The Last Good Year

Canada changed forever in 1967

September 29 1997

The Last Good Year

Canada changed forever in 1967

September 29 1997

The Last Good Year


Canada changed forever in 1967

The year 1967 was a seminal one in Canada. There was the Centennial and Expo. French President Charles de Gaulle fanned the flames of Quebec sepa ratism and Pierre Trudeau emerged from the grey ranks of Liberal backbenchers to stake his claim for the leadership he won in early 1968. The following excerpts are from Pierre Berton's new book, 1967: The Last Good Year, published this month by Doubleday Canada.

It was a special year-a vintage year-and it is probable that we will not see its like again. It was a turning-point year. An aging political establishment was about to fade away to be succeeded by a younger, more vibrant one. A past royal commission-into bilingualism and biculturalism-delivered its report; a future com mission, dealing with the status of women, was launched. Canadians talked about economic nationalism, women's place in society, the outmoded divorce laws, national unity, the drug culture, and whether or not the state had any business in the bedrooms of the nation. All these diverse subjects reached a kind of realization in 1967.

Babies born in the glory years of the late `40s when the boys had come home from the war had now reached voting age. They saw the world differently from their parents. And so 1967 was a psychedel ic year, a McLuhanesque year, a crazy, mixed-up year, to use the buzz phrases of the day-a year of arguments over hair lengths and skirt lengths, of hippies, draft dodgers, love-ins, and ban-the-bomb marches. But above all, it was a year in which most Canadians felt good about themselves and their country. The stock market was rising. Dividends were at a record high. On the Prairies, it was the year of the miracle crop-329 million bushels

Reprinted with permission from 1967: The Last Good Year, copyright Pierre Berton, published by Doubleday Canada Ltd., Toronto.

harvested, almost 50 million more than forecast. The mining industry was ex panding at a rate double that of the West ern world. The gross national product had doubled in a decade.

The world was in turmoil that year. American bombs thudded down on North Vietnam, and American youth marched in protest. The SixDay War between Egypt and Israel forced the closing of the Suez Canal. China was close to civil conflict as the Red Guard roamed the countryside. Greece abandoned democracy in favor of a military junta. The breakaway republic of Biafra threatened new bloodshed in Nigeria. No fewer than 127 cities in the United States endured savage race riots. But in Canada, peace and prosperity reigned.

We look back today on the miracle of Expo 67 with feelings of pride and nostalgia. “Miracle” is the proper word. How did we manage to pull off the greatest world exposition in history with about half the start-up time that most world’s fairs require?

It has been said that Canada is not a country of salesmen. The men who designed and built Expo modified that stereotype. Commissioner general Pierre Dupuy, the consummate diplomat, acted like an international Fuller Brush salesman, hammering on doors in 125 countries, peddling his wares. He saw 90 heads of state, spent a minimum of three days in each country, and revisited a good number. Col. Edward Churchill, Expo’s director of installations, was a retired permanent army officer, who had helped Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery build airfields during the war. A short broad-shouldered red-haired officer with a bulldog face and a raspy voice, Churchill could be tough. It was claimed that he was perfectly prepared to call a bulldozer and push a partly finished building into the river if it was not completed on time. His reputation was such that the threat never needed to be enforced.

Churchill built the fair; his opposite number, Philippe de Gaspé Beaubien, ran it once it opened. A 32-year-old whiz-kid, scion of one of the most illustrious Quebec families whose progenitors had sailed up the St. Lawrence three centuries earlier, he was quickly dubbed the Mayor of Expo. Darkly handsome, dapper, and a dynamic speaker, he was part manager, part promoter. Three days after he was hired, he was in Paris, defending Expo before the Bureau of International Expositions. It was very late in the day. The general attitude was cool; how could the Canadians do the job in half the time usually allotted? Beaubien was sitting on the steps of the bureau when he overheard a conversation between two Frenchmen. “Wait till you see those =d Canadians really flub the deal,” one told I the other. “They don’t have any idea of « what it is to do something intelligent § and competent on an international § scale. This is going to be a disaster and I we’ll have a good laugh, and the next I one we’ll bring back to Europe.” That q got Beaubien’s dander up. “That’s what kept me going day and night,” he recalled, “to show those bastards that we could do it. That was the driving force: to show the world.”

Expo 67 opened to the public on the morning of Friday, April 28.

As the gates opened, an enormous and enthusiastic crowd, reckoned at between 310,000 and 335,000, surged into the grounds, far exceeding the 200,000 visitors the Expo authorities had expected. Sunday’s attendance soared to 569,500, a total that surpassed every one-day world’s fair record ever set. When I covered Expo for Maclean’s, I confessed in print that “I fell captive to an unexpected emotion: a moistness in the eyes and a huskiness in the throat of the kind one usually experiences only in moments of national

stress____It was nationalism unabashed and I discovered later that others had felt it, too.”

Expo obsessed me. I made five trips to the fair including a stay in Habitat and another memorable week parked in a boat at the marina with my family. For me, as for the children, it was a walk through fairyland. I was reminded on each occasion of my first visit to Toronto as a child of 11, after almost a dozen years spent in a Yukon village. At that time—the year was 1932—I had never seen ¡2 a neon sign, ridden in a streetcar, or tasted a milk shake. Roller I skates were as novel as traffic lights, and the Sunnyside amuse5 ment park on the lakeshore, with its Dodgem cars and its thrilling roller-coaster, was truly for me a magic kingdom. Now, at Expo, the magic returned, making my memories of Sunnyside seem a little tawdry. At Expo, we were all children, wide-eyed, titillated by the shock of the new, scampering from one outrageous pavilion to the next, our spirits lifted by the sense of gaiety, grace and good humor that these memorable structures expressed.

Hippies, love-ins and a burgeoning sense of national pride

The contrast between the U.S. pavilion and that of the Soviet Union was remarked on by almost everybody. The American exhibits, at their best, were playful, nostalgic and entertaining, but rarely boastful. Housed in Buckminster Fuller’s marvellous geodesic dome, the most visible landmark on the islands, they conveyed a mood rather than information. The Soviets, who spent twice as much as the Americans on their awesome glass-sided pavilion, were obsessed by technological gimmickry, much of it oppressive. Where the Americans were ironic, the Soviets were grandiloquent, offering a formidable statement of technological achievement (a working model of the largest hydroelectric station in the world).

The British, who had the tallest building at Expo, topped by a three-dimensional Union Jack, also caught the Sixties mood, striving to banish the image of stuffy Englishmen and concentrating on pop groups, long-haired youths, and miniskirts. It was swinging London transferred to Montreal.

The huge Canadian pavilion turned architecture upside down. Surmounted by a gigantic inverted thousand-ton blue-green glass pyramid known as Katimavik (Inuit for “meeting place”), it sprawled over four acres and cost $21 million, far more than either the Russians or the Americans had spent.

But the most controversial, best-known, most talked about theme pavilion at Expo celebrated Man and His Environment and was far better known as Habitat. It was remarkable in many ways, but the most singular thing about it was its creator. Some of the world’s most original architects produced buildings at Expo. But Habitat was the inspiration of a totally unknown 28-year-old IsraeliCanadian named Moshe Safdie.

No one could miss Habitat. Stretched out on the North Shore along Mackay Pier, it looked like a cluster of building blocks scattered about by a Brobdingnagian child. Actually, it was the much revised result of a graduate thesis written by a young student who, when he advanced the proposition, had never built anything in his life.

Safdie was no ordinary student, and, as it developed, no ordinary architect. A gold medallist at McGill University, where he won a fistful of awards, he stood first in his class. But to turn his thesis into a vast, avant-garde, $13.5-million complex housing more than 150 families! Habitat, in its final, scaled-down form, consisted of 354 modular units organized into suites for 158 families. These were precast in concrete and manufactured in a huge temporary barnlike building adjacent to its site. Once each concrete box was formed, cured and sandblasted, it was moved to the finishing yard

where ready-made components were put inside it. Complete bathrooms of moulded fibre glass were installed, very much as in an automobile assembly line. Kitchens were inserted in the same way. Prefabricated partitions were fitted into place along with plumbing, wiring and glazing. When each unit was complete, it was hoisted into its place in the cluster by a gigantic crane, then bolted, secured and connected up.

The great tragedy of Habitat was the decision to scale down Safdie’s original plan to one-sixth its contemplated size. Generally, Expo’s planners thought big, but in this case they—or more correctly, the Treasury Board—thought small. Safdie’s initial scheme attacked the whole problem of urban density. But the scaled-down Habitat was no

more densely populated than an ordinary apartment building. Safdie had seen Habitat as a self-sustaining village of more than 5,000 people, complete with shops, services, school, clinic. None of this was possible in the scaleddown version, which meant that Habitat’s tenants found themselves isolated from the city’s amenities. In the original concept, much of Habitat would have been supported by the retail outlets on the ground floor while the high density would have made rents economically viable. When critics attacked Habitat for not solving the problems of density or high rents, they were really attacking the government’s fainthearted-

ness in rejecting the first bold and imaginative design.

By the time Expo closed, Safdie was perhaps the most talkedabout architect in the world. That didn’t help him in Canada. In the 10 years that followed, he didn’t get a single commission in his adopted country.

It was a golden year, and so it seems in retrospect—a year in which we let off steam like schoolboys whooping and hollering at term’s end. We all thought big that year. The symbolic birthday cake on Parliament Hill stood 30 feet high: ice cream and cake for 30,000 kids and hang the expense! Over and over again, we showed the world what Canadians could do: Nancy Greene grabbing the World Cup for skiing; Elaine Tanner, the aquatic Mighty Mouse, taking four medals at the Pan-American Games; Marshall McLuhan on every magazine cover.

By a number of measurements, we are a great deal better off today than we were 30 years ago. We are healthier and we are wealthier than we were in 1967. The real net worth of the average Canadian is almost double what it was back then. Babies born today can expect to live longer—six years more than the centennial crop of babies.

Why, then, do we look back to 1967 as a golden year compared with 1997? If we are better off today, why all the hand-wringing? There are several reasons, but the big one, certainly, is the very real fear that the country we celebrated so joyously 30 years ago is in the process of falling apart. In that sense, 1967 was the last good year before all Canadians began to be concerned about the future of our country. □