As Canada turns 149, we still enjoy our centennial legacy

As Canada enters its 150th year today, its last mega-birthday bash in 1967 continues to have a lasting legacy. The centennial celebration was meant as a way to modernize the country and bring it onto the world stage.

From Expo 67 to a UFO landing pad, over 2,000 projects helped modernize the country

As Canada's secretary of state, Judy LaMarsh oversaw the nation's 1967 centennial celebrations. LaMarsh was the second woman to serve as a federal cabinet minister. (Canadian Press)

As Canada celebrates its 149th birthday, the nation's last mega-birthday bash — for its centennial in 1967 — continues to have a lasting legacy.

How could we forget? The federal government spent $85 million, equivalent to about $610 million today, on infrastructure and events dedicated to the arts, culture, leisure and sports.

The celebration was meant as a way to modernize the country and bring it onto the world stage. The program was designed to reach the maximum number of Canadians —  20.4 million, compared to more than 36 million today.

Former prime minister John Diefenbaker announced the start of centennial planning in 1959, establishing a commission four years later to manage the related projects.

By the time Lester B. Pearson took over as prime minister in 1963, the planning was in full swing. Canada's then-secretary of state Judy LaMarsh presided over the Centennial Commission.

The celebration stretched from coast to coast to coast. According to the federal government, more than 2,000 projects were completed by 1967. In what seems like almost every city, in every province and territory, something built for the centennial still stands.

The Montreal Biosphere began its life as the United States Pavilion during Expo 67. Designed by architect Buckminster Fuller, the geodesic dome is now home to an environmental museum. (Library and Archives Canada)

Montreal's Expo 67, dubbed Man and His World, is widely considered to be the crown jewel in Canada's centennial celebrations. But really, it wasn't originally intended to be part of Canada's centennial at all. Rather, according to the Library and Archives Canada, the two events were later linked because the centennial organizers feared the national celebration would be overshadowed by Expo 67's grandeur.

Expo 67 — which featured 90 provincial, national and thematic pavilions — cost the municipal, provincial and federal governments more than $431 million (that's $3 billion-plus in 2016 money), though the world's fair ended up performing better than expected when it earned $221 million in revenues. 
Habitat 67 in Montreal is one of Canada’s most recognizable buildings. It originally contained 158 apartments, but several have been merged. Today its units routinely sell for more than $500,000. (Canadian Press)

Centennial structures that still stand today include Habitat 67, Notre Dame Island, the Biosphere and the La Ronde amusement park. Although the Montreal Metro wasn't created specifically for Expo 67, the fair informed the creation of some stations and helped set the pace at which others were built.

Additionally, Notre-Dame Island is made up of the 15 million tonnes of backfill and rock excavated during the building of the Metro.

Ottawa's National Arts Centre was a centennial project, though it only opened to the public in 1969 because of construction delays. It's currently undergoing extensive renovations.

The National Library and Archives building in Ottawa was also a centennial project, as was the Centennial Flame at Parliament Hill, which was lit on Jan. 1, 1967. The flame was meant to be temporary but due to its popularity it still burns.

The Centennial Flame was lit in Ottawa on Jan. 1, 1967. (Canadian Press)

In Toronto, the annual Caribana festival was launched during the centennial as a gift from Canada's West Indian and Caribbean people to Canada.

Other Toronto centennial projects include the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts and Centennial Centre for Science and Technology (now known as the Ontario Science Centre).

According to a document on centennial libraries found on the University of Guelph website, about five per cent of the money doled out by the Centennial Commission went toward building libraries, and Ontario was a large beneficiary.

About 75 libraries were built, renovated or expanded as part of the centennial — about half of the total number of centennial library projects in the whole country.

Other money went to the Canadian Library Association to microfilm newspapers during the Confederation period from 1862 to 1873. The national library also received a massive collection of 3,500 pieces of music from Canadian musicians and composers, assembled by Edward Moogk as a centennial project.

Montreal mayor and empire-builder Jean Drapeau, second from left, is joined by Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger at the inauguration of the first MR-63 railcar for Montreal`s Metro in August 1965. The cars were built by Canadian Vickers, which is now owned by Bombardier. (City of Montreal Archives)

Moogk later became the custodian of the national library's music collection, a role he fulfilled until his death in 1979.

He's to thank for the largest (and publicly accessible) collection of Canadian music in the country. As the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame wrote of Moogk upon his posthumous induction, "Without him, much of Canada's rich musical heritage would be lost." 
Oscar Peterson and his father, Daniel, playing piano in the 1940s. Peterson deposited his archives, including photos, recordings and personal documents, with Library and Archives Canada in the 1990s. (Library and Archives Canada)

Among the other massive projects undertaken for the centennial are a number of things that don't exist anymore — but they had a major impact on people at the time.

The Confederation Train, for example, was a travelling Canadian history exhibit aboard six display railcars. It started its journey in Victoria on Jan. 9, 1967 and chugged all the way to the Maritimes, stopping for city visits along the way.

At a stop in Montreal on Sept. 7, 1967, the train was damaged by a group of protesters decrying the perceived whitewashing of the Acadian expulsion (the Great Upheaval) of 1755 and general treatment of Canada's French speakers. Still, it was a very popular exhibit, attracting nearly three million visitors on its cross-country trek.

Caribana performers dance to the Tradewinds band at Toronto city hall in 1967 as Mayor William Dennison looks on. (York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds)

A cross-Canada canoe race was, like the Confederation Train, meant to be an exercise in national unity. Representatives from eight provinces and two territories followed a route that began in the Rocky Mountains and extended to Montreal over the summer of 1967.

The 100 participants rowed and portaged more than 5,000 kilometres. In 2017, the Voyageur Brigade Society hopes to replicate the race as a celebration of Canada's 150th.

Other notable projects built for the centennial include P.E.I.'s Confederation Centre Of the Arts, Saskatchewan's Surveyors' Monument, Manitoba's Centennial Concert Hall, Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Miners' Museum and the Halifax Centennial Swimming Pool, and Yukon's Tartan and territorial flag.

A permanent Yukon reminder is the Centennial Range in the St. Elias Mountains. Each province and territory, except for Nunavut, which was then in the Northwest Territories, has a peak named after it.

And Baker Lake, Nunavut has a curling rink.

Among the hundreds of historic monuments, museums, libraries, cultural centres and other projects were several more lighthearted items.

The UFO landing pad in St. Paul is the world’s first welcome mat for our alien visitors. (Heterodyne/Wikipedia)

The UFO landing pad in St. Paul, Alta., is one of them. The government-sponsored alien welcome mat landed St. Paul the title of Centennial Capital of Canada, and it continues to operate as an exhibit on extraterrestrials. It's also the world's first (official) UFO landing pad.

According to the town's website, "This is an opportunity to view actual photographs of UFOs, crop circles and cattle mutilations."

If that's not an enduring legacy, what is?


Tracey Lindeman


Tracey Lindeman is a freelance reporter based in Ottawa and Montreal. She contributes to Associated Press, The Guardian, CityLab and CBC.