The last time I was in Montreal, my home town, was in 1964. Québec Libre was freshly painted on many a wall, and students were fixing stickers that read Québec Qui Ottawa Non on car windows. Militant French Canadian Separatism, and not Expo, was the talking point. I had returned to Montreal, as I wrote in Encounter at the time, on Queen Victoria’s birthday, a national holiday in Canada. A thousand policemen were required to put down a French Canadian Separatist demonstration. Flags were burnt, a defective bomb was planted on Victoria Bridge, and a wreath was laid at the Monument aux Patriots, which marks the spot where twelve men were executed after the 1837-38 rebellion. The city was feverish. André Laurendeau, then editor of Le Devoir, developed the popular theory of “Roi Nègre,” that is to say that the real rulers of Quebec (the English, represented by the Federal Government in Ottawa) used a French Canadian chieftain (former, and once all powerful, Provincial Premier Duplessis) to govern the French, just as colonial powers used African puppets to keep their tribes in order. André Malraux, in town to open a “France in Canada” exhibition, told the City Council, “France needs you. We will build the next civilization together.” Malraux added that he had brought a personal message from General de Gaulle. It was that “Montreal was France’s second city. He wanted this message to reach you…. You are not aware of the meaning you have for France. There is nowhere in the world where the spirit of France works so movingly as it does in the province of Quebec.”
Naturally, this made for an uproar, so that the next day at a hastily summoned press conference Malraux said, “The mere thought that French Canada could become politically or otherwise dependent on France, is a dangerous and even a ridiculous one.”
Since then, as we all know, De Gaulle himself has been and gone, shouting the Separatist slogan, “Vivre Québec libre,” from the balcony of Montreal City Hall, and Prime Minister Pearson, rising to the occasion for once, declared this was “unacceptable” to the Canadian Government. I doubt that De Gaulle’s outburst, enjoyable as it was to all French Canadians, will make for more than a momentary Separatist resurgence, but it is worth noting that France has not always been so enamored of Quebec, a province which was largely pro-Vichy in sentiment during the war, and whose flag is still the fleur de lis.
In the summer of 1964, André d’Allemagne, one of the leaders of the RIN (Le Parti Rèpublican du Québec) told me that in his struggle for an independent state of Quebec he was opposed to violence, but, should his party be outlawed, he might be obliged to turn to it. “Like the maquis.” D’Allemagne looked to the next Quebec provincial election in 1966 as the big test—and he wasn’t the only one.
But, in 1966, the RIN which claimed 8,500 militant members, failed to win a seat. Quebec, to almost everyone’s astonishment, veered to the right again. Jean Lesage’s reform Liberal Government, which worked fairly well with Lester Pearson’s Federal Government, also Liberal, was squeezed out and the Union Nationale, the late Maurice Duplessis’s graft-ridden toy for so many years, was returned, with a majority of two, under Daniel Johnson, largely because Lesage was moving too quickly for the backwoods villages and townships.
This summer I returned to Montreal in time for the St. Jean Baptiste parade on June 23. St. Jean Baptiste is the patron saint of Quebec. In 1964, for the first time, he was no longer played by a boy in the annual parade. Instead, he was represented by an adult, and the sheep that had accompanied him in former years was tossed out. This summer’s St. Jean Baptiste parade was a dull, tepid affair. Minor officials and French Canadian vedettes riding in open cars were followed by a seemingly endless run of unimaginative floats. Certainly the mood a week before De Gaulle’s visit was not one to make for double-locks in Westmount Mansions, where Montreal’s richest WASPS live. If only three years ago English-speaking Canadians were running scared, then this summer, whenever the so-called “Quiet Revolution” came up, it was as a joke. “Have you heard the one about the Pepsi (French Canadian), watching hockey on TV, who lost a hundred dollars on a Toronto goal against Montreal?” “No.” “He lost fifty dollars on the goal. And another fifty on the replay.” (The replay being the instant TV re-run of the goal just scored.)
In the early Sixties, French Canadians justifiably complained that while it was necessary for them to speak fluent English to qualify for most jobs, English-speaking Canadians were not obliged to know French. English Canada’s haste to remedy this imbalance by hiring French Canadians, sometimes indiscriminately, has spawned another joke. A man sitting by a pool sees a lady drowning. “Help, help,” she cries. The man rushes over to the French Canadian lifeguard and shouts, “Aren’t you going to do anything?” “I can’t swim,” he says. “What! You’re a lifeguard and you can’t swim?” “I don’t have to. I’m bilingual.”
Then newly elected Quebec Premier, Daniel Johnson, eager to demonstrate that he is his people’s champion, has put through a decree that will make the use of French obligatory in all inscriptions of packaged food and tins…which has led to speculation among Jews about the labels on next year’s matzohs.
MONTREAL HAS ALWAYS SEEMED to me an unusually handsome and lively city, but in recent months the mounting hyperbole in Expo-inspired articles in American and British publications had made me apprehensive. A case in point is the London Sunday Times, whose color supplement on Canada included a piece with the title, “Montreal: Canada’s Answer to Paris, London and New York.” In the same issue, Penelope Mortimer, back from a flying trip to Montreal, wrote that she had just been able “to observe the customs of some of the most lively, uninhibited, civilized, humane and adventurous people in the world today—the Canadians….” I also had serious doubts about Expo itself. If it was ludicrous but somehow touching that Canada, after ninety-eight years and an endlessly embarrassing debate in Ottawa, had voted itself a flag, it seemed exceedingly late in the day to bet 800 million dollars on so unsophisticated an idea as a world’s fair dedicated to the theme of “Man and His World” (Terres des Hommes). Let me say at once then that Expo is, as they say, awfully good fun and in the best possible taste.
EVEN MORE IMPRESSIVE to an old Montrealer, perhaps, are the changes that Expo has wrought on the city itself. On earlier visits to Montreal, during the past twelve years, I was asked again and again if I could “recognize” the city, and of course I always could. But this time, after an absence of only three years, I was in fact overwhelmed by the difference. Suddenly, all the ambitious building of twelve years, the high-rise apartments, the downtown sky-scrapers, the slum clearance projects, the elegant new metro, the Place Ville Marie, the Place des Arts, the new network of express highways, the new hotels, have added up to another city. If, for many years, the choice open to me (and other Canadian writers, painters, and film-makers living abroad) was whether to suffer home or remain an expatriate, the truth quite simply is that the choice no longer exists. Home has been pulverized, bulldozed, and spilled into the St. Lawrence to create an artificial island: Isle Notre-Dame. Home, suddenly, is terrifyingly affluent. Montreal is the richest-looking city I’ve seen in years.
Many of the new skyscrapers, it’s true, are of the familiar biscuit-box variety, but there has also been a heartening drive to restore the old quarter, Bonsecours Market, the narrow cobblestone streets that surround it, and the baroque City Hall. The antique market is booming. Montreal even publishes its very own fervent right-wing magazine, Canada Month. In the most recent issue, Irving Layton, the country’s bestknown “most outspoken, exuberant and controversial” poet, came out for American policy in Vietnam. “I think the Americans are fighting this war, not because they want to overthrow Chinese communism, or for that matter even the communism of Uncle Ho-Ho”; rather, he felt, America’s sole interest was its own territorial security.
I’ve been in Montreal twice this year; the first time just a week before Expo opened, and it was then that I first visited the American pavilion, Buckminster Fuller’s transparent geodesic sphere, which is still, to my mind, the most fascinating structure at Expo. The sphere, 20 stories high, 250 feet in diameter, the plastic skin held together by a network of triangulated aluminum tubes, is a delight to the eye seen from any angle, inside or out; and in fact dominates the Expo grounds. The lighthearted stuff on display inside had been severely criticized by the time I visited the sphere a second time, late in June, and the PR man who escorted me, explained: “We try to tell all our colleagues in the media that this is not an exhibition. It’s only meant to show the spirit symbolic of—well, you know.”
Camp, he might have said. There are enormous stills of vintage Hollywood stars (Bogart, Gable, Joan Crawford) and a screen that runs great scenes from past movies, such as the chariot race from Ben Hur. On the next floor there is a display of pop art (Dine, Lichtenstein, Johns, Warhol), some pictures running as much as ten stories high. The highest floor is taken up with the inevitable display of spacecraft and paraphernalia. Briefly, it is the softest of all possible sells, radiating self-confidence.
The chunky British pavilion, designed by Sir Basil Spence, is meant to be self-mocking, and so it is, sometimes unintentionally. Embossed in concrete on an outside wall stands “BRITAIN,” pointedly without the “GREAT,” though the French inscription reads “GRANDE BRETAGNE.” Inside, the glossy scenes of contemporary British life suggest what Malcolm Muggeridge has called Sunday Supplement living taken into the third dimension. The pretty hostesses, as I’m sure you’ve read elsewhere, are mini-skirted and carry Union Jack handbags. If the declared theme is “The Challenge of Change” then, endearingly, it reveals how this challenge has been met. Wall charts of British geniuses list numbered photographs (Dickens, 12; Turner, 82), and before each chart there stands a computer. Theoretically, one should be able to press a number on the computer and come up with a card crammed with information. In practice, at Expo as in contemporary Britain itself, all the computers were marked TEMPORARILY OUT OF ORDER.
With other, larger powers usurping Canada’s traditional self-effacing stance, it has fallen on the host nation to play it straight. Outside the Canadian pavilion there is a decidedly non-joke mountie on horseback, a sitting duck for camera-laden tourists in Bermuda shorts, who pose their children before him endlessly. Nearby stands Canada’s People Tree. “As its name implies, the People Tree symbolizes the people of Canada. A stylized maple soaring to a height of 66 feet…it reflects the personal, occupational and recreational activities of more than 20 million individuals…” Briefly, a multi-colored, illuminated magazine cover tree.
At the Tundra, the Canadian pavilion restaurant, it is possible to order Buffalo bouchees or whale steak. Robert Fulford of the Toronto Star has written that if the pavilion bar were really to represent Canada it would have to be “a pit of Muzak-drenched darkness…or, perhaps one of those sour-smelling enamel rooms in which waiters, wearing change aprons, slop glasses of draught beer all over the tables and patrons.” Instead, it is well-lit and handsomely designed, with authentic Eskimo murals.
THE MOST truculent of the pavilions is the small one representing embattled Cuba, plastered with photographs of the revolution and headlines that run to ATOMIC RLACKMAIL, DEATH, LSD, CIA, NAPALM. Outside the Czech pavilion, the most popular at Expo, the queues wind round and round, whole families waiting submissively in the sun for two, sometimes three, hours. Actually, none of the pavilion interiors are so gratifying as the gay Expo site itself, where I spent my most exhilarating hours simply strolling about. The improbable, even zany, pavilions are such a welcome change from the urban landscape we are all accustomed to; there are almost no cars, and the streets are astonishingly clean and quiet. Expo, only ten minutes from downtown Montreal by road or metro, lies on the island of Montreal proper, St. Helen’s Island, and the artificially created island of Notre-Dame. In the early Forties, when I was a boy in Montreal, St. Helen’s Island was the untamed and gritty place to which working-class kids escaped for picnics and swims on sweltering summer days. There was, and still is, an old fort on the island. In 1940, Mayor Camillien Houde, a corrupt but engaging French Canadian politician of Louisiana dimensions, was briefly interned there for advising young French Canadians not to register for conscription in a British imperialist war. Houde’s companions included communists, also rounded up by the RCMP, and baffled Jewish-German refugees, sent over from England where they had been classified as enemy aliens. Now the island is tricked out with lagoons, fountains, canals, and artificial lakes.
In the months before Expo opened, probably no individual structure was more highly publicized than Habitat 67, Moshe Safdie’s prefabricated design for cheap, high-density housing, the novelty being that the roof of one apartment would serve as the garden terrace of another, and that the entire unit, looking rather like a haphazard pile of children’s blocks, could be assembled by a crane slipped into place alongside. Without a doubt, this angular concrete block has no place in Montreal, with its long and bitter winters. Habitat 67, projecting out of a green hill in a tropical climate, could be something else again.
In any event, I think Expo is more likely to be remembered for its films rather than any particular building, save Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic sphere. Films charge at you everywhere, from multiple and wrap-around screens, bounced off floors, stone walls, mirrors, and what-not. Alas, the pyrotechnics, the dazzling techniques, conceal, for the most part, nothing more than old-fashioned documentaries about life in Ontario, Czechoslovakia, Mod England, etc. The most highly touted and ambitious of these films, the Canadian National Film Board’s Labyrinth, is also the most popular individual exhibit at Expo, its queues waiting as long as four hours.
Produced by Roman Kroiter, an undoubtedly talented film-maker, housed in a specially constructed building, Labyrinth took more than two years and four and a half million dollars to make. Based on the legend of the Minotaur, Labyrinth is actually two films. The first, seen from multi-leveled galleries, is projected on two whopping big screens: one on a wall, the other on a sunken floor bed. At its most successful, it is tricksy (child seen on wall screen throws a pebble which lands with a splash in pool on floor screen) or aims at creating vertigo (suddenly, we are looking straight down a missile chute). From here, viewers grope their way through a spook-house type maze into a multi-screened theater, wherein we learn that man comes into this world bloody and wailing and leaves in a coffin. Unfortunately, in this case, it would seem that it is life that is long and art that’s short. En route to the grave, we are instructed that all men are brothers (black, white, and yellow men, popping to life simultaneously on the multiscreen) and are treated to an occasional brilliant sequence, such as the crocodile hunt. But two years in the making, four and a half million dollars spent…the return seems both portentous and inadequate.
FINALLY Expo has done more for Canada’s self-confidence than anything within memory. “By God, we did it! And generally we did it well,” Pierre Berton wrote in Macleans.
“We’re on the map,” a friend told me. “They know who we are in New York now.”
Hugo McPherson, professor of Canadian and American studies at the University of Western Ontario until recently and now head of the National Film Board, said in an interview: “We have our own ‘scene’ in Canada now…. It’s no longer fashionable, the way it used to be, for Canadians to knock everything Canadian. Perhaps Expo will be the event we’ll all remember as the roadmark. I think it’s going to be a vast Canadianizing force, not only in Quebec but all across the country. There’s a new feeling of national gaiety and pride at Expo….”
Others go even further, demanding an alarmingly high emotional return from what is after all only a world’s fair. A good one, maybe even the most enjoyable one ever. However, within it there lies merely the stuff of a future nostalgic musical, not the myth out of which a nation is forged. Unless it is to be a Good Taste Disneyland.
September 14, 1967