Mom must have saved for a long time for our special trip. When the day finally came, we loaded our suitcases into the trunk and drove to the “Port”, Canadian Forces Base Summerside. I’d been there for Air Force Day but never to get on a real airplane. Others in my school would go to Expo later on a class trip but I was going with my mother. Just the two of us, for a whole week. How special was that?
It may be hard to believe today, but Eastern Provincial Airways offered a commercial flight from Summerside to Moncton in 1967. Mom had decided we’d fly to Montréal and take the train back. That way, I’d be able to experience both. I could hardly contain my excitement as we walked across the tarmac from the tiny terminal to the plane. I had the presence of mind to snap this photo on my $2 camera. In Moncton, we changed to a bigger Air Canada plane and eventually landed at Dorval airport in Montréal.
There to pick us up were the Thibeaults, Claire and Philippe, and their two sons, Richard and Serge, friends of the family who would act as our hosts. I remember the drive to their home in the east end, rue Baldwin, Tétraultville. A city this big was beyond my imagination. The pace of things was intense and the stink of heavy industry stung my tender nostrils. A snot-nosed kid from the backroads of Prince Edward Island, I was totally out of my comfort zone.
Serge and Richard took me for a tour of the neighbourhood and to meet their friends. I remember riding bikes and playing a bit of baseball. They were street kids, at home in an urban environment. I was an alien. Their accented Québécois was barely understandable to me. They must have thought I was speaking a different language. Their parents would surely have warned them: “Ils ne parlent pas comme nous autres”.
My notion of Expo 67 was very rudimentary although evidence of the centennial celebrations was everywhere, even in tiny Wellington. I’d visited the Confederation Caravan when it set up on the soccer field at École Évangéline. Prince Edward Island was deemed too small to host the Confederation Train that toured the country that summer, so we’d had to satisfy ourselves with a couple of semi trailers stuffed with patriotic images, texts and displays. The only one to catch my eye was the prospector, probably because the mannequin actually moved and because he reminded me of a real prospector, my cousin, Spud Arsenault.
And then the big day finally came. We’re going to see Expo! The boys had explained to me that we’d take the bus to the Métro station and hop on the subway that would take us directly to the site. It was all Greek to me. I’d never seen a subway train and the only bus I knew was Ken MacDougall’s SMT clunker that dropped off the Journal-Pioneers for my paper route in front of Arsenault & Gaudet’s store in Wellington.
For some people, it’s olfactory stimuli that conjure up the strongest memories. I’m one of those. Blindfold me and stand me at the entrance of a Montréal Metro station and I’ll know exactly where I am by the smell. The bus dropped us off at Honoré-Beaugrand and we rode the escalator — the first one I’d ever been on — down into the subway station. The train’s rubber tires fascinated me; the strange noise they made as the the cars stopped alongside the platform. I stepped across the threshold and into another alien environment, underground mass transit.
A few stops later, we pulled into the transfer station, Berri-de-Montigny, and took the yellow line to Île-Notre-Dame. What I saw when we emerged from the subway station near the United States pavilion blew my mind. This was it! Expo 67! Man and His World! The World’s Fair! It was beyond imagining.
The first thing we did was buy our seven-day Expo Passports for access to the pavilions and to travel from place to place on the Minirail. I don’t remember which pavilion we visited first but it was likely the massive Katimavik, Canada’s showpiece. I made it my mission to visit as many of the 90-plus pavilions as possible; my final count, at least 70. I had my passport stamped at each one. My one great regret is that, somewhere along the way, I lost this important record of my visits. But the memories remain. The photo below shows Serge Thibeault and Mom in front of one of my favourite pavilions, Iran.
This one is of a very shy thirteen-year-old standing in the fountain in front of the British pavilion.
Serge and Richard had told me about La Ronde, Expo’s amusement park. I thought the Summerside Lobster Carnival was big. Was I in for a surprise! Our first time there, we headed for the Gyrotron, a one-of-a-kind ride built specially for Expo 67. Inside, we climbed into a giant pyramid where the conditions of outer space were simulated. Next, we plunged into the bowels of the earth, into the heart of a volcano where a giant, mechanical monster scared the living shit out of us.
Each of my visits to Expo included time at La Ronde. One day, we watched an amazing water-skiing show with teams of skiiers doing acrobatics and a tow boat so powerful it could stand straight up on its stern.
Mom didn’t come every time we travelled to the Expo site. Serge was my sole companion on at least a couple of days. I was met with terrible news one day when we arrived home at the Thibeault’s. Our neighbour, Edward (à José) Arsenault had been killed by an explosion aboard his boat at the Abram-Village wharf. He was a prominent citizen of Wellington and one of my childhood heroes. On April 7, 1967, he’d been part of a crew that crossed the Northumberland Strait on an ice boat. He slept on the frozen Ellis River to be the first to wet a line on opening day of trout season. Walking beside him along the road to the Barachois, I watched him drop a grouse from a tree branch shooting from his hip with a .410 pistol. I hadn’t even seen it! In my mind, he could do anything. Mom cried that day. I might have too. He was only 33.
This picture of Edward beside the ice boat (rear left) was taken at the Wellington Centennial Day parade on July 8, 1967, one month to the day before his death. It might well be the last photo image of him.
That Sunday, we attended Mass. I tried to think of what I might say to Edward’s sons, my friends, Léonce and Marcel, and his wife, Corinne, when we’d visit back home. As my mind wandered, a dog, the spitting image of Edward’s German shepherd, Rover, walked through the open door of the church and straight up the aisle before turning on his heel to exit the way he’d come. I felt Edward’s presence at that moment and a warm feeling came over me.
There was a sub-text to our visit to Montréal: my estranged father’s presence somewhere in the background. He’d stayed with the Thibeaults for awhile when he’d moved to Montréal ten years previously. We hadn’t heard from him and didn’t know where he was. No one did. I secretly hoped we’d connect even though Mom had convinced me it wouldn’t happen. She must have been troubled by the thought that they were in the same city at the same time, but she never said anything.
We spent an enjoyable afternoon visiting former Wellington residents, Millie, Zelica and Jacqueline, daughters of Fidèle (Thaddée) Poirier who had once owned the village hotel. The Poiriers never wavered in their attachment to the Island and had several familly reunions there.
I never tired of going to the Expo site as the week wore on. Serge and Richard, on the other hand, had seen enough. So, on our last day in Montréal, Mom let me go by myself. I’d convinced her that I could navigate the bus and subway system by myself. Off I went, with my passport and $5 in my pocket, intending to spend the whole day at La Ronde. I did; went on every ride I could and had my last taste of heavenly Belgian waffles. And I came home with the $5 I’d found lying on the ground at the amusement park, exhausted after a full day but no poorer.
The trip back was anticlimactic. I’d ridden the train from Wellington to Summerside once but had never experienced a real passenger service like Via Rail. We ate in the dining car and the porter came to prepare our beds in the sleeper. I was impressed. The clickety-clack of heavy wheels on steel rails put me to sleep right away and, before I knew it, we were at the train station in Moncton. Uncle Cliff and Aunt Tina had come to pick us up and take us across the ferry home.
I had lots of stories to share with my friends when I got back to tiny Wellington. I remember feeling very lucky and wishing my time with Mom, just the two of us, could have lasted longer. Expo 67 kindled in me a spirit of adventure and wonderment. It made all of Canada proud and put Montréal on the world stage. And it made me want to see more. I’d been bitten by the travel bug!
Elva and I have visited 61 countries and many of the world’s great cities. Only one of our destinations comes close to reminding me of Expo. It’s not Dubai and it’s definitely not Las Vegas. On first seeing Singapore in 2015 and after spending a week there earlier this year, I was overcome by the same sense of wonderment at what a truly cosmopolitan city can feel like. The creators of Expo 67 were ahead of their time.