Ken Dryden book excerpt: Canada's make-or-break moment in '67

‘Our politicians and thinkers had “prattled on” about Canadian identity. They had tried to write an inspiring and coherent story with their words, and couldn’t. Maybe with Expo we could do it with our actions’

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In January 2020, three months before the pandemic, Ken Dryden decided to try to find his high school classmates. They had been specially selected through an exam and teacher recommendations, 35 of them, had stayed together with few exceptions until graduation, then went their separate ways, with little more than random contact in the decades since. Six had passed away, one he couldn’t find. The rest started talking. Over many hours, one-on-one, over two years. He wanted to know how they were, what they had done, and hadn’t done, about their families, their kids, their ups and downs, what life has been like. How they, how all of them, had gotten from there to here. The following is an exclusive excerpt adapted from the book, The Class: A Memoir of a Place, a Time, and Us.

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We were by this time two years out of high school, in university, most of us living on our own, some in different towns and cities. Many of us had known what we were going to study, many now weren’t sure. These were exciting years. We didn’t know where we were going, but it was somewhere. We were becoming something.

We were 20, the country was 100.

Expo 67.

As we were all trying to figure out where we were going, the country was too. Most of us were finishing our second year at university when Expo 67 opened in Montreal. At the time, world’s fairs were a big deal. Before the world could go online and discover the latest and best in an instant, a world’s fair offered a place to travel to every few years to see what a host city and country’s idea of the future might be, and how important to that future they wanted us to believe they were. On display were the most advanced architecture, products, and designs, and the latest thinking each represented. Iconic structures were created, symbolizing the possibilities and excitement of the time and of times to come: London, 1851, the Crystal Palace; Paris, 1889, the Eiffel Tower. My father went to the world’s fair in Brussels in 1958, its signature creation and main pavilion, the Atomium, nine giant balls of shimmering stainless steel and the tubes that connected them, in the shape of the atoms of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. Not a structure that was historically important but it is still an image I have clearly in my mind. This was the Atomic Age. I was 10.

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As well as his stories, my father also brought back a fan, developed by Braun, a company I’d never heard of, German, made entirely of plastic and not much bigger than a closed fist, with a cylinder that rotated hundreds of times a second, it seemed to me, with louvres to catch the air and throw it back, and a small awning-like piece to direct the flow. It was my father’s to use, then my brother’s, then mine, and I still have it, and it still works. For years in the summer it was on my bedside table whirring almost soundlessly through the night, the air directed at my face as I slept. A miracle of technology I could understand.

The theme of Expo 67 was “Man and his World,” a straightforward enough concept that seemed to suggest one thing but really was about another. The phrase Terre des hommes in French had come at the suggestion of Quebec and Manitoba novelist Gabrielle Roy, from a work by the French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint Exupéry. This was not “Man” in the sense of heroic master of the universe (at the time, it was always “man” and “he,” except for countries and ships, which were “she”), but man as a remarkable, though vulnerable, being. Saint Exupéry’s inspiration had come from an experience he’d had one night flying alone over a remote part of Argentina and seeing below him widely scattered lights in an immense black landscape, finding himself drawn not to the lights but to the blackness, the space, the solitude between the lights. In that solitude, Saint Exupéry discovered the need for man to connect. Our need for solidarity. For Roy, living in a later time of Cold War blocs and division, Expo would offer an opportunity to come together.

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Maclean’s, in its lead editorial to begin our Centennial Year, four months before the fair opened, described Expo as “a firm assertion of our late blooming self knowledge and self confidence.” We have come a long way in our 100 years, it says. “Confederation did not magically erase the stubborn differences of language, culture, and clashing regional ambitions. But if we have not solved all our inherited problems we have learned to live with most of them.” Expo’s aim, the editorial states, “staggering in its scope, is nothing less than ‘to tell the story of man’s hopes, his fears, his aspirations, his ideas and his endeavors.’ ” “Four million Canadians and six million foreigners are expected to visit Expo,” it says. “It is the greatest opportunity we have ever had to open our doors and windows and our minds and hearts to the world— a fitting birthday party for a nation come of age.”

For Canada, what a success that would be. If only.

An RCMP officer and crowd at Expo 67
An RCMP officer and crowd in front of the Quebec Pavilion at Expo 67. Photo by National Archives of Canada

Then it opened. In 1967, Canada’s population was 20 million. Between April 28 and October 29 of that year, almost 55 million people attended Expo, more than five times as many as Maclean’s in its wildest dreams had hoped. It was the most widely attended world’s fair since the Paris Exposition of 1900.

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Expo had its showcase structures, most notably Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome for the U.S. pavilion, and Moshe Safdie’s Habitat, a construct of large concrete boxes perched atop each other, or side by side, Lego like, each box a self contained apartment, none of the boxes in line with the others next to them. But Expo’s biggest achievement wasn’t its buildings. Nor was it in being the centrepiece and inspiration for hundreds of mini Expos that were created across the country. Each community, faced with the same opportunity as Montreal, asking itself the same questions: Who are we? What do we need to be, what do we want to be? And everywhere centennial theatres, centennial libraries, centennial arenas, centennial museums of all kinds went up— these would be the bricks and mortar legacy of Canada’s centenary. We were changed by this, our cities and towns became nicer places to live. But Expo and these other civic projects also changed us in a bigger way.

It’s what creating those projects forced us to do, and what we had to do to pull them off. As it turned out, they offered a living demonstration of “man’s” need for solidarity and of what solidarity can do. Until 1962, Moscow was to have been the host of the next world’s fair, but then suddenly it pulled out. Montreal had less than five years to plan, to finance, to build islands in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, to construct a subway, to build the fair itself. But more than that, Expo had to be a huge success, a source of national pride. It had to thrill us and thrill the world, and with so little time available, lurking around every corner was the real possibility of local, national, and international humiliation. It was the same, on their own smaller scale, for all those cities and towns across the country. In all the decades before, all those theatres, libraries, and arenas hadn’t gone up for a very good reason: they were too big, too expensive to take on. Now they had to be built, and fast.

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For all those same decades, our politicians and thinkers had “prattled on” about Canadian identity. They had tried to write an inspiring and coherent story with their words, and couldn’t. Maybe with Expo we could do it with our actions. This was our chance. We could not blow it. If we build it, we will be. But no matter how successful Expo was, this is a task, and a hope, too large. If this was to be Canada’s “coming of age” moment, what age were we coming of? In reality, we were coming of an indefinite, indeterminate age, and Expo couldn’t do it all. Less than a decade later, in 1976, the Parti Québécois, committed to taking Quebec out of Canada, was elected. In the two decades that followed, with sovereignty referendums in Quebec in 1980 and 1995 and the failed Meech Lake Accord in between, the question of what we are and what we will be would become a preoccupation. And the prattling intensified.

Expo 67's Habitat building.
Habitat, designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, was one of Expo 67’s showcase structures. Photo by Robert J. Galbraith/Montreal Gazette/File

In 1967, as Canadians, we proved two things to ourselves. We showed we could pull off one big national thing and countless big local things. And we discovered what Saint Exupéry and Roy had discovered: the need, and possibility, to do them together.

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Expo would prove important in one other way. After an accumulation of arguments had failed over many years, Expo’s highly visible success was probably the final reason that Major League Baseball came to Canada, and we got the Expos. Which made many of us very happy, and those of us in Toronto mostly happy. “Mostly” because it, Montreal, got the Expos, and we, in Toronto, didn’t. Just as it had the Canadiens, and it would get the Olympics in 1976. (It would get me in the 1970s too — and for me, that was quite OK.)

No one from our high school class worked at Expo that summer, but almost everyone went. Many travelled with their parents, others with new university friends, some visited more than once. Judy Tibert remembers staying at a synagogue that, for that special summer, had been remade into a hostel. For Judy Clarke, except for camp, Expo was her first time away from home. Murray, having spent his grade 13 year living in French, took a French course at McGill and went to Expo often. For Lorna, Expo was on the way to Europe, and for Kathy McNab, it was on the way back; for Gord it was en route to Boston with his family to drop his brother off at Harvard Business School. Joan Boody travelled to Expo with the U of T Chorus and they performed, officially, several concerts and impromptu, in the spirit of that summer, endless renditions of “A Place to Stand, a Place to Grow, Ontari ari ari o.” Wayne ran his first marathon, in nearby Saint Hyacinthe, on a Sunday, and the next day, sore, drained, and slightly euphoric, went to Expo. Nine years later, he would be back in Montreal to run another. Only two of us, I think, never made it to Expo, Wilf and me. Wilf was in Europe for the whole summer. I was in Ithaca, New York, not even as far away from Montreal as Toronto, working construction, building a Woolworths. I’d been told Expo was really busy, and I’d been to fairs before, and I thought, well, if everyone’s going, how interesting can it be. So, more influenced by Yogi Berra— “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded”— than by Saint Exupéry and Roy, I didn’t go. The next summer, when most of Expo’s buildings were still there, and it was a lot less crowded, I went. Sometimes it takes me a while to get the point.

“Excerpted from THE CLASS: A Memoir of a Place, a Time, and Us by Ken Dryden, published October 17 by McClelland & Stewart, and imprint of Penguin Random House Canada. Copyright © Ken Dryden, 2023. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.”

Ken Dryden book cover

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Originally posted 2023-10-21 12:00:14.