” Where were you in ‘67, when Montreal played host to a World’s Fair that is still remembered with fond admiration today? Many of you were probably there in person over several days, enjoying an experience you would never forget, while the heart of the city beat to the rhythm of Expo. If you’re a little younger, you’ve probably heard your parents talk about those heady, carefree days.
The spotlight was on Expo 67 this past Thursday at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC), for the final conference in the series From Headlines to History, organized in celebration of CBC/Radio-Canada’s 75th anniversary. Panellists Alan Elder of the CMC, Mark Starowicz from CBC and Simon Durivage from Radio-Canada shared memories of this larger-than-life event and clearly enjoyed answering the audience’s questions.
RDI news anchor and Radio-Canada host Durivage was a guide at Expo 67. He was studying political science in those days and has great memories of his six months on the site of the international exposition. “It was a true turning point for Quebec and Canadian society. We showed we could welcome the world, and the world was opening up to us,” he noted.
He also recalled the particular political context of the time – one that coloured both Expo 67 and the political landscape in Quebec and in Canada as a whole. “There was a festive atmosphere until July 24, when Charles de Gaulle gave his speech from the balcony of City Hall, with the infamous line ‘Vive le Québec libre.’ From that point on, you could feel a certain unease creep in.”
Starowicz, CBC’s executive director of documentary programming, also touched on the rise of Quebec nationalism in the late 1960s. At the time, he was a reporter for the Montreal Gazette and had the opportunity to meet General de Gaulle: “I said ‘Welcome to Canada’ to him, in English. Those were extremely politically charged words given the context we were in.” Starowicz added that Quebec’s desire for emancipation contributed to similar yearning in the rest of Canada.
But Expo 67, of course, was more than an arena for political jousting. The panellists talked about the huge scale of construction on the Île Sainte-Hélène and Île Notre-Dame sites, achieved using rock excavated for Montreal’s metro tunnels in the preceding years. The discussion also touched on the many Expo pavilions and their innovative architecture, which afforded visitors a window into other countries at a time when the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full swing.
Elder, the CMC’s curator, Canadian crafts, decorative arts and design, talked about the creativity of 1960s artists and the fact that leaders of the time had such confidence in young, emerging talents. For example, Habitat 67 was designed by Moshe Safdie who had only just completed his architecture degree. To hear Elder tell it, the artistic effervescence of that era was mind-blowing and it helped shape Canadian identity.
The panellists wrapped up their recollections by stating that Expo 67 truly represented Canada’s coming of age on the world stage. “We were really cool,” Durivage joked, leading in to a particularly warm and friendly question-and-answer period. Audience members shared plenty of anecdotes of their own and were quick to ask the panellists whether holding a similar event would be conceivable in 2017, on the 50th anniversary of the original Expo and Canada’s 150th. It’s hard to say, but everyone seemed to agree on one thing: Canada was never the same after 1967.
- Sophie Bernard-Piché, Editor, CBC/Radio-Canada