Stories from our Land: Celebrating Canada’s 150

The Wheel of Nations: A Souvenir of Expo 67

EDITOR’S NOTE: In conjunction with Canada’s Sesquicentennial in 2017, members of the Manitoulin Writers’ Circle are crafting stories and poems to pay tribute to our country on this pivotal milestone birthday.

by Margo Little

On the occasion of Canada’s sesquicentennial in 2017, sentimental people across the land will be digging out old scrap books and photo albums to reflect on the milestones in our personal lives and the life of our nation since our Centennial in 1967.

My own personal experience with that special celebration came in springtime at the end of my first year at Laurentian University. Volunteers were needed to help teachers chaperone a group of high school students travelling by train to Montreal for Expo 67. It was still very chilly in April so photos of our excursion show us bundled up in turtle-neck sweaters and cardigans for the journey. Once there we slept on hard bunk beds in a Spartan army barracks and ate at a no-frills cafeteria. Despite the less than luxurious facilities, we didn’t complain; after all we were hardy young Canadians and our country was welcoming the world.

Visitors to the 1967 world’s fair in Montreal received a high quality cardboard brochure which helped them navigate the diverse pavilions featured at the unique venue. After the tour of the grounds, I kept that souvenir tucked away with other memorabilia I collected over the next 50 years. Call me a packrat if you must, but historic objects such as that well-preserved tourist guide can tell us a lot about how much the world has changed since Canada’s Centennial and how we as citizens have scrambled to keep up with the dizzying transformation.

Expo 67 was the abbreviated title for the Universal and International Exhibition of 1967. The event was staged on two islands and a peninsula in the middle of the mighty St. Lawrence River. From April 28 to October 27 Canadians and guests from 62 countries marked Canada’s 100th birthday. European, African, Asian, Latin American and Scandinavian countries were represented. Many smaller nations shared pavilion space since they were not as wealthy as some of the Western representatives. Of course, the super powers of the day, the USA and the USSR loomed large at the gathering of sovereign states.

“A World of Education on a Thousand Acres” was the slogan of the massive undertaking. The organizers cited three main themes for the showcase: Education, Culture and Recreation. Their ambitious aim was to have people learn about each other and have fun at the same time.

Thus the creation of the colourful site guide, designed with a wheel-of-fortune type dial inviting visitors of all ages to give it a spin and explore the offerings of dozens of countries. The spinning wheel was affixed to a nine inch by nine inch cardboard base. When you opened up the guide you found a map of Ile Sainte-Helene, Ile Notre-Dame and the major routes leading to the fair. In addition to the 32 flags found on the front page, there were other participants highlighted inside the brochure next to the map of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Saint Lambert.

Throughout the guide, postage stamp size images of each national pavilion appear with Canada mentioned as No. 39. Other countries might have listed themselves as No. 1 but Canada had a reputation for being self-effacing and unassuming. At least that was our persona at the time. But look a little further and you will see that Canada’s pavilion picture is slightly larger than the others; perhaps a sign that Canada can toot its own horn just a little. A brief burst of bragging also emerges in the statement that Expo 67 is the only one of the “first category” ever authorized in the Americas by the International Exhibition Bureau.

The back page of the Expo 67 guide has a small map of Canada in the top right hand corner but the names of the provinces and territories are omitted. Strange that the organizers did not stick with their educational goal and actually illustrate the vast geography from sea to shining sea.

The use of the wheel of chance motif seems fitting in retrospect. As high school and university students we were learning, growing and enjoying chance encounters with vibrant cultures from across the globe. After immersing ourselves in vicarious travel all day, we could respond to the lure of La Ronde amusement park after dark and thrill to the Gyrotron simulation of a ride in space or dare to enter the Spiral as it took us to the top of a 200 foot tower. As we braved the Ferris wheel and the aquatic roller coaster, we were cresting on a wave of national euphoria. No crystal balls in our pockets then as we spun ever closer to the edge of adulthood.

As I look back on my 20-year-old self, I find it instructive to examine which countries were emerging, developing and asserting their sovereignty in 1967. If a world’s fair were held in 2017, the names of the pavilions would undoubtedly be very different. In the 50 years since our Centennial, we have witnessed the break-up of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the phenomenon of the Arab Spring and so many other earth shattering events that historians cannot record them properly. Ongoing terrorist attacks in the United States, Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, Australia and countless other Middle Eastern states keep onlookers shaken and dazed.

In 2017 with so many nations changing names and regimes, we would be hard pressed to spin that quaint old wheel of nations and to match the flag with its homeland. Like the other Expo youth turning 70 years old this year, I am grateful that I had an opportunity to witness that moment in history. Whenever I fear the world is spiralling out of control, I can remember that the main thrust of Expo was education; surely that remains a timeless solution to all the conflict and misunderstanding evident across the globe.