History Lesson: Expo 67

On April 28 2012, the city of Montreal celebrated the 45th anniversary of a landmark event that forever changed its history.

This monumental event not only placed the city on a global centre stage, but was also the catalyst for Montreal’s development into one of the most cosmopolitan and distinct cities in the world. This one occasion not only defines the way Montrealers view their urban landscape today, but also, the way it represents their hometown and its environs.

Almost instantly, the designs and undertakings that came forth in the 1960s brought incredible fame and misfortune to the city of Montreal, which we continue to analyze.

So what was this mysterious event? It was none other than the dynamic World’s Fair Exhibition celebrating Canada’s centennial, known as Expo 67.

On the morning of April 28th, the highly anticipated 1967 International and Universal Exposition kicked off to a tremendous start. Expo 67 was attended by 62 nations, over 7000 members of the media, fifty-three heads of state, and broadcasted to an audience of over 700 million people worldwide.

If that weren’t enough, Queen Elizabeth II, Lyndon Johnson, Jacqueline and Robert F. Kennedy, and Charles de Gaulle were some of the many notable figures in attendance, while musicians Thelonious Monk, Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane performed live sets to massive crowds.

In the moments leading to the start of the show, a then-record crowd of approximately 320,000 people cheered and counted down the final seconds. Official figures later noted that over a million visitors attended the fair in the first three days alone. Expo 67 would eventually rake in over 50 million visitors, the third highest attendance record for the World’s Fair in the 20th century.

However, Expo 67 did not materialize easily. The project was hardly supported in Canada, and took great effort by mayor Jean Drapeau – the name later designated to the public park on Île Sainte-Hélène – in his campaign to win the vote, overcoming numerous challenges and seemingly impossible obstacles. Soon after, lobbyists, constructionists and thousands of others slaved away for over four years, working tirelessly to complete what some consider one of Canada’s finest cultural accomplishments.

When construction began in August 1963, the Expo Corporation had less than four years to complete the entire project. The first move was to enlarge and create the artificial islands of Île Sainte-Hélène and Île Notre-Dame using 25 million tons of fill from excavations of Montreal’s metro system, which was also extended to accommodate public transit across the downtown core. (April 28 1980 also marks the expansion of the Orange Line from Lucien L’Allier to Place Saint-Henri stations). Expo 67 featured 90 pavilions, including the extremely popular Soviet pavilion and the iconic Habitat 67 modular housing complex.

Since then, structures such as the Montreal Biosphère and Montreal Casino were renovated from former pavilions, while Habitat 67 was converted into affordable co-operative housing. The once adored Montreal Expos were given their team name as a tribute to the exhibition, and the Montreal Formula 1 Grand Prix takes place annually on a track built on the outskirts of Île Sainte-Hélène. The amusement park La Ronde, now a member of Six Flags, continues to enjoy favourable reviews by hosting annual international firework competitions and adding several attractions in recent years.

Despite all the praise received for Expo 67, a few hangovers continue to plague the city. At the time, De Gaulle’s “Vive Montréal… Vive le Québec… Vive le Québec libre!” speech rippled through Canadian politics, serving as an ambitious slogan for Quebec separatists and FLQ militants. Today, the most obvious example is the Turcot Interchange – completed in time for the exhibition – now causing more than its fair share of headaches for drivers and residents in Montreal. While maintaining good condition, roads such as the Decarie Expressway are outdated and cannot accommodate to the increasing amount of motorists on the island. Finally, due to insufficient funds in the years after Expo 67, the extension of the metro system was abandoned and has since struggled to achieve high levels of service. The list goes on and on…

Today, very few of the original structures from Expo 67 remain behind, despite the $439 million spent in construction alone. In the years following 1967, the buildings continued to deteriorate or were demolished to create space for the 1976 Summer Olympics. Most were not built to last, and therefore, by 1981, the remaining exhibits were finally closed for good.

Of those that remained behind, the pavilions, buildings, and statues that were once idolized by the global community now stand in ruin. The former South Korean pavilion serves as the bus station – which is currently under construction, indefinitely. The remnants of other sites continue to decay under the wrath of Mother Nature and provide vivid reminders of a bygone era. However, the legacy left behind stands as a vivid reminder of one of Montreal’s greatest historical triumphs.

There is no doubt that Expo 67 is an unbelievable chapter in Montreal’s story. Historian Pierre Burton argued that in many ways, Expo helped bridge the gap between Canada’s French and English speaking communities, creating solidarity through cooperation between both parties and the overall spirit of the exhibition. And while the prominent features of Expo 67 help preserve a particular moment in time, they should instead be remembered as the elements that forever defined the history of Montreal. Whether that is for better or worse, is totally up to you.Expo 67

Photo Credit: National Archives of Canada and our very own Daniel Bromberg

Written by Daniel Bromberg