World

Canada's modest offering at Expo 2020 hopes to sell people on more than just scenery

With 192 countries jostling for attention at Expo 2020 in Dubai, Canada chose a characteristically understated way to make its mark with its $40-million pavilion. But with interest in world's fairs waning in this interconnected digital age, does even the flashiest display make much of an impact?

Visitors to Canada's pavilion at Expo 2020 in Dubai share their reviews

Inside the 360° theatre in the Canadian pavilion at Expo 2020 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. A seven-minute video shows visitors scenes from life in Canada. (Jean Levasseur/Global Affairs Canada)

With 192 countries jostling for attention at the world's fair in Dubai, Canada chose a characteristically understated way to make its mark, putting up a simple display in its $40-million pavilion that presents the country as a nation of innovators, creatives and prosperity with more to offer than beautiful scenery. 

But with interest in world's fairs waning in recent decades and mega-events like Expo becoming less relevant in an interconnected world, some observers have questioned whether even the flashiest of pavilions can leave enough of an impression to justify the billions of dollars spent on the event. (In 2019, auditors in the United Arab Emirates estimated Expo construction projects alone would cost $2.4 billion.)

Expo 2020 opened in Dubai on Oct. 1, 2021, after a year's delay due to the pandemic and runs until the end of March 2022.

The Canadian pavilion, commissioned by Global Affairs Canada, sits in the so-called sustainability district and is a large, round building cloaked in a lattice of timber — the circular shape representing unity — designed by Toronto-based Moriyama & Teshima architects and built by EllisDon Construction. 

Canada's pavilion cost $40 million. It was designed by Toronto-based Moriyama & Teshima Architects and built by EllisDon Construction. Its round shape is meant to signify unity. (Gerry O'Leary/NFB)

Outside the pavilion, visitors encounter an interactive art installation composed of a series of cubes featuring birds "fossilized in mid-flight" and other objects symbolizing the threat to species and ecosystems posed by climate change.

The exhibit, called Traces, was created by the National Film Board and Montreal-based architecture firm Kanva.

One of eight cubes that make up the Traces art installation outside Canada's pavilion. (Gerry O'Leary/NFB)

Inside, visitors are taken into a holding room where a staff member explains the significance of bird life to Canada. People then move through to the pavilion's 360° theatre, which shows a seven minute video with panoramic shots of Canadian landscapes interspersed with clips of Canada's "innovations" — scenes from the country's COVID-19 response, wind farms, ports and people working in the agriculture and fishing industries.

In the holding room at the entrance of the Canadian pavilion, seen here, visitors learn about the country's bird life. (Jean Levasseur/Global Affairs Canada)

It's a simple offering compared to the pavilions of other countries.

The United States has a huge exhibit viewed by boarding a conveyor belt; Germany's multi-level building includes a ball pit and a theatre with swings; and visitors to the U.K. pavilion participate in a crowd-sourced poem compiled by artificial intelligence.

Visitors inside the German pavilion, which includes a ball pit, left. (Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images)

More than nice landscapes

Marie-Geneviève Mounier, the government official in charge of Canada's Expo exhibit, said the pavilion aims to get people to see the country as more than just "a nice place to visit."

"We're trying to attract [people] with the iconic images that people know about our Great Lakes and forests and our beautiful landscapes, but we also are a very innovative society," Mounier said.

"There's a big tradition of innovation in Canada, and we're not known so much for that."

WATCH | Take a look inside the Canadian pavilion:

Robert W. Rydell, a historian of world's fairs and former professor of history at Montana State University, says country pavilions should do more than simply attract tourists.

"It's just such a missed opportunity if you set your sights so low," he said.

"The medium has the potential to do so much more."

A man takes a video inside the Russian pavilion during the first day of Expo 2020 in Dubai on Oct. 1. (Kamran Jebreili/The Associated Press)

Pavilions, and the Expo as a whole, should be about presenting viable solutions to modern-day problems, he said.

"There's an opportunity through these expositions to influence public opinion in ways that are not completely possible via the internet or via whatever kind of social media, because it can get several million people who can afford to travel to see your pavilion to come and learn about you," Rydell said.

A visitor snaps a picture of one of the displays in the Japanese pavilion. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)

There were 411,000 visits, including repeat visits, in the first 10 days of Expo from 175 countries, according to officials, with one-third of those being tourists.

With that captive audience, Rydell said, countries should be spending money "not to get noticed but to have particular national, even international solutions, that are coming from your country to these problems getting noticed."

People visit the U.S. pavilion at Expo 2020 on Oct. 3. Inside, visitors ride a conveyor belt to view the exhibit. (Kamran Jebreili/The Associated Press)

World's fairs aren't what they used to be

Louise Weinberg, former world's fair archive manager at the Queens Museum in New York, says that's difficult, because world's fairs are no longer as ambitious as they once were.

While earlier expositions were about "unbridled optimism in the future" and presenting new technologies, architecture and innovations that were "larger than life," modern-day fairs have to compete with a digital world where all that is already easily available at a person's fingertips.

Expos of old were about showing off innovations and new technologies. The kaleidoscope pavilion at Expo '67 in Montreal featured 112 painted fins that created a wall of vivid colours. Inside, a light show demonstrated how colours change as the sun rises and sets and how they can provoke different physical and psychological reactions. (Ron Case/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"At the inception of the fairs, it was about bringing the world to you … it's really difficult to be relevant today," she said.

"There was this kind of naiveté and innocence about it, and we don't have that anymore. We know too much."

She said Expo pavilions should present ideas and information like museums do in a way that is relevant and meaningful and opens up people's minds.

People take pictures in front of the U.K. pavilion at Expo 2020 on Oct. 3. Visitors to the pavilion participate in a crowd-sourced poem compiled by artificial intelligence. (Kamran Jebreili/The Associated Press)

The people visiting Canada's pavilion last week had more modest reactions.

CBC News spoke to 12 people exiting the pavilion on Oct. 5. Most either had not noticed or did not understand the bird installation. For the majority, the Canadian landscape was still the main takeaway.

"They gave me a nice idea about Canada," said Emirati Hamad Albalushi. "I will try to visit, inshallah, soon." 

Irene Berthod travelled to Dubai from Italy specially for Expo. The Canadian pavilion was one of the first she'd seen. 

"The pavilion is something really fantastic because you see all of Canada — the health, the nature and the community. I feel like in a few seconds, you can feel what Canadians do, and that is absolutely awesome."

Canada's pavilion is less flashy than some of the others at the multibillion-dollar event. (Jean Levasseur/Global Affairs Canada)

George Elamatha, from Salmon Arm, B.C., travelled to the U.A.E. to see Expo and visit his daughter, who lives in Dubai. 

Elamatha, who attended the Montreal Expo in 1967, said the display "gave a snapshot of what the country is all about" but said he didn't understand the "connection with the birds."

"Maybe we could have highlighted the human potential in the country better. But that said, it's very hard to do that in a small synoptic kind of way."

The Iranian pavilion at the Dubai Expo 2020, which runs until the end of March 2022. (Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images)

Future participation up in the air

Despite itself hosting two expos, the one in Montreal and the Specialized Expo in 1986 in Vancouver, since 2012, Canada has been one of only a handful of countries that is no longer a member of the Bureau International des Expositions, the intergovernmental organization in charge of overseeing and regulating World Expos. It opted out of the last Expo, in Milan in 2015.

While a spokesman for the Canadian team refused to say whether Canada would rejoin the exhibitions bureau, he said a report would be submitted to the government after the Dubai Expo wraps up in March 2022 that "will inform decisions on Canada's future participation."

The era of expos isn't what it used to be. Here an overhead railway leads to the United States pavilion, designed by Buckminster Fuller, at Expo '67 in Montreal. (Ron Case/Keystone Features/Getty Images)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashleigh Stewart is an investigative journalist from New Zealand now living in Toronto, via stints in Dubai, Tokyo and Jakarta. She's particularly interested in stories about mental health, inequality and underrepresented communities. Outside of work, you'll find her on a ski field or a mountain trail. Follow her on Twitter @ash_stewart_ or email her on ashleigh.stewart@cbc.ca.

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