Thirty years after the World's Fair came to Vancouver, Megaphone looks back at how Expo 86's deficit, labour disputes and housing evictions forever changed the city and province's landscape.
By Jesse Donaldson
When the gates first opened in May of 1986, few could debate Expo was the most extravagant celebration Vancouver had ever seen: 165 days, 54 countries, 173 acres of fairground, 22 million attendees, 70 restaurants, 43,000 entertainment performances, 25,000 workers, and $491 million in revenue.
“Tomorrow's calling!” gushed the official theme song, Something's Happening Here. “The future's ours to share!”
But behind the music, and fireworks, and unrestrained civic boosterism, there was a dark side to the fair: Five months of labour disputes; a $311 million deficit; more than 700 evictions—all of them involving Vancouver’s most vulnerable; 11 deaths.
These are stories that have been largely ignored in the 30 years since Expo invited the world. Stories of mass displacement, a ruthless disregard for labour unions, government indifference to the poor, and ultimately a contribution to the affordability crisis that still plagues Vancouver today.
“At first Expo was to be a transportation fair,” explains University of B.C. geographer and professor David Ley, “to try to leverage federal funds for building the SkyTrain.
But it morphed into Expo with a much broader economic development objective to advertise B.C. to the world. Fairs and other major leisure events—like the Olympics—are often used in this way. The technical term is ‘place marketing.'”
Set the world in motion
In the years leading up to Expo, B.C. was in deep economic trouble. A housing market bubble had burst. The economy had shrunk by 8 per cent. Unemployment was in the double-digits. The province—formerly a hub for resource extraction—needed a new strategy, and the right-wing Social Credit government responded, cutting social programs, restricting union rights, and initiating a series of neoliberal, market-based reforms intended to reboot the province’s sagging economy and rebrand B.C. as a hub for global capital.
And tying it all together would be a prominent piece of place marketing: a world’s fair.
At first, the event (originally called “Transpo 86”) was slated to be a relatively modest endeavour—$80 million in expenditures—to celebrate Vancouver's Centennial and secure federal funds for infrastructure, including a convention centre, a stadium, and a rapid transit line.
The exposition would be held on the shores of False Creek, then an industrial site contaminated with toxic chemicals, and to oversee things, the Transpo 86 Corporation brought in American theme park expert Michael Bartlett. Under Bartlett's direction, the fair transformed into a world exposition, and its budget ballooned into the hundreds of millions—a development which eventually got him fired and replaced by local business tycoon Jimmy Pattison.
“The premier asked me if I would get involved, and I thought about it for a week,” Pattison recalls. “He said it would only take a couple of hours on a Friday afternoon, so I took on the job.” He chuckles. “Of course, it turned out that it took a little bit longer than that.”
Not long after Queen Elizabeth II turned on a concrete mixer at the future site of the Canada Pavilion, the Expo site was beset with labour difficulties so massive, it threatened to shut down the fair altogether.
In the early 1980s, B.C.'s trades were highly unionized, and with $600 to $900 million in contracts at stake, Expo could have represented a substantial financial windfall for the province's tradespeople. However, the Bill Bennett government was no friend to labour unions, and with the fair's budget spinning out of control, they opted to award the building contract for the False Creek site to Kerkhoff and Sons, a nonunion construction firm. Response from unionized workers and the BC Federation of Labour was swift; in the spring of 1984, union workers picketed the site, even in spite of a BC Supreme Court ruling that such picketing was illegal. Work was halted for five months. In an interview with the Globe and Mail, BC Fed spokesman Arthur Kube called it "the first effort on the part of the provincial government to declare this province non-union and force the whole thing into a deunionization mode. That is an attack on the total trade union movement".
Then things got really ugly. After briefly threatening to cancel the fair, Bennett stepped in and mandated a minimum wage for non-union contractors (still well below the union rate). However, Kerkhoff and the Expo site were conspicuously exempt—in fact, spokesperson Martin Kerkhoff noted in an interview with the Globe and Mail that the company was under no obligation to adopt the fair-wage standard, and would instead pay “whatever we feel like."
Construction on the Expo site eventually came in $8 million under-budget, largely on the backs of its workers, all of whom were paid substantially less than union wage.
“It is clear that, like other fairs, Expo 86 was an elite creation,” Ley wrote in a 1988 paper, “foisted upon a mass public from above. Indeed, even powerful actors like the Mayor of Vancouver and construction unions were steamrollered into compliance.”
Spinning a heartbeat faster
While workers and the labour movement were undeniably affected by the arrival of Expo, nowhere was the fair's impact felt more acutely than in Vancouver’s most vulnerable community: the Downtown Eastside. According to data compiled by the Downtown Eastside Residents’ Association (DERA), close to 800 people—all of them on social assistance—were evicted from SRO hotels between 1984 and 1986 by owners eager to cash in on Expo tourist traffic.
“It may seem insignificant to most people, but the impact Expo had on the Downtown Eastside was devastating,” recalls Karen O'Shannacery, founder of Lookout Emergency Aid Society. “It was incredibly personally devastating. We had people in tears when they got those notices.
“These weren't hotel rooms that people were renting for the night. These were people's homes. They'd be living an average of 20 to 30 years there. It was the second most stable community in Vancouver after the Dunbar area. This was a home.”
As early as 1983, neighbourhood advocates like O'Shannacery and the late Jim Green, of DERA, began taking steps to stop what they suspected would be a slew of evictions. DERA in particular took a leading role; they researched world's fair events in Seattle, Knoxville, and Los Angeles.
They lobbied all levels of government, pleading for rent freezes and no-evictions clauses in the SRO hotels. They made presentations to city hall, and chaired public meetings. They even came up with specific policy ideas, in collaboration with the city's Social Planning Department.
At every level they were ignored.
The BC Hotel Association denied that any evictions would take place. Alderman George Puil called neighbourhood activists “scaremongers” and NPA Councillor (future mayor and premier) Gordon Campbell accused advocates of “trying to set up a bunch of straw men and burn them down.”
And once the evictions began in earnest, the official response grew even more callous. Quoted in the New York Times, Premier Bennett called the displacements “a once in a generation chance to redevelop what has become a seedy slum.” Social Credit advisor Michael Walker suggested that Downtown Eastside residents could “save everyone a lot of trouble if they all were put on buses to the Kootenays.”
“It was very scary,” O'Shannacery recalls.
“It was scary for the people living in the hotels, it was scary for people who had to stay in our shelters. There was a lot of fear, and there was a lot of anger. Because it didn't seem to matter what you did. Even if you followed all the rules of the game—you went through the process, you wrote the letters, you did everything—it didn't matter. So you'd go out and demonstrate, and it still didn't matter. People felt hopeless.”
Despite aggressive lobbying by community organizations, no rent-control provisions were ever enacted. No anti-eviction clauses were mandated. Left with few options, many SRO residents were forced into lower-quality hotels.
Others had to return to shelters, or were faced with abandoning their community and being shipped to the suburbs. Some committed suicide. At least 11 deaths were directly related to the displacements by the end of 1986, including 50-year-old Daniel Stephen Ponak, who leapt to his death after being evicted from the Patricia Hotel, and 88-year-old Olaf Solheim, who starved to death weeks after having his door torn off for refusing to leave his room.
“If you take an older person who's been living in the same room for 30 to 40 years, you don't realize that the impact of a displacement—or even a careful relocation—can be absolutely devastating,” explains retired housing advocate Judy Graves, the city’s first (and only) in-house homeless advocate, who worked closely with the neighbourhood for decades. “You might not know that they’re suffering from dementia; as long as they're in the same room, they know where to find the Harbour Light food line, they know where to find their doctor. But you move them down the block, where they have to turn a different direction, they're completely lost. You can go back a month later and find they haven't eaten.”
O'Shannacery is more direct. “Expo 86 killed people,” she says flatly. “It killed people in the Downtown Eastside. They wanted to duck that, but it's real. And knowing some of those people, it's real to me. Thirty years later, it's real to me. That should not happen.”
According to DERA’s research, 791 people were evicted in the lead-up to the fair. Ultimately, none of the SRO hotels made any money from Expo tourist traffic.
The promise of tomorrow
In the end, Expo 86 was considered an overwhelming success, giving the Social Credit government a 15 per cent increase in popular support, and in the next election (held 15 days after Expo closed), they were reelected by what was then the largest majority in B.C.'s history.
Yet, despite crowing by politicians and the business elite, the festival itself was not a financial success. In fact, it closed with a $311 million deficit, which it repaid through the creation of Lotto 6/49. That means the poor ultimately repaid Expo’s debt, as research shows that 60 per cent of lottery players come from the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic spectrum.
Looking around the Vancouver of today, reminders of Expo are everywhere: Science World, BC Place, the Skytrain. But Expo's legacy goes far beyond the buildings it left behind. As David Ley explains, the fair's lasting impact was its role in jumpstarting the city's runaway cycle of unaffordability.
“Expo did act as a point of re-orientation of B.C. from an industrial to a postindustrial economy,” Ley notes, “and from a strict North American focus to one that thought in trans-Pacific terms.”
With the economy flagging, B.C.'s political and business elites, alongside the federal government, sought to rebrand the province as a hub for global capital—in particular, Pacific Rim trade. In the lead-up to Expo, civic and provincial politicians undertook a series of trade missions to Asia, both to publicize the fair, and to encourage investment by wealthy entrepreneurs.
Much of that money eventually ended up in real estate; beginning with the 1988 sale of the entire Expo site to billionaire Li Ka-Shing (owner of Concord Pacific and the richest man in Hong Kong at the time) for the paltry sum of $320 million. B.C.'s government successfully recast local real estate as a commodity for the global elite—not just from China, but all over the world—a decision that has had far-reaching consequences.
“You go back 30 years, Vancouver was very affordable—unlike today,” Pattison agrees. “We certainly noticed an increase in interest in business opportunities after the fair, and of course, real estate was one of them. [...] And there's no question that Expo 86 was the catalyst.”
“I think the really key issue was selling the Expo site to Li Ka-Shing and his group of Hong Kong tycoons,” says Ley. “That caught people’s attention in East Asia and property investment and wealth migration to B.C. took off. By the early ’90s Vancouver had passed Toronto to become Canada’s most expensive real estate market, and it has never looked back—for better or for worse.”
Or, as a Vancouver Sun Expo survey respondent put it, somewhat ominously, in the fall of 1986: "Let's not worry about the deficit. Let's just accept it. The party's over. Let's pay for it now."