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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.