Expo-67; The Montreal Worlds Fair - a triumph for Canada.
Ever since I had come to Canada I had the impression that the people of that country suffered collectively from what would now be called "low self-esteem". The country was in essence the child of two colonial powers, Britain and France, which had fought each other all over the globe for several hundred years and were anything but compatible parents.

The battle for custody was long and brutal and it is perhaps no surprise that the new nation inherited considerable schizophrenia and other psychological damage as a result. One of the major problems that jumped out at me during my first few years in Canada, was the cheerful dependence on the USA for all manufactured goods, particularly things like cars. I remember someone saying to me after seeing the Riley one-point-five, "Why don't you buy a Canadian car".

I could hardly believe that a native born Canadian could be so brainwashed as to assume that Chryslers, Chevrolets, and Fords were Canadian, simply because they were assembled in something like "paint-by-numbers" operations in American branch plants, situated in places like Windsor, (across the water from Detroit, it could not be any closer). My instant reaction to that (and one which did not win me any friends), was that I would be more than happy to buy a Canadian car - if I could find one. The separation of cars into the categories "Foreign and Domestic", absolutely infuriated me (and still does). The implication was that all cars that were not American were foreign, including British cars.

I was even more unpopular for suggesting that one of those categories should be renamed so that we would have "Commonwealth and Foreign" cars, thereby labelling the entire branch plant American car industry as foreign, (which I still insist that it is). In more recent times the dichotomy has got even more ridiculous when European and Japanese cars assembled in Canada under the same ground rules as the American ones, are still referred to as "imports"!

The year 1967 marked Canada's one hundredth anniversary as an independent nation and the government of the day was determined to make an occasion of it which would set the world on its ear. The previous year had seen the final resolution of the great flag debate. It was time, everyone had agreed, that Canada had a flag without any sort of colonial baggage (specifically the Union Jack) attached. There had been much soul-searching and in the end the flag with the maple leaf, flanked by two vertical red stripes was finally adopted. The national debate, carried on in newspapers and radio and TV talk shows, generated much heat, but very little light. There were the pontifically serious proposals and the waggishly cynical ones. At the risk of my life I had suggested to colleagues that either a version of the stars and stripes with an extra star in the shape of a maple leaf; or just: "USA (Canada) Inc", would reflect the grim reality that Canada was regrettably little more than a branch plant of the USA.

The "Worlds Fair" extraveganzas had been mostly held in the USA, and had become such overt commercial feeding frenzies that they had fallen very much out of favour in the 1960's. Nevertheless a Worlds Fair in Canada in 1967 had been seen by the Diefenbaker government as just the vehicle to put Canada on the map in its centennial year. One of the leading architects of the idea was the charismatic Mayor of Montreal, Jean Drapeau. He had been the Mayor since almost anyone could remember and was practically the God-Father of the city. It was he who had convinced the Federal and Quebec Proviancial Governments that it would be possible to host a successful Worlds Fair in the city of Montreal.

At first the idea seemed preposterous, the crucial requirements for a Worlds Fair were a central, easily accessible site, large enough to accommodate the various national pavillions, and a well-oiled transportation infrastructure to bring people from far and wide to the location. Absolutely none of this existed in Montreal in the early 60's. The city itself was one of the most congested in the nation, with no freeways or other means of bypassing the downtown areas, the highway network connecting it with other cities was primitive.

For a start there were no divided highways in Quebec province at all at that time. The closest equivalents were the "three-lane" death traps, where a centre lane was provided as a "passing lane" for cars passing in both directions. In practice it encouraged people to use it as a fast lane, leading to frequent and devastating head on collisions as might be imagined. To top it all off, there was not a square inch of land on the island of Montreal available for the actual site of a Worlds Fair. In short, the cost and scale of the work which would be needed to upgrade the city and its environs to create a suitable milieu for a successful Worlds Fair, would be astronomical.

Despite the obvious unsuitability of Montreal as a venue, the idea caught hold and in the end a bold and immensely ambitious plan evolved, which was to cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars. Since there was no land available, it would be created, literally, by dumping millions of tons of rock and earth into the St. Larwrence river on the south side of the island city. This would create another island, big enough to house all the pavillions, thereby meeting the requirements for a large, centrally located site.

At first blush it seemed ridiculous, but in fact the idea had much to recommend it, it would have been immensely expensive and disruptive to a lot of people and small businesses to have expropriated large chunks of the city and level all the buildings to create a suitable site. The island solution required lots of rocks and earth and of course lots and lots of money, but by going wih that option, there would be no endless legal wrangling over titles to hundreds of parcels of land, and no expensive renovation and redesign of underground services already installed.

The other part of the plan proposed to tackle, head-on, the hopelessly inadequate state of public transport and highways, and the paucity of bridges connecting the island of Montreal with the mainland on both sides of the St. Lawrence. The proposal called for building a brand new subway system, running initially under the St. Lawrence between downtown Montreal, the Worlds Fair site and the south shore, with planned extensions in the future. In addition a new six-lane bridge across the St. Lawrence would be built (the Champlain bridge) connecting with a new six-lane highway (Decarie boulevard), running in a cutting below ground level to the north of the island. It in turn would connect with a new above-ground east-west highway (Metroplitan Boulevard), which would be carried over to the mainland by a new bridge at the north west corner of Montreal island. A host of other upgrades were to be done, including doubling-up the highway to the Ontario border.

It was a staggeringly ambitious proposal. Quite apart from the cost, the main obstacle would be the sheer magnitude of the task. Even with all the money in the world, could it possibly be done in the time available? The Pearson Government, which was elected in 1963, and had inherited the Federal obligation, bravely committed Canadian taxpayers from coast to coast to an open-ended ageement to provide whatever resources it took to make it happen. The building of the St. Lawrence seaway had been a mammoth task, but by comparison with this undertaking, that project would seem like creating an ornamental lake in a theme park.

Since coming to Ottawa, we always made regular trips down to Drummondville during the summer months, to visit Lucille's family and to do a bit of sailing on the St. Francis river which runs through the town. By this time we had acquired a second hand plywood 12 ft sailing dinghy, bought by my Father in England and shipped across the Atlantic on a Cunard steam ship as deck cargo for the princely sum of $47.00, thanks to a relative of mine who worked at Cunard. The journey down to Drummondville was on "single lane" highway, all the way in those days. The road to the Ontario border was reasonable, but as soon as we crossed the border into Quebec, the road deteriorated into heaving and cracked paving, patched and repatched until the surface was like a chequerboard. From then on the journey was slow and tedious, especially through Montreal. The least congested route took us through the centre of the city in order to cross the St. Lawrence, using the Jacques Cartier Bridge. Thence via a network of narrow and congested streets to the single lane highway towards Quebec city.

During the four years or so leading up to the 1967 Worlds Fair in Montreal, and practically until the opening day, there was non-stop frenetic activity. Every time we made a trip down to Drummondville, there were new sets of detours. Familiar intersections disappeared, to be replaced by giant concrete webs of interlinking multilevel crossovers on stilts, high above familiar landmarks. It was amazing how easy it was to become totally lost in areas that we knew like the backs of our hands. Each trip was like time-lapse photography, with another acre on the new island rising up out of the St. Lawrence, and more piers (and later, more spans) completed for the new Champlain bridge. The speed with which the face of the landscape around and within the Island of Montreal changed in those four years was truly astonishing.

As the deadline approached the project was still substantially behind schedule, bedevilled by strikes and other difficulties, and there were times when it seemed that it would not happen. In the end it did, the new island was created, the pavillions were built, the subway system was operational and the network of highways was complete enough for the purpose, which was to provide easy access to the city for visitors who would arrive by road. Those visitors of course would be overwhelmingly from south of the border and it was vital if a significant fraction of the money which Canadian taxpayers had shelled out was to be recovered, that they be attracted in droves, and in the event they were.

It became a matter of record, which is hardly remembered today, that the 1967 Montreal Worlds Fair, "Expo 67" as it came to be known, was a stunning success for Montreal and for Canada. The meticulous attention to detail in every aspect, from free transport by elevated monorail around the site, to strict enforcement of regulations against profiteering by the hotel industry, and the army of people who were employed full time to pick up every plastic bag, drinking cup, cigarette-butt and scrap of paper so that the exhibition grounds were pristine at all times, was a tribute to all concerned.


A vista of Expo-67 showing the many pavilions
and the elevated monorail
Initially I must admit, I had been one of the sceptics, but after visiting the fair many times during that centennial year, I became an enthusiastic supporter of the whole project and I did not really care what it had cost, even though I was paying for it through my tax dollars. The point was that it had opened up Canada to the world and put it very much on the map, which was one of the main objectives of the project. The American visitors (the ones that I met and talked to anyway) said that they had been just amazed by the lavish scale of the scene when they had first set eyes on it, and were quite overwhelmed by the whole experience. They all said that they had never expected to see such a dazzling array of national pavillions and innovative exhibits in such a colourful and well planned environment.


Left to right: Burmese Thailand & Bell Canada pavilions
How right they were, All the countries who mounted national pavillions seemed to be inspired by the unusual island setting and pulled out all the stops to make their contributions the very best they could produce. The graceful Iranian and Burmese Pavillions, created in traditional styles, were gems in the panoply of different architectural styles that I particularly remember. There was an area on a mini-island called "La Ronde", set aside as a playground for young and old who had grown weary of the information overload that could overtake people after several hours of touring the pavillions. Again the island setting was a plus in creating a vacation atmosphere.


The U.K. pavilion and "Katumavik", part
of the Canadian pavillion
One of the most innovative rides was the "Flume", a cleverly designed water roller-coaster, where the "boats" were hollowed-out logs which carried the startled occupants over a series of stomach-knotting "rapids", which threw up spectacular clouds of spray as the logs whizzed down and were slowed abruptly as the gradient of the "rapid" changed. The design was so ingenious that nobody taking the ride was ever doused by the spray. Other attractions included rides on a British hovercraft, which floated down a concrete ramp from the loading area on its magic-carpet of air, and onto the water between the exhibition island and the main island of Montreal. It then moved majestically upstream and over the boiling Lachine rapids. Even the approaches to these rapids have swift eddy currents and dangerous swirling vortices, which make them totally unnavigable by any other water craft and it was an awe inspiring sight to see the mighty hovercraft float over them all as if it were nothing more than a mill stream.

One of the most inspired pieces of organisational brilliance was the simple and effective way that was provided for people to find their cars in the huge parking area. There were high posts laid out on a grid spacing of about twenty yards or so and each post had a silhouette of a zoo animal. You might easily forget "post number A-835" or whatever, but you would probably remember "Elephant", or if you did forget, the kids would surely remember.


The American geodesic dome pavilion with
the monorail in the foreground
All in all, that event did more to make me identify with my adopted country than anything else I can remember, before or since. In my book it was an absolute triumph of vision and daring to have changed the face of a city the size of Montreal in only four years and pulled off a success that made the world catch its collective breath, even if only for those brief few summer months in 1967. There is no question that it set a new standard for World Fairs against which all others have since been measured. The one after that was in Tokyo and they called it "Expo 71", again confirming Oscar Wilde's dictum that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.


The Indian Pavilion
Among the long term benefits for Canada were a new respect from the Americans and a new interest and curiosity by them in Canada's dual culture, and this inevitably had a more or less permanent impact on tourism. The city of Montreal got a highway upgrade which would have taken at least twenty years to achieve with normal funding, and a subway system that probably would not have happened at all. Not only that, once the seed had been sown with the initial infusion of federal money, the momentum continued for many years afterwards. The subway and highway networks were gradually extended with provincial and municipal money, because by then the grand plan was plain for all to see, and it would have been unthinkable to leave it all dangling for lack of funds.

There was one incident however which came close to marring an otherwise perfect centennial year for Canada. General Charles De Gaulle, the French wartime hero and then President of France, made a formal state visit to Canada, which began at Quebec and was scheduled to go by road through the towns and villages of the north shore of the St. Lawrence to Montreal, and then on to Ottawa.

De Gaulle had by then become a legend in his own time as the greatest French national hero since Joan of Arc, for his part in organising French resistance to the German occupation during the war. Somehow he was the antidote for the let-down the French people had suffered at the hands of Marshall Petain, the World War One hero who had been called upon to save France again in 1940, but who had meekly submitted to Hitler's threats and had become a part of the despised Vichy government, collaborating with the Nazi oppressors. The never-to-be-forgoten image that was associated with De Gaulle by every French man, woman and child by contrast, was the tall fearless General, triumphantly leading the French forces down the Champs Elysee in what was one of the most memorable and emotionally charged celebrations of the war, the liberation of Paris from the German occupation (and especially from the butal excesses of the Gestapo) in 1944.

The liberation of Paris was the shining light at the end of a very long and very dark tunnel, a cartharsis not only for France, but also for England and the other Allies. Somehow it was the first clear and unequivocal evidence that at long last the nightmare was over and that the forces of Hitler's Third Reich, which had seemed so invincible a short three years earlier, were about to be driven back into a Germany which had been physically destroyed and morally crushed.

In fact De Gaulle spent the war in England organising the Free French troops (mostly Air Force, who flew with the RAF) and was never personally at risk, unlike the gallant French resistance fighters, ordinary civilians, who risked torture and death at the hands of the Gestapo for their efforts in thwarting the occupation force by attacking military installations and in channelling British and American air force crews shot down over enemy territory, back to England. De Gaulle adopted the cross of Lorraine as the banner for his exiled forces and Winston Churchill once let it be known that that was the biggest cross he had had to bear during the war.

De Gaulle had a happy knack of being in the right place at the right time and when in 1958 the succession of short lived post-war governments in France had led to a degree of chaos which threatened political stability, De Gaulle announced that he was prepared to take charge if he was allowed to rewrite the French constitution to give him a degree of power as President which far exceeded that of the current constitution. The French electorate breathed a collective sigh of relief and voted him into office, giving birth to the Fifth Republic. The Austere De Gaulle became even more convinced that he was the best thing that had happened to the French Nation since Joan of Arc and ran it with an iron hand, taking it out of NATO and creating the independent French "Force de Frappe" with a nuclear capability. By 1967, he had acquired an almost God-like mystique. One of the many apocryphal stories concerned a band of foreign diplomats who had shown up for an audience at the Elysee Palace and were told that De Gaulle had gone for a walk across the lake, but would return shortly.

De Gaulle reached Montreal after his psuedo-imperial procession from Quebec City and addressed an enthusiastic crowd from the balcony of Montreal's Town Hall. The setting and the general atmosphere of euphoria must have been for him strongly reminiscent of the scene in Paris twenty-three years earlier and he ended his emotional speech with the overwhelmingly provocative line: "...Vive le Quebec...Vive le Quebec libre..." There was no denying the measured and deliberate emphasis on the added word "libre" in the repeated phrase, and he did not show any sign of regret later on. It was an outrageous interference in the internal affairs of Canada by the most senior and respected world leader of the time, who was also the head of state of one of Canada's two founding nations. Prime Minister Lester Pearson was rightly furious and De Gaulle was bluntly invited to leave, which he did within hours. Nevertheless his mischievous meddling had re-ignited the fuse of Quebec nationalism which had been smouldering on and off for decades. This time the fuse burned quietly but steadily for another three years before quite literally reaching the dynamite.