Expo 67: The Invented Islands Transcript

The idea of holding Expo 67 on an artificial island created in the middle of the St. Lawrence River was poorly received at the time and there are still people to this day who find the idea completely idiotic.

At first we thought we should make Expo at Pointe-aux-Trembles, Pointe-Saint-Charles… The proposal I preferred would have extended University Street over the river and constructed office buildings that could house Expo.

In the end, it was Guy Beaudet who suggested that we use St. Helena Island, an idea that had been proposed in the past. As early as 1895 suggestions had been made to hold exhibitions and fairs on St. Helena Island. In 1935, the city was talking of enlarging St. Helena Island and linking it to the surrounding islands (Green Island and Round Island). Guy Beaudet’s proposal, which was eventually accepted, was to enlarge St. Helena Island, add an artificial island (Notre Dame) and extend the port’s seawall to create the city of Le Havre.

There is an urban legend that says it was the excavated rock from Montreal’s subway construction that was used to enlarge St. Helena Island and provide the foundation for Notre Dame Island.

This is, in fact, not true; it only makes up about 10% of the total. We dredged the river and dynamited Green Island and Round Island. The embankment was shored up with 35 tonnes of rock which was carried in by trucks traveling over the Jacques Cartier bridge 23 hours per day.

What happened in that last hour? We would inspect the bridge, just in case! Once the islands for Expo were built, we proceeded with the pavilions and infrastructure, following a process called the “critical path.” This is when you plan backwards.

Starting with the date of opening day, we factored in time for inspections of the pavilions, before that we factored in time for the installation of exhibitions, before that time for constructing the small pavilions, and before that, time for the construction of the large pavilions.

This way we didn’t have heavy machinery everywhere on the site building all the pavilions at the same time. Anyway, in 1967 there would not have been enough heavy machinery in all of Canada to build all the Expo pavilions at the same time. More than sixty countries and a few dozen private companies were building pavilions on the Expo site.

Of the countries, we had Canada, France, Great Britain, Germany, etc. Among the companies, Kodak had their own pavilion; the telephone industry had their own pavilion; and many others.

Then, there were the visitors to the pavilions. They had two ways that they could enter Expo: the formal park entrance and a second one where they would arrive via the new subway station at St. Helena Island.

There were all kinds of ways to move around on the site: boats would float down canals, there was a kind of rapid train call the Expo Express, a slower monorail version called the Minirail, the Pedicab which was a type of push-pedal bike…

All kinds of transportation were available. People also had, of course, official guides to describe the pavilions and there was even a 3D map of the site.

Visitors would have their “passport” stamped as they entered the pavilions.

The most popular pavilions were not necessarily the ones we thought would be.

According to a survey conducted by Expo, the pavilion visitors liked the best was the one from the telephone industry, followed by Czechoslovakia.

The Labyrinth, NFB and Canada were tied for 8th place in the Top 10 Pavilions. Expo 67 had more than 50 million visits made by 18–20 million people.

There were a great number of dignitaries — presidents, prime ministers, etc. — from all the countries who participated in Expo. There were features and spotlights from all genres: film, music — Ed Sullivan produced two episodes of his show on site. There was a great variety of foods served in the pavilions.

It was this exposure to cultural dishes that whet the appetite of Montrealers for more international cuisine than that to which they were accustomed… and there was an informal festival of cinema at Expo 67 that was phenomenal. Held at the Telephone pavilion, the films presented were on 360-degree screens; it was a great favourite of visitors.

We sat in the centre of the room and the film screen surrounded us, we felt like we were in the middle of the scene. There were films on moving blocks, multiple screens, even films on mirrors. The theme of Expo 67, “Man and His World,” was very vague — partly inspired by the lack of time to come up with one.

“Man and His World” — this could be anything!

The American pavilion, in addition to their showcase “Race to the Moon,” was all about entertainment. There were movie posters, Elvis’ guitar, paintings…

The Russian pavilion highlighted mostly science and technology.

Jamaica was like one big bar. Of the two documents that I know of regarding the Jamaican pavilion, one is a short document with no description of the Jamaican exhibits or its pavilion. The other document is a foot wide and once completely unfolded, five feet long — it’s their menu of rum cocktails.

So the theme “Man and His World” offered participants a lot of leeway, compared to the narrow focus of previous exhibitions.

The name “Expo,” which is simply an abbreviation of exposition, was coined by Montreal, and world fairs since 1967 have continued to call it “Expo.” But our greatest success was the passport.

No other expo before 1967 had had a passport. And the genius of the passport was, in addition to being a ticket to enter a pavilion, it encouraged people to visit more pavilions than they would have otherwise, simply because they wanted more stamps in their passport.

Much of Expo 67 can be found in present-day Montreal’s cityscape… offsite, there was the improved network of roads, the Bonaventure Autoroute, for example, but onsite as well, the islands are still there.

Now, it is a large park. We kept some of the pavilions: the American pavilion is now a museum — the Montreal Biosphere.

Expo opened the world to the people of Montreal and Quebec. Opened in the sense that we could “see” the world, but just as much in the sense that we demonstrated that we could accommodate people of all cultures, as visitors or immigrants.

And the last factor that we can never forget: it was a point of pride for Montreal, Quebec, and Canada for so successfully completing Expo’s construction in four-and-a-half years when other countries had had ten years.

For these reasons, Expo 67 was the most successful expo to this day.