Expo, or, the tale of two mayors

The recent election of David Miller as Toronto’s mayor produced a bubble of hope and pride for the city, the likes of which I hadn’t witnessed in my seven years living there. The politically apathetic (mostly due to lack of options on the ballot) became excited by the possibility of Miller in the Mayoral office, and seemed genuinely inspired by Miller’s victory.

And where there’s a bubble, there’s people eager to prick it. So along comes John Sewell (a former mayor of Toronto), who recently wrote a scathing indictment of Toronto’s tentative plans to prepare a bid to host the World’s Fair in 2015.

At this point in the tale, I will note for those who do not know: I love Toronto and consider Toronto my home, but I currently reside in Montréal, a city that has many charms and that I am growing quite fond of. To ever compare the two is rather unfair, since the two are so different: and preferring one over the other can be akin to saying you love your son more than your daughter, but I digress.

Despite their intimate relationship as (I will dare to say it) the two most culturally and economically important places in Canada, and both “world class” cities in their own right (Torontonians will get the joke), I will indeed attempt to compare situations in the case of the hotly-disputed potential World’s Fair bid.

Sewell launches his attack by directly asserting that Miller is walking into a trap with the World’s Fair bid. He suggests that the bid, should it go through, will divert funds and attention from other important matters in Toronto, such as the state of the port lands, the homeless, children, affordable housing, public transportation, and other causes that David Miller appeared sensitve to upon election.

Sewell’s points are well-taken, however, I find that perhaps he is too keen to raise his pin to Miller’s bubble of hope for Toronto. To summarize my counter-argument, I have a two-word response: Expo 67.

Jean Drapeau, who was mayor of Montréal during the Expo years, was seen as both heroic and daft. Heroic, for overseeing the introduction of Montréal’s Métro (a four-line subway system), Place Des Arts, the 1976 Olympics, and Expo 67. Daft, for the price tag attached to these items.

But make no mistake, these things changed the face of Montréal for the better, and certainly put it on the world map. Expo 67, in particular, raised Montréal’s proflle globally and remains a source of pride here. No one would deny that Expo was more than just an event, it was a massive undertaking. To go into the many virtues of Expo 67 here would also be a massive undertaking – instead, I suggest you indulge in a bit of Expo nostalgia at this excellent website.

The Métro was extended to go to the fair grounds, and the fair grounds themselves are still being actively used today. The grounds currently host the Biodome, La Ronde (an amusement park) and, a little further away but on the same man-made island, Montreal’s Casino.

There’s little doubt that Drapeau was a visionary. These events did spawn “colossal infrastructure binge”, as Sewell might describe it, and you can insert your own cheap shot at the Olympic Stadium here, but the fact remains that these events drew scores of first-time visitors to the city, raised civic pride, and, when planned correctly, can leave behind infrastructure than enhances rather than detracts from a city.

Perhaps Sewell doesn’t trust Miller and the current Council to plan correctly. He does, however, worry that this will unjustly tax the minds of the elites in Toronto, distracting them from other issues. Might I suggest that an undertaking of this size should occupy the minds of Toronto’s elite – to ensure that the project is a success and leaves a legacy that adds to city life.

So for the first time, and I hope it may be the last time, I suggest that Toronto (and perhaps English Canada in general) take a page from Montréal’s book. You don’t need to sacrifice social services and other essential things that make a city liveable because you have a World’s Fair. Perhaps the climate in Toronto is not right to support all of this at once – it it true that Québécers pay higher taxes. But I have heard no grumbling about the taxes here, because quality of life is paramount. Culture and large-scale events do not need to come at the cost of essential social services. To suggest that it must is a bogus argument, as I’m currently residing in the centre of living proof that it needn’t be so.

To achieve an undertaking such as Expo, while simultaneously paying due attention to more quotidian but pressing issues, would truly affirm Toronto’s world class status. If anyone is up to the task, is it not Miller and his team?

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