(Image Courtesy Google)
After the cruise on Saint Lawrence River, we drove to Saint Helena’s Island and undertook an electric car ride to explore the island. This ride traces the history of the island from 1611 to the present day, highlighting its natural, cultural and military heritage. City of Montreal came into world prominence with the conduct of Expo 67 and 1976 Summer Olympics. Let me take you through this trip based on these two events which were mostly held on Saint Helena’s Island, also called Montreal’s baby sister island.
This island was named by Samuel de Champlain – founder of Montreal – in 1611 in honour of his wife, Hélène Boullé. Located in the Saint Lawrence River, South-East of the city of Montreal, it was purchased by the British government in 1812. In 1870, the Canadian government acquired the island and converted into a public park. Up until the construction of the Jacques-Cartier Bridge in 1930, it was only accessible by ferry. The island was originally much smaller than it is today. In preparation for Expo 67, the City of Montreal consolidated several of the surrounding islands and enlarged it using earth excavated from the river bed and the construction of the Montreal Metro tunnels.
As a good soldier, let me begin with the Saint Helena’s Island’s buildings of military history value. Above is the Fort built in 1824 by the British for protection against the United States. It served as a storage and distribution centre for weapons and ammunition. Today the Fort is home to the David M. Stewart Museum, where historical artifacts from Canada’s colonial past, particularly that of New France are displayed.
The Military Cemetery is home to over 1000 fallen soldiers. According to the commemorative plaque in the graveyard, there are a total of 58 known soldiers and many unknown buried here. The plaque says that “several wives and many children were also buried here”, but there is no mention whatsoever of 800 unknown soldiers buried in mass graves.
That was the military history aspect and now let me take you through what unfolded during Expo 67. The name ‘Expo,’ which is simply an abbreviation of exposition, was coined by Montreal, and world fairs since have continued to call it ‘Expo.’ Expo 67 had pavilions from 62 participating nations. Among the companies, Kodak and the telephone industry had their own pavilion. The pavilion visitors liked the most was that of telephone industry, followed by Czechoslovakia.
From the time of Expo 67, various art works were commissioned on the island. Let us visit some of the artworks that impressed me.
This is the iconic sculpture ‘L’homme’ (The Man), commissioned in 1967 as a gift from the International Nickel Company, showcasing the theme of Expo 67- ‘Man and His World’. It took five months to complete at a cost of $135,000. Today it is valued between 50 and 200 million Dollars.
The Iris sculpture was done in 1967 by Québec artist Raoul Hunter in conjunction with Expo 67. It has four curved petals made of aluminum sheets. All the concave surfaces converge towards each other, creating an enveloping effect.
La Ville Imaginaire is a sculpture made out of white granite. It was a gift from Portugal in 1997 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Montreal’s Metro subway system and Expo 67. It depicts reflection as to how humans create mythical spaces, both out of necessity and in response to challenges.
This sculpture, l’Arc, next to the Iris, is made of ultra-high performance concrete. Inaugurated on September 11, 2009, it was built in honour of the Chilean president Salvador Allende, who died in 1973. It depicts a curved tree with its branches touching the ground. It was designed by Michel de Broin as a complex symbol whose meaning was to be open to individual interpretation.
Main attraction of Expo 67 was that the visitors had to stamp their passports at the entrance to each pavilion. It encouraged people to visit more pavilions than they would have otherwise, only to get more stamps in their passport. Let me take you through some of pavilions as they stand today.
Montreal’s famous geodesic ball, the Biosphere, was the US Pavilion during Expo 67. Instead of using bolts, the structure was welded together due to time constraints and covered with an acrylic shell. In 1976, when the structure was being repaired, welding torches set fire to the Biosphere, completely burning off the acrylic shell in less than 30 minutes, leaving behind only the steel skeleton. During Expo 67, the pavilion trumpeted America’s ‘Race to the Moon,’ and also the American entertainment industry. The Biosphere was later purchased for $17.5 million and restored to become Canada’s first Ecowatch Centre on World Environment Day June 6, 1995.
French Pavilion from Expo 67 is now home to the Montreal Casino. According to the original Expo 67 description of the pavilion, it featured ‘aluminum sun-breaker strips, providing an attractive sculpture effect’ and ‘a steel arrow.’
Jamaican pavilion, a replica of a 19th century two-story Jamaican country shop was constructed of thick, sand-colored plaster walls with shuttered upper windows and a cedar shingle roof. It has been completely renovated and is now a very popular wedding destination, surrounded by trees and nature.
Building off the success of the 1967 Expo, Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau wanted to cement Montreal’s place in the world as a truly International City. Thus the city took on hosting the XXI Olympic Games in 1976. Montreal Olympics was best known for Nadia Comăneci – the first person to score a perfect 10 at the Olympic Games – and also infamously for Canada becoming the first Olympic hosting nation not to win any Gold Medal.
This is the Olympic Basin which was used for canoeing and rowing competitions during the 1976 Olympic Games. It extends over 2.2 kilometres in length; it is 110 metres wide and 2.5 metres deep. The Basin’s unique installations and it’s calm waters make it the pride of every rowing enthusiast. The pavilions of Expo 67 of India, Germany, Australia, Myanmar, Mexico and Thailand had to be demolished to make way for the Basin. Today many competitive boating events are held here such as the Canadian Masters Championships and the Montréal International Dragon Boat Race Festival.
Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve is a 4,361-metre long car-racing track which has played host to the Formula 1 Grand Prix du Canada since 1978. The track is well-regarded for its smooth asphalt surface and the meticulous manner in which the track is maintained. These track conditions contribute to the high-calibre racing performances by the F1 cars. When it is not hosting an event, the Circuit is where cycling, para-cycling, inline skating and running enthusiasts come to train.
From Saint Helena’s Island, we drove to our hotel in Montreal City for a well deserved rest and to explore the city next day.