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Sunday, 7 October 2012

Expo 67

I still have the guide book.
In a lot of ways I think Expo 67 was the last hurrah for a lot of English speaking Montrealers. Politics in the province of Quebec were clearly making them more and more uncomfortable. On the other hand there were some hopeful things occurring in the city. Montreal was finally going to have a first class subway system and a number of large office towers had been built. In fact, Montreal had a bit of an early start compared to Toronto by building the landmark Place Ville Marie. The city was still home to a number of Canada’s largest corporations. CPR, CN, CIL, Canada Steamships, Sun Life Insurance, Alcan all had large offices in Montreal.
If you were English and thinking of moving away to another province or the US, there was a good chance you were going to put those thoughts on the back burner and stick around for the party that was going to be Expo 67. There was a lot of pride in the city at the time. People came from around the world. It was like a 6 month high. It was hard to get that Bobby Gimby song out of our heads. “Ca-na-da….One little, two little, three Canadians….We love thee…..”
I have to confess that that I really never had the “total experience” of Expo 67. I tried to get a summer job there but had no luck. Instead I spent the months of Expo 67 working as a waiter for CN on the trains. In other years working on the trains in the summer was a coveted job for university students but not this time around.
In the 6 months Expo 67 was in operation I only made about 3 or 4 visits. I did take my parents to see the RCMP Tattoo at the Autostade but I would hardly call that an overly exciting evening. At the beginning of the fair I was too broke to buy a season’s pass and then when I got the job on the trains the pass thing didn’t make a lot of sense because I was out of town for such much of the time.
Not only did I miss out on most of Expo 67 but two years later, for some reason, I also missed out on Woodstock which happened only about 430 or so km away. It was just a 5 hour drive. “Going up the country. Babe, don’t you wanna go?”
In Canada, the trains were crammed with tourists headed for Montreal and you could feel the excitement. I think some of the older folks coming from places like small town Ontario had impressions of Montreal as being a wide open city where crazy things happened. Well we did have a lot of bank hold ups. The truth is that the mayor Jean Drapeau’s right hand man, Pax Plante, had cleaned the city up considerably years before.
My Expo 67 experiences were mostly about the few months in the summer of 1966 that I worked there on construction. I was living in the Delta Upsilon Fraternity house on McTavish Street in downtown Montreal. I was 19 at the time and between jobs as they used to say. Like a lot of frat houses at the time, with the students gone for the summer, it made sense to rent out the rooms while they were gone.
Delta Upsilon rent receipt 1966. Note party expense.
There was a group of older guys staying in the house. They all worked for a company out of Winnipeg called Daley Display (spelling) who had the contract to create the interior of The Western Canada Pavilion at Expo 67. One night, at dinner, I was asked by the owner of the company if I would be interested in working as a labourer for them. I hadn’t been doing much other than moving some guy’s car around while he was away in the cramped parking lot behind the frat house. A Plymouth Valiant with push button gears.
Would I be interested in a job? Your damn right I would! The job paid $2.52 an hour and it was a 55 hour work week, 10 hours a day Monday through Friday, and another 5 hours on Saturdays. This was almost double the pay I would make at any other job I ever held in Montreal. About 138 bucks a week. I was young and had a lot of energy and this job looked like pretty easy money to me.
In the dark early the next morning I climbed into a truck with the rest of the crew and we headed down to the new island that had been built in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. When I was a kid, I had seen the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway so I was kind of prepared for the massiveness of the project.
At this point almost all of the earth and rocks had been brought in to create the island. Canals had been formed but there was no water in them. Most of the pavilions had been constructed and the exteriors were being finished. Landscaping and paving were still not underway.
The Expo site kind of looked like a giant ant farm. There was a lot of movement. Thousands of tradesmen turned up each day. There were cement trucks coming and going, huge cranes maneuvering materials, and earth movers redirecting the dirt. The whole deal was a pretty amazing feat. I am sure that there were lots of difficulties in coordination along the way. One day I heard through the grapevine that about 16 thousand dollar’s worth of plate glass had fallen off a scaffold at the French Pavilion.
The Western Canada Pavilion represented the 4 western Canadian provinces, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. The building was designed in the shape of a tree stump with a circular shingled roof with a hole in the middle of it. Giant Douglas fir trees brought in from B.C. poked through the roof opening. I remember seeing these huge slabs of wood that had been cut off the fir trees and I thought that they would be ideal for a coffee table. The fact that they weighed about a ton killed that idea.
Western Canada Pavillion Expo 67.
Starting time was 7:00 a.m. and my job was to clean up debris and assist the tradesmen when I was needed. The first week went by fairly smoothly. It was a bit of an adventure and the novelty hadn’t worn off. In the back of my mind I kept thinking of my big juicy paycheque.
After about 2 weeks I started to wear down a bit. 10 hour days and 5 more on Saturday were starting to take a toll on me. Like many other 19 year olds, I liked to party a bit which didn’t exactly fit in with getting up before 6 in the morning.
The Western Canada pavilion had a number of themes, all representing different industries in Western Canada. There was a fish cannery, a simulated mine shaft, a potash mine, and a variety of farm equipment used on prairie wheat farms. I believe that they also had a machine that created a mist in the center of the pavilion where the huge trees were.
One of the artisans at the pavilion was a British guy who built kinetic sculptures. I didn’t have a clue what a kinetic sculpture was before being informed. Basically it is a sculpture with moving parts. In this case, the British guy welded together a number of machine parts and one of the things he incorporated into the finished product was a chainsaw.
One day we were sitting out at the back of the pavilion by the still dry canal having lunch (a high point of the day for me) when we spotted a guy in the distance in the canal walking towards us. We wondered what he was up to. As he got closer his face appeared to be very white and we could see that he had a guitar over his shoulder. His face was white because he had pancake make-up on and the reason he was carrying a guitar was because he was Gordon Lightfoot. Pretty cool.
(I was curious to see if I could find anything on YouTube with Gordon Lightfoot at Expo 67.I found a music video called “Crossroads” that does indeed show Lightfoot at the Expo 67 construction site. Unfortunately, the video doesn’t show him in the canal before it was filled with water.)
Gordon Lightfoot.
One of the small projects I was given to do was to empty large plastic bags of potash and chop the stuff into cubes that were then lathed into the walls to give the effect of being in a potash mine. Kind of sludgy stuff but it probably was the one bit of work I did that later visitors could actually see.
By the end of the summer some fatigue was starting to overtake me (and too many Labatt 50’s the nights before) and I began to find ways to hide out a bit on the job. I never actually took a nap but I wasn’t always pulling my weight. I don’t think it took the powers that be too long to figure out that they weren’t getting their money’s worth out of me.
The summer came to an end and the crew had to find new digs what with the frat boys coming back to town. For some reason, I hadn’t made any plans to find another place to live. I might have just assumed that I would move wherever the other workers moved. I was wrong about that.
I was told, rather politely, that my services would no longer be required. Although I knew that they were wise to my less than stellar performance I didn’t see losing my job coming. I had to do some quick scrambling and ended up moving into a tourist lodge that was a lot more expensive than the frat house. Any money I had put aside started to disappear quickly.
I didn’t work for the next several months. In some ways I was kind of like today’s “street person”. I would crash wherever I could. I stayed up at the McGill residences for a bit of time and used a student I knew from the US’s number with his OK to get free meals in the cafeteria. Somebody ratted me out and the cops were called and not having anything better to do I waited for them. I spent an afternoon in a jail cell at the #10 police station before being released with the promise I would not return to the residences.
I moved on to sleeping on another friend’s floor in a frat house. He was from Falls Church, Virginia. (He went on to become a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.) It was here that my hard hat from Expo 67 disappeared. I suspected an Egyptian guy who I spotted wearing my friend’s sleeveless sweater as an undershirt.
Expo 67 was 45 years ago and all I have left as a souvenir from working on construction there is this badge.
My construction badge from Expo 67.
I would love to hear from others on their experiences at Expo 67. Maybe even put them up on my blog.

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