On May 2, 1986, standing in front of the crowd made up of 54,000 invited guests, and 7,200 performers, at BC Place in Vancouver. a regal gentlemen said, “I bring you the greetings of Her Majesty The Queen who sends her very best wishes to her Canadian Subjects.”
As the crowd waited, he concluded with, “So Ladies and Gentlemen, together with my wife, we have the greatest pleasure in declaring Expo 86 officially open.”
With that, the crowd cheered as seven years of planning and construction came to an end. It was the first time Vancouver welcomed the world but certainly would not be the last. For the next 164 days, 20,111,578 people came through the gates of Expo 86, including one six-year-old boy named, who had travelled in a motorhome with his family from Kamloops, and was visiting Vancouver for the first time.
I was that boy… I’m Craig Baird….and this is Canadian History Ehx!
In early 1886, on the traditional land of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, a community sprang up where the Canadian Pacific Railway reached the Pacific ocean.
Originally, the terminus was named Granville but there was worry over being associated with the seedy nearby area of Gastown, a new name was suggested by CPR president William Van Horne. He chose Vancouver, believing that no one in Toronto or Montreal knew where Granville was, but they knew Vancouver Island, which had been named for Captain George Vancouver, who had come to the area in 1792. The name change gave the new community on the Lower Mainland instant name recognition. The rebrand was so highly successful that within a month, hundreds had already moved to the community.
On April 6, 1886, the City of Vancouver was incorporated. Two months later, the entire city burned to the ground within 25 minutes, leaving 21 dead. You’ll remember I covered that terrible event on my episode The Great Vancouver Fire.
For the next century, Vancouver grew to become one of the most important cities in Canada. By the time the late-1970s rolled around, the city was being noticed internationally. The NHL included the Vancouver Canucks in 1970, and The Beachcombers were showing viewers all over the world the unique natural beauty of the area. While Vancouver was gaining recognition, Eastern Canada was the prefered location when it came to major events.
The first Canadian World’s Fair had been held in Montreal in 1967, followed by the Summer Olympics in that same city in 1976.
The only major sport competition Vancouver had seen over the previous two decades was the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games. And this was a relatively small affair, with only 24 nations and 662 competitors.
Knowing that the Vancouver centennial was approaching, then BC Minister For Recreation and Conservation Sam Bawlf put forward a proposal for Vancouver to host a world’s fair to celebrate the 100 year anniversary.
The idea gained traction and in June 1979, a formal application for a world’s fair called Transpo 86 was submitted to the Bureau International des Expositions in Paris.
In November 1980, the plan was approved, and work began on the biggest event Vancouver had ever hosted to that point.
World’s Fairs first appeared in 1791 in Prague, where the 1st World’s Fair was held to celebrate the coronation of Leopold II as the King of Bohemia. Other countries began to see World’s Fairs as opportunities to highlight the accomplishments of the nation and gain prestige. World’s Fairs became a regular event after Paris in 1847, with London, New York, Philadelphia, Barcelona and Chicago all hosting a fair by the end of the century. It was for the fair in Paris in 1889 that the Eiffel Tower was built, and in Chicago the latest inventions were showcased, including the first movie camera, searchlights, switchboards and induction motors.
Prior to the growth of the Olympics as a showcase for a country, nothing was bigger than a World’s Fair.
This would be the second World’s Fair held in Canada, the third held in the Pacific Northwest of North America, and, to date, the last to be held on the continent.
With the name, Transpo86, organizers felt it gave the image of a trade fair for transportation, rather than a world’s fair. In order to eliminate that association, the name Expo 86 was chosen. This not only created a simple brand, it also connected it with Canada’s last World’s Fair, Expo 67.
And almost from the beginning, Expo 86 was compared to Expo 67 in Montreal. Held during Canada’s Centennial Year in 1967, the Montreal’s Expo became a landmark moment in Canadian history and became one of the most successful world’s fairs of the 20th century. Its legacy is remembered warmly by 50 million Canadians that visited Expo 67 Canada’s population was only 20 million at the time. I covered the fascinating history of Expo 67 earlier this year on the podcast, so please check it out.
Meanwhile For Expo 86, for organizers constantly being compared to the Montreal event left them feeling like they were overshadowed by their more famous and successful older brother.
The theme for Expo 86 was World in Motion – World in Touch. The theme was shown in the logo, which featured three concentric circles using the figures 8 and 6 intersecting to represent transportation by land, sea and air.
Three years after Vancouver was awarded the fair, construction officially began in October 1983 at False Creek when Queen Elizabeth II started a concrete mixer on the site of what would become the Canada Pavilion.
False Creek was first named by Sir George Henry Richards, a hydrographer with the Royal Navy, who had conducted a survey of the Lower Mainland from 1856 to 1863.
While traveling along the south side of Burrard Inlet, Richards believed he was traversing a creek. Upon realizing his error, he named the inlet, False Creek.
Construction may have technically started on the day the Queen started the cement mixer in 1983, but due to a labour dispute, all progress was halted for five months.
When construction eventually began, 10,000 people were employed, and it helped reverse the recession that British Columbia was in. Throughout Expo 86 itself, over 80,000 people were employed and it reduced the entire unemployment rate of British Columbia by two per cent from 1984 to 1986.
The groundbreaking of BC Place took place in April 1981, and two years later, it opened to the public. It was here that the opening ceremonies of Expo 86 were held. From that day onwards BC Place has been a part of all the major sporting and concert events in the city including the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
As opening day in 86 approached, Expo organizers hoped that 20 countries would sign on.
By 1985, 33 countries pledged to participate, exceeding all expectations. Those countries would be featured, along with six Canadian provinces, two U.S. states and 14 corporations.
While unemployment was down, and Vancouver was ready to step onto the spotlight on the international stage, there was a dark side to Expo 86. Similar to what we saw two decades later in the leadup to the Winter Olympics, a swath of evictions hit Vancouver, Buildings were brought down, only to be replaced with newer, more expensive hotels and apartments. The area that was most affected was the Downtown Eastside.
The Downtown Eastside had begun the 20th century as the political, retail, and cultural centre of Vancouver. That’s where you could find city hall, the courthouse, banks, and the Carnegie Library. Within it there was also Japantown, but after Japanese Canadians were forced into internment camps during the Second World War, the glimmer to Downtown Eastside was lost forever.
As the city shifted westward, the area became poor and known for crime, drug abuse and homelessness. Leading up to Expo 86, the city clamped down on crime in areas of the city where tourists were likely to visit. As a result, crime shifted towards the Downtown Eastside. Over 1,000 low-income residents living long-term in single occupancy hotels were evicted from the Downtown Eastside.
Many were only given a day’s notice and because they lived in hotels, rather than apartment buildings, they were not protected by rental laws.
Olaf Solheim was one of those people. He had lived at the Patricia Hotel for decades. He was only given one week’s notice before being evicted. Although he found a new home, he became depressed, stopped eating and was dead within a month of his eviction. Speaking about his death Vancouver’s chief medical officer John Batherwick said, “He’d been moved from where he was to a place he didn’t want to be, and he simply lost his will to live, and he died.”
Mayor Mike Harcourt said he hoped provincial laws would be changed to protect residents, but the government refused to amend the British Columbia Innkeeper’s Act.
Expo 86 had an initial budget of $78 million, but by the time opening day arrived, expenditures had reached $802 million. Despite being ten times over budget, it was clear the event was going to be a major success. By opening day, nearly every hotel in the city was booked from June until August, as these were the biggest months for Expo. Most Canadians and international visitors made the trip during the summer holidays with their children.
Many visitors travelled up to 90 minutes from their hotel to get to Expo.
Then, on May 2, 1986, it officially opened to the public, and Expo 86 kicked off…with a lot of people waiting in lines.
Over the three month event visitors to Expo could explore 54 pavilions built by nations, provinces and corporations. Alberta, B.C., Quebec, the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan had pavilions. Countries from across the planet also built pavilions including Australia, Belgium, Costa Rica, China, the Soviet Union, the United States, Cuba, France, West Germany, Japan, Norway, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Thailand and the United Kingdom.
The Switzerland pavilion sticks out for me personally, as I have a very clear memory of the giant wristwatch built as part of the pavilion. Air Canada, CN Rail, Via Rail, Canadian Pacific, Telecom Canada and General Motors also had pavilions. If all those pavilions weren’t enough, there was also the Great Hall of Ramesses II, the 1880s-era railway roundhouse, several steam locomotives and an exhibit of Great Norwegian Explorers.
Both the Soviet Union and the United States chose ill-timed themes for their pavilions in 1986.
The United States focused on the country’s space industry, but it opened only a few months after the Jan. 28, 1986 Challenger disaster that killed all seven crew members 73 seconds after it launched from Florida. The Soviet Union’s pavilion celebrated its nuclear industry. One week before Expo 86 opened, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred in what is now Ukraine. The disaster was caused when a routine shutdown of a nuclear reactor was conducted. A design flaw resulted in the rupture of fuel channels, leading to an eventual nuclear meltdown at the facility. The disaster killed less than 100 people initially, but it is believed the long-term effects killed upwards of 16,000 to 60,000 people in Europe.
The Soviet’s pavilion also celebrated its space industry, with a huge statue of the world’s first person in space, Yuri Gagarin, arms outstretched, towering over the entrance to the pavilion.
Other pavilions were wonders of engineering at the time.
The Japan pavilion featured a detailed 10,760 square foot model,with 5,000 moving pieces, of a coastal city of the future.
The Czechoslovakia pavilion featured an audiovisual symphony that blended the old and new of the nation through technology and esthetics.
The Egyptian pavilion had 67 artifacts from the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II, who ruled Egypt from 1290 to 1224 BC. For it to be featured in Vancouver, A $35 million insurance policy against theft and damage was placed on the items in the pavilion. Canada’s pavilion was one of the largest ever built by Canada for a world’s fair. It featured 120,000 square feet of space and cost $280 million. Designed to be sleek like a luxury liner with a roof line that featured five towering sails, visitors were treated to comedy sketches, a circus and other performances in The Great Hall.
The Wondrous New Worlds exhibit in the pavilion explored a vision for Canada in four dimensions, space, the atmosphere, undersea and the Arctic. Within the Celebration Theatre, patriotic films played almost constantly. On one wall, 108 stacked monitors created the largest-ever designed audio-visual presentation, projecting images of sailing, flying and blasting into space. One of the favourite exhibits for visitors was the robotic arm that folded paper airplanes and launched them into the air. Saskatchewan’s pavilion was a 10-storey tall mirrored grain elevator, which proved to be one of the most striking architectural sights at the Expo.
Visitors to the pavilion were whisked to the top to get a panoramic view of the Expo grounds. The ride down simulated, using monitors, the descent into a potash mine deep below the surface. The latest in technology was showcased at Expo 86, and General Motors Spirit Lodge used holographic effects to create a First Nations elder speaking about freedom of movement.
Highway 86 was a massive sculpture by James Wines. He is an artist and architect who specialized in environmental design. Since 1969, he had lectured in dozens of countries on green topics. Over his career, he has designed more than 150 projects in 11 countries. His Expo 86 exhibit, Highway 86. It comprised 200 real vehicles frozen in time and space on a roadway that visitors could walk on. Another memory I have of visiting Expo 86 was of those vehicles, ranging from bicycles, motorcycles, planes and vehicles, painted in silver, frozen in time. The artwork was 40 feet wide and 700 feet long, spanning the entire expo site. Wines said his art installation was “a double-edged piece. It raises the prospect of technology out of control.”
With so many pavilions, most people couldn’t see everything that Expo 86 had to offer in one visit. To get around the Expo, a 5.4-kilometre monorail provided a 20-minute trip around the grounds. Over 10 million people rode the monorail, while 9.75 million took rides on the gondolas.
In the endthe most popular pavilion, according to exit surveys by visitors, was the Soviet Union’s, followed by the China and British Columbia Pavilions.
Overall, despite having mock-ups of the Voyager and Mercury spacecrafts, most visitors were not impressed with the United States pavilion at all.
Although it was filled with wonder and merriment, the Expo was not without incident. Only days after the fair was opened by her husband Prince Charles, Princess Diana collapsed. Officials had been explaining the details behind a computerized bicycle design at the California Pavilion when it happened. Reporters were quickly ushered out of the pavilion, while an ambulance and the royal doctor were called. Twenty minutes later, Diana was walking out to a waiting motorcade as the crowd cheered. The fainting spell made headlines around the world as many speculated if the princess was pregnant. It was later revealed by Diana that at the time she fainted because she was battling with bulimia, an eating disorder
Then on May 9 tragedy struck when nine-year-old Karen Ford from Nanaimo was killed in the Canadian Pavilion.
She was crushed by a revolving turntable that connected two semi-circular theatres in the pavilion. These theatres allowed spectators to lead on a padded support to watch one film, and then the circular platform rotated 180 degrees to allow visitors to view the second presentation in the adjoining theatre. During the presentations, a fixed wall descends from the ceiling on each side of the rotating platform to screen out noise. Tragically, Ford was standing at the perimeter of the turntable when it rotated and she became caught between the stationary wall on the rotating turntable and the wall as it was lowered.
Expo officials called it a freak accident, but a coroner’s jury deemed it a homicide due to the poor safety measures being in place.
The revolving table was shut down for some time before it re-opened the first week of June with new safety measures, including an automatic shut-off device.
Karen’s family sued Expo and the companies that designed the theatre. The family was offered $100,000 to settle but they refused, calling it a slap on the wrist for the mistakes that killed their daughter. And that wasn’t the only controversy to befall the Expo. Sammy the Sea Lion was a wild seal named by Expo employees when his antics off the fair’s waterfront drew the attention and adoration of millions of Expo visitors.
He emerged one day from False Creek to sun himself on a boom boat and was immediately a fan favourite. Unfortunately, an SPCA official shot the 600-pound sea lion after receiving reports that he was sick and about to die. It was called a mercy killing but it resulted a huge public outcry and led to the suspension of the official and a government investigation into the matter.
On Sept. 16, 1986, an 11-page report was issued. It found there were no clear areas of responsibility for the care or disposal of sea lions, sick or healthy. The Vancouver SPCA would apologize for the incident and the official, Bob Gordon, took full responsibility and would return to work on Sept. 15. The entire incident was not easy for him, as he had worked for the SPCA since he was eight and was an animal lover who rescued ring-necked doves, dwarf rabbits, and a box turtle he named Rochester. After the initial outcry, Gordeon was commended by the media for never shying away from the controversy or the public.
One of the many lasting legacies from the Expo was The SkyTrain. The first line was built to partially help transport visitors to the site. Construction began in 1982 and the service opened in December 1985. To show visitors where the station was located from anywhere on the Expo grounds, the world’s tallest freestanding flagpole, rising to 282 feet, with a 944 square foot Canadian flag on top was built. Since Expo, the SkyTrain has become the most important part of Vancouver’s transit system, with the line extending six different times. Today, over 500,000 people ride the SkyTrain each day and the service still uses its original 1985-86 fleet of trains.
If the monorail, and the skytrain weren’t enough, rides were also a big part of Expo 86. By far the most popular ride was the Scream Machine. This roller coaster included two 360 degree loops and a corkscrew turn. An average of 11,500 people per day waited for hours to ride the coaster.
For those who visited Expo 86, if they were lucky, they may have seen the event’s mascot , Expo Ernie. Rather than someone in a giant foam suit, Ernie was a remote-controlled robot that could interact with visitors. The idea for Ernie came about when Expo 86 Commissioner General Patrick Reid saw a robot at an American airport and thought it would be a great mascot. Responsibility for its design and construction fell on Ken Larson, who built Ernie, operated him, and provided the voice. Larson described himself as a freelance actor from Florida and he refused to have his picture taken because he felt Ernie should remain a robot in the minds of the public. Larson left the post of handling Ernie in 1985 when he moved back to Florida to work on acting and film production work. With Larson gone, Craig Wheeler, a 22-year-old acting student took over operation from Ernie.
Leading up to the big event Ernie was a world traveler. From 82 to 82 He spent six months at the Canada Pavilion during the Knoxville World’s Fair, followed by visits to Asia and Europe to promote Expo 86. He also toured through Canada and the United States, but not without hiccups. One hiccup occurred in September 1984 when Ernie stopped working at the Seattle Centre to launch ticket sales in the United States. In the incident, Ernie fell face down on the podium and had to be pulled off stage by Wheeler as the crowd watched. Ernie was in Seattle to preside over the first U.S. purchase of a three-day pass by Washington Governor Booth Gardner.
During Expo 86, Ernie became Where’s Waldo for visitors as they tried to find him among the tens of thousands of people visiting the fair each day. To make things easier eventually, he wound up in a dedicated spot in the kids’ area underneath the Cambie Street Bridge. After Expo 86 finished, Ernie retired to a quiet life when he was purchased by Expo Chairman, and billionaire, Jimmy Pattison for $53,000 at a post-fair auction.
As Ernie found a new permanent home after the Expo which officially closed on Oct. 13, 1986. Vancouver welcomed over 22 million visitors, less than half of Montreal int Expo 67 but that isn’t as bad as it appears.
The world had changed, and the importance of world’s fairs fell between Expo 67 and Expo 86.
Vancouver actually drew double the visitors the Knoxville Fair did in 1982, and three times what the Louisiana World’s Fair did in 1984.
Organizers of Expo 86 also hoped 13.7 million people would attend, and they far exceeded that expectation.
Visitors spent $94 million on food, and ate 4.2 million hot dogs and had enough cotton candy to fill up half of B.C. Place.
While the event cost $802 million, and brought in $491 million in revenue, meaning it was $311 million deficit, it generated more than $3.7 billion for the Canadian economy.
Many parts featured in Expo 86 became permanent fixtures in communities across Canada. The world’s largest hockey stick is now in Duncan, British Columbia next to the local arena. The Inukshuk that was on display at the Northwest Territories Pavilion was relocated to English Bay beach in 1988. It served as the inspiration for Vancouver’s Winter Olympics logo two decades later. The Folklife Pavilion became Folklife Village on Gabriola Island and now serves as a shopping centre. Other pavilion structures were disassembled and reconstructed for industrial use across the Lower Mainland.
The Log Flume Ride was shipped on 16 semi-trucks and installed at Upper Clements Park in Nova Scotia. The Canada pavilion is now a major convention centre in Vancouver and it is where the cruise ships dock. As for Highway 86, Wines would attempt to raise $1 million to have the 200 vehicles cast in solid metal to preserve them. Unfortunately, he was not able to raise the money and the Disposal Division of Expo 86 sold the vehicles for a total of $70,000.
The entire event continues to be seen as a huge success for Vancouver. And made the city a destination with global recognition.
It also directly led to Vancouver hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics. In fact, part of the original Expo Centre was redeveloped to become part of the Olympic Village. However all of this came at a price very high cost of living. And led to the current affordability crisis that persists in Vancouver where even the smallest house can sell for over $1 million, You can trace its origin to when the world first took notice of Vancouver and high-priced developments began to move in. Downtown Vancouver saw its population rise from 6,000 in the 1980s, to over 43,000 by 2006.
Due to the affordability issues, which began in the 1980s, some call Expo 86 the moment when Vancouver sold its soul.
That legacy became the inspiration for the song False Creek Change by Vancouver indie band Said the Whale. The song goes
“False Creek changed in 86
The year Expo exploited her shore
It’s been 22 years laying down bricks
There’s no room for me here anymore.”
That’s the end of the story and legacy of Expo 86 but there’s one more thing you should know about a corporation’s floating restaurant that still struggles to find a home.
One of the most popular spots at Expo 86 was the McBarge, a floating McDonald’s restaurant that cost $12 million to construct. It was one of five McDonald’s restaurants at the fair, measuring in at 57 metres long, moored to the Expo grounds at False Creek.
After briefly serving as a restaurant after the fair, it was soon left empty and sat anchored at Burrard Inlet, north of Burnaby, next to industrial barges and an oil refinery.
Thus began its sad decline as it spent the next three decades being sold from owner to owner, becoming more decrepit and rusted as time went on.
But some life was left on the old McBarge and in 2004 t it was used as the lair of the Nightstalkers in Blade: Trinity
If you watch the movie you’ll see how far the structure had deteriorated. There have been many plans to fix it, to turn it into anything from a restaurant to a homeless shelter, but nothing has materialized. A petition to give the barge historic status could only muster 185 signatures.
In 2015, it was moved to Maple Ridge and to this day, it sits as a lonely and decaying relic of the last world’s fair to be held in North America.
Information from Macleans, Canadian Encyclopedia, Urbanized, Vancouver Sun, Wikipedia, Whistler Museum, Vancouver Sun, CityNews,
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