Montreal’s iconic Expo 67 exhibition left lasting impact on country

Montreal's Expo 67 marks 50th anniversary

MONTREAL — It was five decades ago that Montreal welcomed the world to Expo 67, an international exhibition and iconic event that saw millions of visitors flock to the city over six months.

The event would put Montreal on the map and is remembered fondly by those who attended as drawing them into a futuristic fantasy world and opening their eyes to people and places they’d never experienced before.

Some 60 countries were part of the exhibition, which included architectural and technological marvels as part of nearly 100 pavilions that made up the 1967 International and Universal Exposition under the theme “Man and his World.”

PROJECTING CANADIAN UNITY

Yves Jasmin, the event’s director of advertising, information and public relations, said he believes Expo, which coincided with the country’s centennial, also had a positive national impact.

“I think it made Canadians, who are usually modest in their attestation of themselves, suddenly realize we could do something international and really get (others’) ears pricked up,” Jasmin, now 95, said in an interview.

After an opening ceremony with dignitaries on April 27, 1967, the exhibition opened to the public the following morning. Just two days later, a million visitors had already made their way through the turnstiles.

On a symbolic level, Expo 67 projected an image of Canadian unity, an international perception that remains today, said Mohamed Reda Khomsi, an urban studies professor at Universite du Quebec a Montreal, who added that Quebec’s unique status is also widely understood.

Not even the famous “Vive le Quebec, Vive le Quebec libre!” yelled from the balcony of city hall by then-French president Charles de Gaulle that July has distorted the perception, Khomsi added.

“The lasting image is one of a successful event and the view of a great people and country capable of doing great things,” he said.

The event ran until Oct. 29, counting nearly 50 million visits and exceeding the expectations of organizers. Jasmin credits the use of the Expo 67 passport — instead of tickets — which allowed people to come and go.

Among the visitors was Rick Rake, an ex-Montrealer who was just nine when Expo 67 opened. He recalled fond memories of fishing in the canals between the pavilions, eventually visiting all of them, opening his eyes to the world.

“It was like a dreamland of some sort — to see these things I’d never seen before,” Rake said. “I didn’t know about India or Africa or the space exhibit at the U.S. pavilion. I’d never seen anything like that before, so it was like entering a fantasy world.”

Expo 67 would serve as a laboratory of sorts for multi-screen cinematographic projections and one of the results was the inauguration of IMAX technology at the Expo in Osaka, Japan, in 1970.

FEW ARCHITECTURAL REMNANTS

The Expo came as somewhat of a surprise — Montreal lost out to Moscow in the initial bidding and only in 1962 did the then-Soviet capital bow out, leaving Montreal and its colourful mayor Jean Drapeau to swoop in.

After some debate about where to house the event, it was decided that man-made islands on the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and its southern suburbs would be the site.

Ile-Sainte-Helene was reshaped and made larger and Ile-Notre Dame was forged in part from rubble dug out during construction of Montreal’s subway system.

The site, a popular spot today, was key, Jasmin said. He credited Drapeau as the “main motor” of the event with his grandiose view and no shortage of ideas.

Only a handful of structures have withstood the test of time: the Biosphere, the Habitat 67 residential complex, the Casino de Montreal building and Place des Nations, which hosted the opening and closing events.

The Habitat 67 complex, designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, is an integrated series of blocks of housing units near downtown Montreal’s waterfront, built for Expo and declared a historic site by Quebec in 2009.

The Habitat building is made up of 354 identical, prefabricated concrete forms. They are arranged and stacked in various combinations, up to 12 stories high. Habitat was the first building ever designed by Safdie — an extension of his thesis project.

“Well, it’s my first baby and it’s still definitely my most famous building and most radical building,” he told The Canadian Press.

“So for me it has a very special place in my heart. It gave me so many opportunities. Not that it was easy, because I had many opportunities to do other Habitats in the few years after Expo but none of them got built.”

Safdie still owns a unit in the building.

The other notable remnant is the former U.S. pavilion, home to Montreal’s Biosphere museum since 1995.

The geodesic steel structure — 80 metres in diameter — was designed by American architect Richard Buckminster Fuller for Expo 67 and was one of the most visited places. The plastic covering burned away in a 1976 fire.

“But to see this ball (still standing today) when arriving on Ile-Sainte-Helene, it’s superb, even without the plastic coating,” said Roger La Roche, a retired environment professor who worked at a lunch counter during Expo near the former U.S. pavilion. “You’re able to feel what we felt inside the pavilion.”

SUCCESS IN THE NUMBERS

Jasmin said the major goal was attracting Americans and that convincing them to visit meant finding credible voices to attract them.

People with a pedigree and a following south of the border like crooner Maurice Chevalier and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin — the first human to travel in space —would lend their names to help promote it.

“We had a series of stars like that — international stars well known in the U.S. — speaking on behalf of their countries saying, ‘Mine will be at this international exhibition,'” Jasmin said.

For Jasmin, success is measured by the sheer numbers of those who attended.

“We knew that we were selling Montreal by promoting Expo, but there were not two objectives, there was one: selling Expo,” he said.

Jasmin said he invested a lot of time wooing media, recalling one senior editor’s comments to him about Expo. A normally curmudgeonly journalist had returned from an Expo junket with a glowing review, prompting his boss to come see for himself.

“That guy is an example — he was amazed by the exhibition and he was amazed by Montreal,” Jasmin said. “He told me: ‘We always took this city for granted and it’s charming and what have you, now we realize it’s a great story.’ It (Expo) promoted Montreal by itself.”

There have been recent calls for Montreal to bid for another Expo.

But Rake, a retired newspaper editor who eventually relocated to British Columbia, isn’t convinced another Expo would have the same impact, given that the latest inventions and technology are now just a click away.

“I don’t know that it would be the same,” Rake said. “It was the right time, the right moment … it’s one of those parties you can’t really ever recreate.”

– Follow @sidhartha_b on Twitter.

Sidhartha Banerjee and Emilie Bergeron, The Canadian Press

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