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Do we dare think big again? After three decades of decline, stagnation and costly federalist-separatist battles, Montreal politicians have taken to looking in rear-view mirrors to the Drapeau era megaprojects, when the term 'Big O' could have stood for 'optimism' JAMES MENNIE, The Gazette Published: 10 hours ago "Of all the achievements of the Drapeau administration," says Paul-André Linteau, a professor of history at the Université du Québec à Montréal, "Expo 67 occupies a special place in our collective imagination. "When we marked the 40th anniversary of Expo last year, it was heavily covered by the media, and full of teary-eyed, nostalgic baby boomers recalling the extraordinary summer they spent at Expo 67. "But often we experience a kind of deformation of memory that sees an individual's recollection transformed into something the entire community believes it experienced. Not everybody had a great summer in 1967, but the boomers expressing themselves on TV or radio (create) a strong, positive perception of Expo 67." Nostalgia is a valuable commodity in politics. Candidates who campaign on a platform of change usually depict their promises through the prism of the past. U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama hearkens to a day when the United States was economically strong and enjoyed the world's respect and opponent John McCain speaks of a simpler age when ordinary people had a role in determining what direction their country took. How much truth exists in either version of the past is debatable, but it makes for good oratory. Locally, where the political stakes may be less, the good old days aren't hard to locate. After 30 years of economic decline, an exodus of taxpayers to the suburbs and political trench warfare that pitted separatists against federalists, Montreal politicians in the here and now are hard pressed to rally the electorate to the promise of a better tomorrow. They've decided, instead, to stake their political futures on the memory of a better yesterday - in fact, a very specific collection of yesterdays from April 27 to Oct. 29, 1967, the golden days of Expo and a mayor named Jean Drapeau. The latest example occurred last week, when municipal opposition leader Benoit Labonté announced that he wanted Montrealers to work together to submit their city as a candidate to host the Universal Exposition for 2020. Brandishing a pair of passports from Expo 67, Labonté said the fair evokes memories of "the greatness of Montreal ... of a time when everything seemed possible. "The future seemed to belong to us, and it was probably the biggest moment of collective pride felt by Montrealers in the 20th century." Arguing that a second exposition could jump-start Montreal as a world class metropolis, Labonté invited all Montrealers - including Mayor Gérald Tremblay- to join in an effort to bring the show here. While some news organizations reported that Labonté's plan seemed to come out of the blue, the opposition leader had hinted broadly at it during an interview with The Gazette in May, saying that Montrealers needed a common cause they could focus their energies on and noting that the last time such a sentiment existed here was between Expo 67 and the 1976 summer Olympics. Whatever the genesis of Labonté's invitation, it was dismissed by city hall three hours after being made. "We like to dream with our eyes open," said Montreal executive committee member Alan De Sousa, describing Labonté's plan as "an electoral balloon." De Sousa's response wasn't totally unexpected, but it ignored the fact that pointing to the Drapeau-era as an inspiration for the future isn't a ploy invented by the municipal opposition. Tremblay has never spoken publicly about staging another world's fair here, but three years ago he did float the idea of luring another major event from the Drapeau-era back to Montreal. In August 2005 and flushed by the apparent success of the World Aquatics Championships, Tremblay mused that "Montreal will not wait another 30 years to renew acquaintances with the world," and that the city would "think" about bidding for the 2016 Olympic Games. Even though the idea went over like a lead balloon, the mayor's reverence for the Montreal of a generation ago came to the fore in speeches given during the 40th anniversary of Expo 67. "We owe to Jean Drapeau a great part of Montreal's recognition and international growth," Tremblay told a Board of Trade lunch as a slide show of Expo 67 pavilions flickered behind him. "Expo was a great project that marked our history and our imagination - an audacious project, the expression of an immense confidence in ourselves, in our capacity to create and invent." Even Projet Montréal, an opposition party holding one seat on city council and an equal amount of contempt for Tremblay and Labonté's policies, isn't immune from the lure of Expo. Party leader Richard Bergeron once observing that if Drapeau had dithered as much as the present administration, "the métro would never have been built." But while Linteau acknowledges that changes were afoot in Montreal and Quebec in 1967, it would be a mistake to think it was a magical time for Montreal. "The '60s were exceptional years," he says. "It was the Kennedy years in the United States. "We often look only at what Quebec was going through, but we were in the middle of a universe in transition." In fact, while the year may be remembered through rose-coloured mists, the reality was that the bloom was already leaving this city. Linteau acknowledges the optimism of the time - "when you consider all the projects that were being proposed, we thought there'd be 7 million people living in Montreal by 1980, that there would be 15 million visitors at Montreal airport by the end of the 1970s." But, he adds, "that optimism was quickly deflated because Expo occurred about the same time the decline of Montreal began. "Drapeau didn't care. Economic development and things of that nature were too trivial for him. He didn't notice our being overtaken by Toronto which, even by 1960, had passed Montreal as a major metropolis." Linteau notes that people usually like to be a part of something bigger than themselves. "A lot of humanity's monuments are the result of policies of grandeur and waste," he says. "Big projects are a bit megalomanical, but they get things moving, create change. "What's certain is that it's been a long while since we had that kind of project in Montreal. Just look at the bickering over the superhospitals." [email protected]