Petula Clark and The Seekers performing. It also included a taped tour of the grounds with stops at various pavilions.
Expo would also appear on Our World, a two-hour international program that will be sent out live to 500 million viewers, as part of the largest audience in TV history to that point.
There were several dignitaries who came out to see Expo 67 including President Lyndon Johnson, Princess Grace of Monaco, Jackie Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, the Maharashi Mahesh Yogi and Charles de Gaulle.
De Gaulle would cause an uproar during his visit when he spoke at the Montreal City Hall on July 24 and said quote:
“Vive Montreal, Vive le Quebec, Vive le Quebec Libre”
Prime Minister Pearson would condemn the speech, stating quote:
“The people of Canada are free. Every province in Canada is free. Canadians do not need to be liberated. Indeed, many thousands of Canadians gave their lives in two world wars in the liberation of France and of other European countries.”
The incident was considered a major breach of diplomatic protocol and it would enflame the growing sovereignty movement in Quebec. In fact, it would prove to be a watershed moment during the Quiet Revolution and would inspire individuals like Rene Levesque, the future premier and separatist of Quebec.
De Gaulle would leave Canada instead of visiting Ottawa where he was to meet Prime Minister Pearson.
The most prominent visitor was Queen Elizabeth II, who came out to Expo 67, while also celebrating Canada’s Centennial.
For anyone who loved food, Expo 67 was the perfect place as over 60 nations had food ranging from cotton candy to caviar. Although it was expensive, with some places costing as much as $40 for dinner for two, which would be $334 today.
Maclean’s would write quote:
“A gourmet could spend six months eating three meals a day at Expo 67 and never taste the same dish twice. But he would have to be a millionaire gourmet.”
A major disruption would occur in September when there was a 30-day transit strike in Montreal, which cut heavily into the attendance and revenue figures for the Expo.
On Oct. 29, 1967, Expo 67 ended, two days longer than what was scheduled so that it could run over the weekend.
Prime Minister Pearson would douse the Expo 67 flame, while Governor General Roland Michener closed out the festivities by stating quote:
“It is with great regret that I declare that the Universal and International Exhibition of 1967 has come to an official end.”
All rides shut down at 3:50 p.m. and the Expo grounds closed at 4 p.m.
The end of Expo 67 was bittersweet for many. Montrealer Giselle Fournier would say quote:
“The world came to us and now its going away. Look at the faces of the people. Expo means culture. I only hope it does not die. We need this culture. It means a lot to Canada, not just to Montreal.”
Expo 67 was designed with the expectation that 26 million people would come to it. In reality, over 50 million people visited Expo 67 from April 28 to October 27, which doesn’t count the five million admissions for performers, employees, official visitors and the press.
The most popular pavilion at Expo 67 was the Soviet Union exhibit which attracted 13 million. The Canadian Pavilion attracted 11 million, the United States Pavilion nine million and France 8.5 million.
In all, Expo 67 cost Canada, Quebec and Montreal about $283 million, which would be about $2.3 billion today. While that may seem like a lot, the amount returned was much higher. In fact, the tourist revenue alone in 1967 directly related to Expo was calculated at $480 million, or $4 billion.
After Expo 67, the exposition held a standing collection of international pavilions known collectively as Man and His World. Unfortunately, attendance fell rapidly.
In 1971, the entire island site was closed to the public and in 1974, was rebuilt around a new rowing and canoe sprint basin as Montreal was now preparing to host the 1976 Summer Olympics.
The Buckminster Fuller dome was destroyed by fire in 1976, one year after the Ontario pavilion was lost due to fire. By this point, the entire site was falling into disrepair and several pavilions were crumbling and vandalized.
After a few brief re-openings, the remaining small pavilions on the island were closed for good in 1984.
Only two pavilions still stand. Buckminster Fuller even though it suffered the fire, which is now the Montreal Biosphere, a museum devoted to the environment. The other is Habitat 67, which was an ambitious project to reimagine apartment living. Habitat 67 has a story all its own. Consisting of 354 prefabricated concrete cubes consisting of 168 apartments, it was designed by an architecture student from McGill University. Designed to solve urban ills with its unique cubist design, costs for Habitat 67 spun out of control and in order to recoup the costs after Expo, the government set rents so high no one could afford to live there. It also had severe problems by the 1970s due to its concrete design including water getting into the concrete and mould getting into the ventilation system.
It would be sold to private hands in the mid-1980s and still serves as an apartment building to this day. It has also been awarded Heritage Status by the provincial government.
Today, Expo 67 is considered a landmark moment for Canada, when the country hosted the world for arguably the first time. In 1968, the Montreal Expos, Canada’s first Major League baseball team, was named for the event.
Expo 67 continues to be one of the most successful world exhibitions of the 20th century.
It wouldn’t be the last World Exposition to be held in Canada though. Almost two decades later, Expo 86 was held in Vancouver, and I actually attended it, but that is a story for another podcast episode.
I will end this episode with the last paragraph from the last of 552 daily columns written from Aug. 23, 1965 to Oct. 30, 1967 by Montreal Gazette columnist Bill Bantley. He stated quote:
“Expo was the smell of quiche lorraine, the crackle of 121 flags over the United Nations pavilion, the haunting airs of the gypsy band in the Koliba, the fascination of Communist country staffs with the abundance of goods in supermarkets, the crazy hats of Americans.”
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, CBC, Macleans, Wikipedia, Parc Jean-Drapeau, Historica Canada, Library and Archives Canada, The Guardian, Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette, National Film Board of Canada,