Mis­sion Im­pos­si­ble

As an eleventh-hour stand-in for the world’s fair, Mon­treal had to pull off a mir­a­cle to get Expo 67 ready on time.

Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By Julie Bar­low and Jean-Benoît Nadeau

As an eleventh-hour stand-in for the world’s fair, Mon­treal scram­bled to get Expo 67 ready on time.

Apart from the 1851 Great Ex­hi­bi­tion in Lon­don and the 1889 Ex­po­si­tion Uni­verselle in Paris, few world’s fairs have res­onated as much within their host coun­tries and around the world as Mon­treal’s Expo 67. The fair in Canada’s centennial year at­tracted more than fifty mil­lion visi­tors, an in­cred­i­ble turnout for a coun­try that at the time had a pop­u­la­tion of only twenty mil­lion. It brought to­gether a record-set­ting sixty-two nations. Expo 67 marked an era with its avant­garde, hu­man­ist am­bi­tions, re­defin­ing the word Canada.

“World’s fairs are about the fu­ture, and the great ex­po­si­tion which took place on the man-made is­lands in the St. Law­er­ence River in the sum­mer of 1967 was about the fu­ture of Canada as well as the fu­ture of science, ar­chi­tec­ture, ed­u­ca­tion, and cin­e­matog­ra­phy,” jour­nal­ist Robert Ful­ford wrote in 1968, re­flect­ing on the sev­eral months he lived at the Expo 67 site while cov­er­ing the fair for the Toronto Star.

But Expo 67 was ac­tu­ally some­thing of a mir­a­cle. Its or­ga­niz­ers had only four and a half years to pre­pare — rather than the in­tended seven.

The re­spon­si­bil­ity for that lies with Moscow, the host city des­ig­nated for the 1967 world’s fair by the Bureau in­ter­na­tional des ex­po­si­tions (BIE) in May 1960 — in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the fifti­eth an­niver­sary of the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion. (The Cana­dian bid was de­feated in the fifth round by a six­teen-to-four­teen vote.) But, two years later, the Soviet Union backed out, of­fi­cially be­cause of the cost — un­of­fi­cially out of fear of cap­i­tal­ist pro­pa­ganda.

Mon­treal Mayor Jean Dra­peau con­vinced Prime Min­is­ter John Diefenbaker to take the project on, co­in­cid­ing with the Cana­dian centennial. On Novem­ber 13, 1962, the BIE voted unan­i­mously in favour of the Cana­dian bid. The 1967 world’s fair would open its doors in Mon­treal on April 28, 1967 — four years, five months, and fif­teen days later.

The or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee soon came up against the prob­lem of a site. Where would they find five square kilo­me­tres near down­town and pri­mary ap­proach roads?

While the or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee con­sid­ered a half dozen op­tions, Dra­peau up­set the ap­ple cart with an am­bi­tious an­nounce­ment: Expo 67 would be held in the mid­dle of the river — on an is­land that didn’t even ex­ist yet. His plan was to fill in a se­ries of small is­lands and shoals to ex­pand Saint He­len’s Is­land and to build a two-square-kilo­me­tre is­land from the wa­ter up: the fu­ture Notre Dame Is­land.

The idea wasn’t all that far-fetched: It would pre­vent real es­tate spec­u­la­tion while giv­ing Expo the most beau­ti­ful site any­one could hope for. But it added a Her­culean task to an al­ready break­neck sched­ule; it would take eleven months and count­less trips by truck to pile up the twenty-eight mil­lion tonnes of stone and earth re­quired.

Against the ad­vice of the or­ga­niz­ers, Dra­peau per­suaded Ot­tawa and Que­bec City that his idea should carry the day. But once work started in Au­gust 1963, the two chairs of the or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee, Paul Bien­venu and Ce­cil Cars­ley, re­signed. Even the com­puter at

Cal­i­for­nia’s pres­ti­gious Stan­ford In­sti­tute pre­dicted that Expo could not pos­si­bly be ready be­fore 1968, even 1969. The ma­jor­ity of the public and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers thought that it should be post­poned or called off. Expo 67 wouldn’t be get­ting off the ground.

“I would be less than frank if I did not add that I feel we all have cause for con­cern over the mag­ni­tude of the tasks that must be ac­com­plished if the fair is to be the suc­cess it must be,” Prime Min­is­ter Lester Pear­son said on Au­gust 13, 1963, at the in­au­gu­ra­tion cer­e­mony kick­ing off con­struc­tion of the fair site.

Expo 67 was sal­vaged by its two new lead­ers, ap­pointed at the be­gin­ning of Septem­ber. The new com­mis­sioner gen­eral, the am­bas­sador Pierre Dupuy, had worked for a num­ber of years at the BIE, mak­ing him one of the lead­ing spe­cial­ists in this type of event. The new deputy com­mis­sioner gen­eral, engi­neer Fletcher Shaw, headed up the largest engi­neer­ing firm in Canada, mak­ing him the best per­son to run the show, in­clud­ing con­struc­tion.

This pair re­ju­ve­nated the Expo 67 team, breath­ing op­ti­mism into the project, as jour­nal­ist Ray­mond Gre­nier de­scribed in a 1965 book that pre­dated the fair, In­side Expo 67. Dupuy and Shaw ex­uded con­fi­dence, telling all who would lis­ten that choos­ing to go with the is­lands was the best de­ci­sion that could have been made in terms of engi­neer­ing, aes­thet­ics, and sell­ing the event. Expo 67, they vowed, would hap­pen in 1967!

They put to­gether an or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee made up of six fran­co­phones and four an­glo­phones. Its com­po­si­tion was in and of it­self a new ap­proach be­cause the mem­bers were all bilin­gual and on equal foot­ing. Ac­cord­ing Diana Thébault Ni­chol­son, who worked on pro­to­col and op­er­a­tions and was a spokesper­son, at the time it was more com­mon to see fran­co­phones re­port­ing to an­glo­phones. “Their equal­ity was the most re­mark­able thing,” she said.

The com­mit­tee wound up with an un­usual nick­name: “Les Durs,” or the tough guys, for their re­lent­less drive to make Expo hap­pen and to im­pose their will, even on the gov­ern­ment. In De­cem­ber 1963, Pear­son was as­ton­ished to learn that the bud­get had grown from $40 mil­lion to $167 mil­lion; it was still ap­proved, but by just one vote. The vo­cal op­po­si­tion at­tacked the choice of logo, the of­fi­cial song, the hostesses’ uni­forms, but to no avail: The tough guys did what­ever they wanted. And, even though the so­cial cli­mate of the day was one of labour protests, they man­aged to achieve union peace dur­ing the con­struc­tion.

They bor­rowed a num­ber of ideas from Dis­ney­land. The or­ga­niz­ers wanted Expo to leave Mon­treal the legacy of an amuse­ment park: La Ronde. Philippe de Gaspé Beaubien, the di­rec­tor of op­er­a­tions and fu­ture “mayor of Expo” in charge of pro­ceed­ings, would even get to meet Walt Dis­ney in per­son. “I told him: ‘Your grand­fa­ther was born in Canada. Would you be will­ing to help Cana­di­ans,

who know ab­so­lutely noth­ing about amuse­ment parks?’”

In July 1964, the city of Mon­treal of­fi­cially handed over the is­lands to the or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee. Just two years and nine months re­mained — 1,015 days! — to com­plete the am­bi­tious project. They had to build 847 pavil­ions and build­ings, twenty-seven bridges, seventy-five kilo­me­tres of roads and side­walks, forty kilo­me­tres of sew­ers, 150 kilo­me­tres of pipes, twenty-five thou­sand park­ing spots, 256 basins, and 6,150 street­lights.

Ev­ery­thing rested on the shoul­ders of the di­rec­tor of installations, Colonel Ed­ward Churchill, who would co­or­di­nate over six thou­sand work­ers. Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, the mil­i­tary man from Man­i­toba had helped the Al­lied ad­vance by build­ing 192 air­ports. A man of his times, Churchill bor­rowed an or­ga­ni­za­tional tech­nique from NASA: the crit­i­cal path method. “This tech­nique, which was brand new at the time, in­volved dis­tribut­ing work in such a way that 178 or 180 pavil­ions could be built at once,” the di­rec­tor of public re­la­tions, Yves Jas­min, re­calls.

With lead­ing-edge com­puter mon­i­tor­ing, Churchill was able to or­der all the ma­te­ri­als at once, build all the foun­da­tions and in­fra­struc­tures si­mul­ta­ne­ously, and co­or­di­nate the con­struc­tion of some one hun­dred build­ings in a very spe­cific or­der. By win­ter 1965, he had al­ready started planting trees.

By fall 1966, the pavil­ions were vir­tu­ally all fin­ished, and ex­hibi- tors started set­ting up, as Mon­treal launched its brand new metro and opened new high­ways. Expo 67 would be ready on time.

But on the eve of the in­au­gu­ra­tion, an un­usu­ally cold April meant that the grass was still yel­low. The head of the hor­ti­cul­ture de­part­ment, one Pierre Bourque (the fu­ture mayor of Mon­treal), had the grass dyed green; Expo 67 would be de­liv­ered on time, and it would be per­fect!

The fair bor­rowed its theme — Man and His World — from French philoso­pher Antoine de Saint-Ex­upéry’s book Terre des Hommes, a me­moir filled with dreams and hopes for the fu­ture. As for Expo 67’s utopian vi­sion, Neil Comp­ton, the English de­part­ment chair at Con­cor­dia Univer­sity in Mon­treal, in 1967 wrote that the fair of­fered cause for op­ti­mism — and cau­tion — when it came to tech­nol­ogy’s im­pact on hu­man­ity:

“This jux­ta­po­si­tion ex­actly epit­o­mizes the theme Expo is sup­posed to em­body: The thrilling but an­ar­chic en­er­gies re­leased by tech­nol­ogy can be hu­man­ized only if we are aware of what they may de­stroy as well as cre­ate. A civ­i­lized fu­ture must be based upon both piety to­ward the past and re­spect for the com­plex ac­tu­al­ity of the present. Oth­er­wise, Saint-Ex­upéry’s vi­sion will be turned up­side-down, and machines will col­o­nize man. On the whole, with the ex­cep­tions noted, Expo 67 seems to of­fer grounds for mod­er­ate op­ti­mism.”


The Canada pavilion un­der con­struc­tion in the sum­mer of 1966, fea­tur­ing Ka­ti­mavik, the iconic in­verted pyra­mid struc­ture named for the Inuit word for “gath­er­ing place.” Right: A conceptual sketch of the Cana­dian pavilion.

Above: Work­ers as­sem­ble the Ger­man pavil­lion, Au­gust 1966. Right: Pierre Dupuy, the com­mis­sioner gen­eral of Expo 67, over­sees con­struc­tion of the Cana­dian pavilion in 1966.

Be­low: The Expo 67 con­trol cen­tre, con­sid­ered state-of-the-art in 1967. Lower right: A scale model of the pro­posed Expo 67 site.

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