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The Canadian Pavilion at Expo '67 in Montreal. (John McNeill/The Globe and Mail)
The Canadian Pavilion at Expo '67 in Montreal. (John McNeill/The Globe and Mail)

Review: History

'The greatest thing we have ever done as a nation' Add to ...

Here in my hand, for the first time in decades, is my Official Expo 67 Souvenir Map. And here, right on the table, is my white-covered Official Guide to Expo 67. They’re both a little dusty, a little faded. But open up the map, as I did a few moments ago, and the pavilions are all there, Hélène de Champlain Park still is a shiny green on Île Sainte-Hélène, and Swan Lake and Dolphin Lake still are a glittery blue.

And the 352-page guide? A bargain at $1, it is a reminder of the splendors created in Montreal by places now called something else: the USSR, Czechoslovakia, the United Arab Republic.

I was prompted to fetch these items from my bookshelf and from our shared past by the appearance of a brisk little book, The Best Place To Be, John Lownsbrough’s evocative remembrance of Expo 67 and of a time 45 years ago when the world came to Montreal to experience culture, explore national character, sow innocent dreams and maybe, if memory serves, to have a Burmese dinner or some primitive junk food at Pioneerland-Fort Edmonton in the far reaches of La Ronde.

Officially, it was called the Universal and International World Exhibition, and for 185 days it was a shimmery spectacle on the St. Lawrence, filling man-made islands with vacationers, school groups, royals and other dignitaries, internationally known artists and performers and, for about 90 hurried and hopelessly impatient minutes, president Lyndon B. Johnson. It was a coming-of-age moment for Canada and a coming-out party for nationalist Quebec. It was the last great international exhibition, its legacy a load of memories and one Habitat 67.

For all of this – and for all the politics, finance, construction challenges and even inconvenience prompted by a transit strike – Lownsbrough is an ample guide, and his book, part of the History of Canada series produced by the Allen Lane imprint of Penguin Canada, is a bit of time travel with a nostalgic tint, written, you might conclude, to the melody of The Way We Were.

Indeed, there is a heaping helping of misty watercolour memories here. And why not? It was a time when a young Canada (half its population was under 25) celebrated its Centennial; when Montreal’s Métro wove the country’s most colourful and, at the time, most important, city together, an underground force that melted geographical and ethnic boundaries; and when few blushed at the hopes spawned by the Man and his world/Terre des hommes theme, taken from Saint-Exupéry at a time when everyone knew who he was.

Can it be that it was all so simple then, or has time rewritten every line? This was a world of high hopes and yet there were high tensions too. Lownsbrough reminds us of the arms war that prompted the Soviet Union to outspend the United States at Expo and of the Cold War tensions that prevented what was then often called Red China to skip the event entirely. Men with titles now relegated to history strutted on the Expo stage. The shah of Iran insisted on being served asparagus consommé and cheese to begin his meal. The emperor of Ethiopia arrived in a Rolls-Royce with his pet Chihuahua, Lulu.

Lownsbrough recognizes that some of the most important events were occasioned by Expo, but occurred outside its gates. In that fabled and fateful year, Charles de Gaulle, travelling the Atlantic in a naval cruiser named for the minister charged with promoting immigration to New France in the time of Louis XVI, arrived on Canada’s shores to utter four words that changed Quebec, or perhaps accelerated change within the province. Expo is gone, but “Vive le Québec libre!” echoes still.

And then, with the coming of autumn, it ended – over, it seemed, as quickly as it had begun. The Red Army Chorus, the Bolshoi Opera, Duke Ellington, the National Theatre of Greece, Dame Margot Fonteyn – they all came and went. They contributed to what Peter C. Newman called “the greatest thing we have ever done as a nation.” Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but Lownsbrough argues that it changed a city, a province and a country, and if that seems overblown, it seems incontrovertible that it changed some world views, or at least the way many of us view the world. We may not live in Habitat 67, but we inhabit a world changed by Montreal and 1967.

Lester Pearson’s valedictory address at Expo gives us a sense of the soaring idealism it spawned, and of the disappointment that followed. “Expo’s lasting impact is: That the genius and fate of man know no boundaries but are universal; that the future peace and well-being of the world community of men depend on achieving the kind of unity of purpose within the great diversity of national effort that has been achieved here at this greatest of all Canada’s Centennial achievements.”

We have lived up to only a small fraction of that in the 45 years that have followed. Still – to pick up strains from a song that was still six years in the future at Expo 67 – if we had the chance to do it all again, tell me: Would we? Could we?

We would. But, alas, we couldn’t.

David. M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a long-time Canada-watcher.

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