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.