Friday, September 10, 2010


I was just watching - for the umpteenth time - a video tape of Expo '67 - The Canadian Experience - CBC.
One of the featured stories is about Charles De Gaulle's infamous "VIVE LE QUEBEC LIBRE" shot from the balcony of Montreal's City Hall the day before he was scheduled to appear at Expo'67. It was July 24, 1967.
The Summer of 1967 was a thrilling, glorious time for Montrealers who suddenly found themselves hosts to visitors of every description from around the globe and, at the same time, guests themselves at a gigantic outdoor party in their own home town. We each held in our hot little hands our own treasured passport to be stamped at the entrance to every gorgeous pavilion - Thailand, Burma, Ethiopia, France - even Russia staring down the United States' Biosphere a stone's throw away. 
The memories of Expo '67 still thrill me all these decades later. I can feel the reflected blue water where I cooled my feet in the fountain in front of the glistening blue-tiled pavilion of Iran. In my sari, I sat on the rim of the pool dangling my toes and entered into conversation with tangerine robed Hare Krishna visitors. We dangled pleasantly together in the warm atmosphere of our Islands of Peace, while outside of the fair grounds, Quebec separatists had to be held at bay.
Expo'67 was Utopia. The rest of Montreal, not so much. There were angry demonstrations in the streets of Montreal. And by 1971, there were bombs and there was kidnapping and there was cruel murder. But that summer on the Expo islands, we were blindly ecstatic in paradise. Even the usual summer shadfly plague was eliminated - by secret spraying that also killed birds and fish. We were not told. Like happy children, we were protected from ugliness that wonderful summer.
Night and day, we would ride in little open cars above the crowds to see gay musicals, to be lured by overwhelming aromas into exotic restaurants - the pungent fragrance of coffee wafting in the air from the crimson roofed Ethiopian pavilion still tickles my nose  - to be hopelessly and helplessly tempted in dozens of gift shops that displayed the craftsmanship and splendid creations of people from Africa to India and our own Great White North. As never before, we could see, hear, smell and touch and eat and eat and eat. We watched Inuit artisans carving whales in soapstone. We savoured delicately buttered Chicken Kiev. We saw a happier chicken playing a little piano and, before Star Trek spoke of it, we saw triticale - a hybrid wonder grain - growing before our eyes. And Ravi Shankar, sitting cross legged under a tent, strummed his sitar.
The present was exposed to the future and - in brilliant colours - fine silk saris, silver necklaces and translucent glass beads, exotic dance, magnificent floral displays. We gazed in ecstasy at the great works of Renoir in the French Pavilion. The wonders of nature, art and science blazed before our eyes on gigantic screens that made life come alive even for the most naive and sedentary among us. Everyone was excited, thrilled, happy - and friendly. If you never finished school, you received a university education that summer at Expo'67.
There were many National Days highlighted at Place des Nations on the Expo Islands featuring different countries and cultures. Famous world leaders and movie stars appeared. There were national dances on the stage, and around the grounds, soft music put a dance step in our tired feet as we strolled for hours. The aroma of international dishes floated on the air easing us into their web.
Between shows, we rubbed shoulders with Danny Kaye and saw Queen Elizabeth on her early morning visit in the mist just across the narrow canal. Another day, Robert Kennedy and his family came shooting down the water slide. It was a time of dreams come true. We were all in Wonderland and everyone talked with everyone in whatever language they pleased to do so.
The National Days at Place des Nations were open and free to everyone, as was almost everything else. The public sat in the bleachers enjoying treats from around the world. But on the day that De Gaulle came to Expo'67, there was a notable difference.
I worked at the Canadian Maple Leaf Tartan Shop close by the Biosphere and the Russian Pavilion. I lived at Expo day and night all that summer. I attended every event, shopped at every shop, strolled among the fragrant flower beds and talked with people from every land.
On the day De Gaulle was scheduled to appear at Place des Nations I arrived on the site to find to my surprise - to everyone's surprise - that ropes had been tied around the bleachers so that the public had to stand back behind the tiers of empty seats to see the war hero, the great general. This had never happened before. The seats were there for the public. We always sat there and watched the performances and listened to the stars and world leaders while seated there.
I was shocked. I stood, numb. I looked into the faces of the visitors. I looked back down at the stage being prepared for De Gaulle's arrival. I looked down at the ropes. And I was getting angrier and angrier. Why was this day different from every other day?  It wasn't Passover !
Ah! Yes. The day before, Charles De Gaulle had attacked Canada and incited Quebec's separatists to break free of our oppressive regime. And now, the famous World War II general entered the great space of Place des Nations, and, surrounded by security, he appeared to us in the distance. Unlike the Kennedys and Queen Elizabeth, and all the other famous leaders from nations around the world, Charles De Gaulle was set apart from us, separate from his hosts. Far below us, he was being held above the people.
Suddenly, it just burst out of me: "A BAS LES BARRIERS !" I shouted - in French ! In French? Where did that come from? I must admit now that it felt like the Holy Spirit had struck me. And - in a flash - the throng broke through the ropes. And we, the people, all took our seats. Our seats.
The great General De Gaulle and I never met but, in that moment, from that distance, an ordinary Canadian citizen touched Charles De Gaulle and all his security and power did not impede us. Like Expo'67 itself, it was a quick flash of light in a dark world. I doubt that anyone will remember it, but in that one shining moment, I felt in my bones that I had changed a little bit of history for the better.
"Vive le Quebec Libre", De Gaulle had proclaimed on our sovereign territory. That day at Expo'67, July 25, 1967, I  shouted, "Let my people sit!" And they did.
General de Gaulle lost the Battle of Place des Nations to the free people of Canada that day in The Bleachers of Expo '67.
Looking back these forty three years later, I feel proud.
Phyllis Mass Carter
September 10, 2010

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