In some ways the province of British Columbia has long been Canada’s California. You might also say that Vancouver is Canada’s Los Angeles. If you grew up in a major Canadian city in the east like Toronto or Montreal, or in a small town like Cochrane in Northern Ontario or Truro, Nova Scotia, you probably hoped to go out west at some point in your life and see for yourself what it would be like to take in the tall trees and deep forests, the big mountains, and the Pacific Ocean. If you were a hippie back in the day maybe you planned on spending a summer naked out on Long Beach on the west side of Vancouver Island.
Many Canadians who have visited Vancouver over the years have decided to make it their home. Some chose to live there because of the climate and lack of snow and bitter cold in the winters. For others it was the spectacular beauty of the city, the mountain backdrop on the north shore, the sandy beaches, Stanley Park.
Probably the first major transformation of Vancouver from a medium sized city with an economy that was based largely on the forestry industry to more cosmopolitan city, was the building of high rise apartment buildings in the downtown west side that started in the 1960s. Restaurants with foreign cuisines started appearing.
Up until the late 1970s there were still restaurants around that didn’t have liquor licences and the police looked the other way if you brought your own booze with you and had it served to you by your waiter. Back then Woodward’s was a locally owned department store chain, you went to the Army & Navy Store for fishing tackle and camping gear, Mitzi Gaynor was still turning up once a year to appear at The Cave Supper Club. Beer joints like The Ritz Hotel on West Georgia Street were where the younger crowd hung out. The wealthy were sipping their cocktails with paper umbrellas at Trader Vic’s next to The Bayshore Hotel and dining at The Devonshire Hotel.
1986 was Vancouver’s centennial year. Various ideas were kicked around as to how to celebrate the occasion. The initial proposal for a “fair” was introduced in the late 1970s. The theme from the start was “transportation” and the importance of Vancouver as both a port city and a railway hub that connected to the rest of Canada.
Contrary to what many believe, Expo 86 was never a “class A” world’s fair like the ones in Montreal, Brussels, and New York City. Expo 86 was more of a “class B” fair. Whatever it was, it was a big deal for the city of Vancouver and for Canada. The transportation premise morphed into including communications. Originally the fair was going to cost about 80 million dollars but that figure later grew to over 800 million dollars.
The place that was chosen as the location for the fair was an area east of downtown Vancouver called False Creek. False Creek is a salt water inlet. For many years the land in this area was used for industrial purposes. At one time the Canadian Pacific had their railway yards there. By the late 70s most of the industries had moved away from the area as it was too congested for transportation of finished products.
A good part of the land on the northern side of False Creek was mud flats. In the late 70s there was still a cooperage that made barrels and an upscale seafood restaurant called Ondine’s in the area. One of the difficulties in reclaiming the mud flats was soil contamination from over a century of being used for industrial purposes.
The closest bridge to the Expo 86 site was a wooden swing bridge structure called the Cambie Street Bridge. It was torn down and replaced by a new bridge in 1985. For many years Vancouver football fans watched their BC Lions play at Empire Stadium on the east side of Vancouver near the suburb of Burnaby. It was at Empire Stadium in 1954 that the first sub 4 minute mile was run. Roger Bannister snuck by John Landy while Landy was looking over his shoulder. Empire Stadium just wasn’t going to cut it as a good representation of Vancouver during Expo 86 and it was also out of the way.
|BC Place Stadium on the left.|
The construction of BC Place was completed in 1983. It has a seating capacity of about 60,000 people. Over the years I have seen some diverse forms of entertainment there. May years ago I saw Bob Hope do his comedy act there at an exhibition baseball game with the Seattle Mariners as one of the participants. I think one of the ball players broke a leg rounding 2nd base and that’s why we don’t see any more baseball exhibition games at BC Place. I may be wrong. I watched a soccer game between the Vancouver Whitecaps and the New York Cosmos when every one of the 60,000 seats had a bum in it. I also saw Bjorn Borg and John MacEnroe play tennis at BC Place when they were past their prime. I went to a “Saskatchewan Day” thing at BC Place during Expo 86. My ex was from Saskatchewan. I remember a security guard sharing a joint in the washroom with some of his Saskatchewan pals.
The initial SkyTrain line (light rapid transit) was completed in 1985 in time for the fair. It wouldn’t look good having a fair with a transportation theme without some more modern way of moving people about.
|Monorail not Skytrain|
I was living in Montreal in the 1960s and worked on construction on Expo 67. I was familiar with major construction transforming a city. I also knew about the pride and spirit that comes along with a fair when local residents show off their city to millions of tourists. It was going to be a fun time to be living in Vancouver for many.
I can’t say that I was a frequent visitor to Expo 86. I had just started a new business in May of 1986 and was putting all my profits back into the company. In hindsight, I probably should have used my credit card and gone to the fair more often. What difference would 500 bucks spent on the plastic have made? All in all I think we went to the fair about 6 times.
|My Expo 86 season pass.|
When the fair ended, Expo 86 had attracted over 22 million visitors. The deficit was 311 million dollars. 311 million dollars certainly sounds like a lot but it is offset by the legacy of the fair. The sphere like Science World still sits at the end of False Creek. SkyTrain has expanded its routes a number of times over the years. Canada Place is now where cruise ships to Alaska berth while in the port of Vancouver. The biggest hockey stick in the world was shipped over to the small city of Duncan on Vancouver Island. The world’s largest flag pole is now located by a car dealership in Surrey, BC.
|BC premier Bill Vander Zalm.|
When the whole deal was over a good part of the land where Expo 86 was situated was sold off to Hong Kong business magnate Li Kai-Shing for a fraction of what it was worth. The floating MacDonald’s restaurant, nick named “McBarge”, was abandoned in the Burrard Inlet years ago and can still be seen today.
Expo 86 was a turning point in the history of Vancouver.
There is no doubt that today it is a world class city.
The following is a list of some of the entertainers who turned up for Expo 86 starting with the ones no longer with us.
Bob Hope, Liberace, Roy Orbison, Miles Davis, Lou Rawls, Johnny Cash, John Denver, Peter Allen, Red Skelton, and Jacques Cousteau. Other notables were Loverboy, Manhattan Transfer, Harry Belafonte, Anne Murray, The Eurythmics, Julio Eglesias, Joan Baez, Kenny Loggins, Smokey Robinson, The Beachboys, Don McLean, The Temptations, k.d. Lang, Bryan Adams, and Jerry lee Lewis.