Understanding the Meaning and Impact of Expo ’67: A Lesson in Context

Introduction

Back in June I made a post regarding Expo 67 and its importance to Canadians. Since I published that post, I learned significantly more about the Expo, and believe a follow-up post is in order. Back in August, I made a presentation to Library and Archives Canada staff regarding the Expo at LAC’s Summer Student Symposium. Being quite pleased with my presentation, I decided the text of the presentation would make a good blog post, so here we go.

Back in May 2014 I was assigned to undertake a block review project for the Expo 67 Fonds.  Though I was excited to start the project, I was nervous since I knew little about Expo 67. As I started the project, and in doing some preliminary reading, I had prematurely come to the conclusion that the Expo was just one big, long fair that was held from April to October 1967.

However, there were a few things I found in the records that challenged my initial conclusion. First, why did stars of film and television like Ed Sullivan and Bing Crosby, royalty like Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco, and high powered politicians like Hailie Selassie, Charles de Gaulle, and the Kennedy Family converge in Montreal for what was seemingly just a big carnival?

Second, why did Pierre Dupuy, Commissioner General of the Expo, receive so many letters simply thanking him for putting on such a successful event? Some of those letters were from people of high standing such as international ambassadors and business people who out of good manners, sent him a thank you and congratulations; however, a good number of these letters were from low-level employees of the Expo, and ordinary visitors from all over the world.

Even letters of complaint were accompanied by grand compliments and tokens of appreciation for the Expo. In an odd case, one young woman employed as a nurse by the Expo even thought that Dupuy could help resolve her relationship problems with a young Expo doctor. I obviously needed to do more reading to gain a better sense of the context around the Expo.

See Phillippe de Gaspé Beaubien’s interview with Bob Evans promoting the Expo. Beaubien was Expo’s Director of Operations and unofficial “Mayor of Expo.”

A Rising Country

I discovered that Canadians prior to 1967 had a somewhat subdued national self-esteem and patriotism. Canada was still among one of the youngest countries in the world, struggling to find its identity and global niche to separate itself from being only a member of the British Commonwealth. Not to mention the United States’ constant shadow cast over Canada with the Vietnam War- and Cold War-related news stories. Expo created an opportunity for Canada to take a step and stand out, and it seized the opportunity.

The success of Expo marked the beginning of a new era of national pride and image for Canadians, and much of the British press agreed. The Lancashire Evening Post called Expo “the greatest man-made show on earth.” The London Observer commented, “Expo 67 isn’t just a world fair, it has a glitter, sex appeal, and it’s given impact and meaning to a word that had neither: Canadian.”

The American press also celebrated Expo and acknowledged Canada’s achievement. Time magazine called the Expo, “The most successful world’s fair in history.”  Life Magazine gushed, “In all ways, Expo, which cost $1 billion, turns out to be the biggest show ever.” However, Canada was not the only sociopolitical entity coming of age during the Expo.

See a video of Expo’s Opening Ceremonies

Lester B. Pearson’s Welcome Speech

Québec’s Coming-out Party

The success of Expo 67 also seemed to be a climax in Québec’s Quiet Revolution. (Slide 6) 1967 did not only mark the 100th birthday of Canada, but the 325th anniversary of the City of Montreal. This was not just Canada’s coming out party, but also aroused a sense of Francophone pride and values in Québec, as it caused the Québecois to reevaluate their situation in Canada and the World. Louise Arbour, who became a Canadian Supreme Court Justice and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated, “[Expo 67] gave French Canadians the sense that they existed in the eyes of the world.” French-Canadian film producer Monique Simard observed, “[Expo 67] was a very strong catalyzer, especially for Francophones who had a ‘shy’ relationship to the world. Suddenly they felt they were a part of the world.”

Generational Gaps and Conflicting Narratives

Researchers from the University of British Columbia noticed a dichotomy between Anglophones and Francophones in their interpretation and remembrance of the significance of Expo 67. Forty years after the Expo, these researchers conducted a survey with people who attended the Expo from both Québec and British Columbia. The Anglophones surveyed regarded the Expo as Canada’s centennial birthday with a few mentioning French-English tensions in Canada, whereas Francophones saw it as a triumph for Quebec, with no mention of the national centennial whatsoever. In sum, there are two competing narratives elucidating the importance of the Expo to two different segments of the national population.

In comparing casual conversations with the older generation that remember Expo, and with students my age, I have come to notice a generational gap in understanding the importance of Expo. My generation has grown up in a Canada with intense national pride with global importance, and one that has achieved much acclaim in international diplomacy, global athletic competitions, and by way of the achievements of actors, actresses, musicians, and other artists; and thus, has not constructed a narrative around the importance of Expo. Thus far, Expo has not received the recognition it is due from my generation, and with more and more aging baby boomers, Expo risks being forgotten altogether.

My generation fails to see that Expo was a major step in realizing this international recognition, and a launching point for this national pride that we now enjoy. I never knew of the Canada that was described prior to 1967; and this historical narrative seems to be disappearing from the curricula of history courses at all levels of education. My hope is that the opening of the Expo 67 fonds—in conjunction with Expo’s 50th anniversary, Canada’s 150th anniversary, and Montreal’s 375th anniversary—will re-open the discussion of the long-term impact of the Expo, both on the French and English sides of the country, and breathe new life into this fading branch of our national story.

Further Reading

Anderson, David and Viviane Gosselin. “Private and public memories of Expo 67: A Case Study of Recollections of Montreal’s World’s Fair, 40 Years After the Event. museum and society 6 (March 2008): 1-21. http://blogs.ubc.ca/ewayne/files/2010/02/AndersonGosselin2008.pdf

Fulford, Robert. This Was Expo. Toronto, ON: McClelland and Stewart, 1968.

Kenneally, Rhona Richman and Johanne Sloan. Expo 67: Not Just a Souvenir. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2010

Lownsborough, John. The Best Place to Be: Expo 67 and its Time. Toronto, ON: Allen Lane, 2012.

 

 

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Determining Meaning and Impact: Montreal’s Expo 67

April 2017 will mark the 50th anniversary of Expo 67, a gigantic World Exhibition that Montreal hosted from April to October 1967.  The Exhibition was one of the largest of its kind in history and was one of the highlights of Canada’s centennial year.  It brought dignitaries from all around the world to Canada including Queen Elizabeth II, actress-turned-royal Grace Kelly, Haile Selassi, Jackie Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Charles de Gaulle and other world leaders.  It also brought a host of celebrities including Neil Diamond, Christopher Plummer, Harry Belafonte, and Sidney Poitier.  Not to mention 60 countries participating along with a host of private corporations setting up pavilions.  It was a grand spectacle, probably the largest and longest international event Canada has ever hosted.  I have met a few people that attended the Expo, and they still talk about what and incredible, historic event it was.  They speak about specific memories they had, and even have souvenirs and mementos from their visit.

 

Expo 67 logo

Expo 67 logo

 

Official Map of Expo 67

Official Map of Expo 67.  From Compagnie canadienne de l’Exposition internationale de 1967 (Société de la couronne – Gouvernement du Canada)

To be honest, I don’t fully understand why the Expo had such an impact on people.  For the last three weeks, I have had the task of poring through Expo 67 records here at Library and Archives Canada to determine whether they are appropriate for public viewing.  In the back of my mind, however, I have tried to answer some basic questions that aren’t related to my project:

  • “What was the Expo for?”
  • “What did it achieve?”
  • “Why was it significant?”
  • “If it’s so historical, why aren’t we talking about it in university classes?”

As I have looked through the records, I can only conclude that the Expo was just a big, oversized fair that lasted for 6 months. As a child of British immigrants who arrived in Canada after 1967, I have a difficult time relating to the Expo or comprehending the magnitude of it.  Moreover, having taken university History courses, we barely talked about the Expo.  The only mention of the Expo that I recall from these classes was former-French president Charles de Gaulle’s “Vive le Québec libre!” speech.

Aerial View of Canada to Quebec Pavilions

Aerial View of Canada to Quebec Pavilions (From Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN #3198390)

I think my main problem is that I didn’t grow up in the time period.  This meant that I needed to do some more secondary research on the topic so I could get a greater sense of context around these records.  What I realized was that the Cold War was raging at the time and, with the Cuban Missile Crisis still fresh in most peoples’ minds, everyone in the western hemisphere was prepared for a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union.  Not to mention the Vietnam War, former colonies in Asia and Africa fighting for independence from their European overseers, social change occurring in the United States with African Americans fighting for civil rights, and the Quiet Revolution occurring in Quebec.   It was truly a violent and uneasy time for a lot of people, a time that I have a difficult time relating to since I was only born in the mid-1980s.

From the reading I have done, I am beginning to think that the Expo was an escape from the global turmoil.  It represented the idealized utopia that people wanted the world to be.  It is interesting that the ticket into the Expo was a passport, and participants could take their passport and go to all of the different pavilions and get them stamped.  International borders didn’t exist within this micro-globe and the “citizens” of the Expo could freely “travel” to each country as they pleased.  A participant could easily jump from the United States Pavilion to the USSR, then go to Thailand, and then Cuba.  Though many of these nations were closed in real life, they were open for six months in 1967 in Montreal.

USSR Pavilion

USSR Pavilion (photo owned by Laurent Bélanger)

 

Now, was it really a utopia?  Had nations really come together to resolve each other’s differences?  Probably not.  I am sure there was gamesmanship between rival countries to put together a more impressive pavilion, garner more attention from the crowds, and spend more money on their displays in an effort to win this small battle of the Cold War.  I am also certain that countries inserted their own national propaganda in their pavilions to promote their way of life and governance.  Nevertheless, it seems that either Expo participants didn’t realize these competitions or just simply ignored them.  Nevertheless, at the end of the closing ceremony of the Expo, General Manager of the Expo Andrew Kniewasser remarked that he saw lots of people hugging, crying, and holding hands.  I believe that this happened for two reasons, first, that the utopian, idealized dream that had persisted throughout the Expo had to come to an end and the people had to face the harsh reality that they lived in.  The second reason, a little more positive, was that Canadians felt that they had accomplished something that only the great nations of the Old World and the economic super powers had achieved.  Finally, the young nation of Canada could claim some a bit of territory on that high pedestal for themselves.

I am also hesitant to suggest that this was an event of major global importance on its own, in isolation.  About 51% of the participants in the Expo were Canadian (half of which came from Montreal.  46% of participants came from the United States, leaving non-North American participation a paltry 4% participation.  However, I do believe this was an important milestone for Canada’s collective morale.  I think after having hosted the Expo, Canada felt like it had made a splash on the world stage.  The Expo was also likely a big step in demonstrating that Montreal could host the Olympic Games, which eventually occurred in 1976.  The two events combined gave Montreal some significant notoriety as a world-class city.

Montreal Biosphere

Montreal Biosphere (Photo by Philipp Hienstorfer)

On a local level, the Expo sped up improvements in infrastructure, development, and tourism as it left behind La Ronde amusement park, extensions in mass transit with the development of light rail to the Expo, the innovative and modern apartment structure Habitat 67, and the development of the islands in the St. Lawrence off the coast of Montreal.

All in all, the Expo was a monumental success for Canadians at the time.  It was the first step to greater international recognition and credibility as a cultural, economic, and artistic centre.  I think more research ought to conducted to determine why it was so important to individuals on a personal level.  Its importance seems to be well-documented at the national and global levels, but I want to know why people were hugging, holding hands, and crying with complete strangers at its end, and why so many people look back at it so fondly, even 50 years later.

Sources Consulted

Kenneally, Rhona Richman and Johanne Sloan (Eds.). Expo 67: Not Just a Souvenir. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.

Lownsborough, John. The Best Place to Be: Expo 67 and Its Time. Toronto: Penguin, 2012.

The Corporation of the 1967 World Exhbition fonds. The Board of Directors and the Executive Committee series, 1963-1967. Library and Archives Canada. Ottawa, ON.

The Corporation of the 1967 World Exhbition fonds. Department of Finance and Administration series, 1963-1967.  Library and Archives Canada. Ottawa, ON.