Expo 67: the world is made of ideas

The US Pavilion for Expo '67, which now houses the Montreal Biosphere Museum.

When I was ten years old, my family went to Expo 67, the Man and his World Fair in Montréal.  I remember this as an astonishing event: the passports, the pavilions, the monorail, the people.  Canada was 100 years old, and Montréal’s sights were toward the future, not the past.  It was an exciting time.

In fact, I think it might have been more than an exciting time.  I think it was a time when the world became seized with innovation, invention, creativity, and a sense of wonder and possibility.  Expo 67 was just one example of this. That sense of possibility informed the excitement of Pierre Trudeau’s election the following year.  It informed the music and overwhelming experience of Jimi Hendrix, and many other artists.  It is no coincidence that scientific laws discovered at the time refer to “universality classes”, where properties are “self-similar”.  In fact whatever was in the air was so pervasive, it was in commercial advertisements, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…” went the jingle for Coca-Cola. It was the common language and mind-set of the times: the ideas of equality of opportunity for all people, and particularly of living now, in the present.  There was some sloppy thinking as well: “being here now” can lead to nihilism, where surrender to the realm of the senses becomes the only objective.  In any case, it is easy to recognize this ideology in hindsight; it was the language of the enlightenment, of naturalism and humanism, expressed in the streets rather than in scholarly tomes. It was a world consensus, empowering but more fragile than thought at the time; elements of this consensus remain in place – and indeed this ideology forms the basis of the meritocracies which constitute modern Universities – but it is no longer a public ideology.

It came crashing to a halt in the early seventies in a manner that is remarkably difficult to understand.  By then that consensus – that any of us could contribute and improve the world in a positivistic liberal manner – had largely disappeared.  Within Québec, all air was out of the Expo 67 balloon no later than the 1976 Montréal Olympics.  The excitement of “Man and his World” nine years before was replaced by a grotesque over-priced failure. Trudeau’s legacy in Canada remains controversial, and though I would speak in favor of it, no one would claim that it reflects the heady and exciting days of Trudeau-mania in 1968.  For Hendrix, too many sleeping pills after a long day at work led to his death in 1970 – but it is more revealing to look at artists who did not leave the optimistic sunshine of the sixties in a hearse; consider Bob Dylan: brilliant then, all of his work in the last forty years does not equal what he did in one year in the sixties.

This sense of fin de siècle permeates the arts and world politics of the early 1970’s.  The physical world did not change much in those few years following 1967, but our world is made of ideas, and those had shifted and changed.  The process of such a paradigm shift is, by its nature, invisible.  But the emergence of new ways of thinking rewards those who are prepared, as the world can be changed by a correct idea.

At McGill I see many of the necessary elements for a new way of thinking, or rather an old way of thinking I remember from 1967, the summer of love at Expo. Montréal retains its vivant unique character, an international city like no other in North America, multi-cultural and multi-lingual.  Almost 20% of the city’s population speak three or more languages.  Remember I am speaking about a city in North America.  McGill reflects this character well, as well or better than our sister Universities in Montréal, particularly when you recall that McGill is an institution founded by a Scotsman and usually labeled “Anglophone”: most of our students speak at least two languages, and fully 20% are from outside Canada. Furthermore, the values of excellence and respect for achievement have been and are central to McGill.  I have been at McGill since 1986. I have never seen a greater potential for our school. When I examine the historical record, we have not been at this point for, literally, a century. Through careful planning, through hard work, through happenstance, all indications are that McGill will move from being a strong national University, and become one of the world’s Grandes Ecoles.  My view is that, as we do this, our students must be integrated into our academic mission in a seamless way. This is our unique advantage to go forward, to retain our great new professors, to have them build their careers here, to achieve excellence. There is no question but that our primary influence is through our students, through the added value of their research and education.

Now is the time for McGill, and indeed and in consequence for Montréal and Québec to step forward.  Montréal was the historical leader in education and research in Canada before our country even existed.  It is time for us to take up that role again, leveraging McGill’s strengths and the multi-cultural and multi-lingual nature of our great city, for the good of our families, our city, our province, and our country.  We have an opportunity we have not had for a long time.  Now is the time to act, and face outwards and not inwards, to consolidate and build upon our gains, and retake our place of leadership in innovation, teaching, and research.

Much has changed and much has not changed at McGill, a Québec University founded by a Scotsman almost two centuries ago.  It remains an Institution in which Montréalers and all Québecers can take pride, and which can be as important for us in this century as it has been for the last two.

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