Skip to main content

He is now a well-travelled academic, but on the top of his stack of expired passports, Paul Laurendeau keeps a small red booklet - a memento of the days when he was 9.

"It was one of the most beautiful memories of my childhood," he said as he looked at the multicoloured stamps in his Expo 67 passport. "It was like a fairy tale brought into our world."

Forty years ago Friday, the Montreal Universal and International Exposition of 1967 opened, a seminal event that still casts a spell on generations of Canadians.

Story continues below advertisement

It was a time of optimism. a time when everything seemed possible for the city, for the country.

This weekend, in a break from a world of global warming and global terrorism, many Montrealers will bask in the nostalgia of that summer.

"Once we moved past the turnstiles, we were like children. For many of us, it was the experience of a lifetime," recalled Claude Marois, who was an 18-year-old blue-collar worker at Expo 67.

Now a middle-aged geography professor, he still cherishes the wooden sculpture and the drawing that artists from the South Korean pavilion gave him that year.

Canada was marking its centenary. The Quiet Revolution had changed Quebec into a forward-looking society. There was a construction boom. Gas was cheap. People believed technology would create a society of leisure.

"In those days," said Clément Besnard, "I don't think there was anyone who was depressed." He was then 28, a welder awaiting his first child. He would go to the site as it was being built and marvel at the artificial island rising in the middle of the St. Lawrence River.

The site's ideals of modernity were seen in its monorail and its utopian architecture. A sleek subway had opened the previous fall. "Everything was novel. To take the Métro in 1967 was a happening. You felt you were boarding a futuristic craft," Mr. Laurendeau said.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Marois and his crew were still laying sod in mid-April and it wasn't ready for the opening day. They had to paint the grass green and put "Wet Paint" signs on it.

He remembered there was not a day without a head of state or a celebrity visiting - General Charles de Gaulle, Princess Grace of Monaco, Jackie Kennedy. Every day there were shows. Every night, fireworks.

One day, swept up by the beat of a steel-drum band from the Trinidad, Tobago and Grenada pavilion, he danced on the edge of the lagoon and fell into the water, to great applause.

Everything was so modern that even the state-of-the-art forklift trucks that picked up the refuse would draw staring crowds, Mr. Besnard said.

His wife, Suzy, a 23-year-old seamstress, was pregnant and they were able to get ahead of the lineups. Others waited hours to visit the more popular pavilions. Mr. Besnard heard that some women pretended to be pregnant to jump the queues.

Mr. Marois remembered the regular visitors; for example, the old man in a kilt who wore so many medals he seemed hunched down by their weight.

Story continues below advertisement

For Mr. Laurendeau, the pavilions were "a burst of amazing shapes."

His voice still excited, he recalled the Soviet pavilion, with its launch-pad-like roof. The glass-paned walls of the Quebec pavilion that let in the sunlight. ("Of course, today it's banal, but then. … ") The elegant French pavilion. The U.S. pavilion, shaped like a geodesic dome. The Canadian pavilion, built as an inverted pyramid.

It was also Montreal's first exposure to the rest of the planet. Mr. Laurendeau remembered the African women in traditional outfit. "I'd never seen that. It was the world coming to us, in a joyous fashion."

Today, people have access to a broader range of information, but that knowledge doesn't have the same impact, Mr. Marois said. "Rather than see things on a flat screen, we were at the scene and we were actors in an international event."

The world was no more peaceful then. There was the Cold War and the Vietnam War and the Six Day War in the Middle East.

"There were tensions but there was hope. It was a period of great achievements," Mr. Marois said.

Story continues below advertisement

Hydro-Québec was building the world's largest multiple-arch dam on the Manicouagan River. Planners thought Montreal would have a population of six million by the year 2000. (Today, Montreal has a population of 1.8 million.) Hundreds of low-income houses were razed to make way for an underground expressway and the CBC tower.

"We had that old idea that progress meant new things," said Mr. Marois, who is now a university professor specializing in urban development. "Those were the dominant values of the time. It was seen as progress."

That vision of an idealized future still strikes a chord with some people who weren't even alive during Expo 67.

Jason Stockl was born in 1977. When he was a student in arts and communications, he developed a fascination for the era's style and its cheerful expectations of the future.

"It was like an old Star Trek movie. People thought we'd all end up living in domes and riding monorails."

For Mr. Besnard, Expo 67 is also tied to the next generation.

On Oct. 28 of that year, his wife gave birth to their daughter, Nathalie. She was born the same day the so-called Expo baby was born, the daughter of a woman who went into labour at the site.

Still, Mr. Besnard sounds wistful as he says that he misses Jean Drapeau, the visionary mayor who made it possible. The era of big projects in Montreal is gone, he conceded.

The day after Nathalie was born, Expo 67 was over. It had lasted six months and 50 million visitors came. Mr. Marois said it felt like a postpartum depression as everyone went back to normal life.

Mr. Laurendeau later studied in France and is now a professor of French linguistics at York University.

Even as he realizes that the world isn't as simple as it appeared at Expo 67, he said he still feels the same thrill each time he travels to a foreign country.

"We were happy then. And we didn't even know it."

Report an error
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter