Île Notre-Dame

Montreal in the 1960s was quite the happening place. The Quiet Revolution was under way, rapidly transforming the socio-political culture of Quebec. Skyscrapers were being built at a rapid pace in the downtown core, and major projects initiated and/or supported by Mayor Jean Drapeau were changing the landscape of the city. The two most visible of these projects were the construction of a rapid transit metro system for the city (Métro de Montréal), and the most successful World’s Fair of the 20th Century, Expo 67. The convergence of these two projects would ultimately result in one of the world’s most famous artificial islands.

As a lifelong subject of Canadian television, I am obliged to link to the above Heritage Minute.

Having won the right to host the fair in 1962, Montreal found itself with a paucity of urban space in which to host the exposition. The solution? Build an island in the St. Lawrence River on some shallow mudflats (as well, the neighbouring Île Sainte-Hélène would also be enlarged). Between 1963 and 1965, 15 million tonnes of backfill extracted from the Métro tunnels were used to form the new island, and another 6.8 million tonnes were dredged from the St. Lawrence.The two islands were connected by a 690 metre-long bridge to the Island of Montreal.The new island was called Île Notre-Dame and featured an artificial lake at its south end known today as Lac des Régattes (Regatta Lake).

The next two years saw the construction of the various pavilions, buildings and infrastructure that would used to host Expo 67. The list is astounding:

-847 buildings

-27 bridges

-82 km of roadways and walkways

-37 km of sewers

-162 km of water, gas, power and light mains

-84.5 km of communication ducts

-88 500 km of communications wire and cable

-parking spaces for 24 484 vehicles

-79 hectares of sod

-14 950 trees

-898 000 small plants

-256 pools, fountains and sculptures

-6 200 bench seats

-4 330 garbage cans

-6 150 exterior lighting fixtures.

Île Notre-Dame itself hosted numerous pavilions at Expo as well as other attractions and services (click here for a map of the island as it appeared during the fair). 50 million people visited the fair during its April-to-October run.

After Expo 67, most of the buildings on the island went unmaintained and were either left to decay or were repurposed. Ultimately, it was decided to keep Île Notre-Dame and Île Sainte-Hélène as parkland (initially known as Parc des Îles, the park was renamed for Jean Drapeau after his 1999 death). Many of the Expo pavilions and buildings were removed in 1975 to facilitate the construction of a rowing basin for the 1976 Summer Olympics (another Drapeau pet project, but one that was not nearly as successful as Expo), the largest such basin in North America. Despite its artificial nature, the vegetation on Île Notre-Dame is quite lush. Already planted with trees and grasses for Expo, the island hosted an international horticultural competition in 1980 known as the Floralies Internationales, adding 25 hectares of gardens to the landscape (many of these gardens were built upon sites formerly occupied by old Expo buildings that had to be torn down to fit the competition onto the island). These gardens feature many varieties of plants that would not normally be able to grown in Montreal were it not for the microclimate created by Lac des Régattes. The lake itself is rimmed at the south end by a very popular beach. A large network of paths and cycling outs criss-cross the island.In winter, the rowing basin becomes a giant ice skating rink. For those not so interested in outdoor pursuits, the French and Quebecois pavilions were linked together in 1993 to create the Casino de Montréal, the largest casino in Canada.


Île Notre-Dame today. North is at the upper right.


Casino de Montréal. Source: H. Victorino, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Casino_de_Montreal.JPG. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Licence.

People outside of Montreal may know Île Notre-Dame best as the site of the Formula 1 Grand Prix of CanadaThe circuit was constructed for the 1978 edition of the race. During the rest of the year, the park is rather quiet other than the action going down at the casino, and the circuit becomes a public street with a speed limit of just 30 km/h (one of the few times in recent years that a purpose-built race course is used as a public road instead of the other way around). But for one week each summer, the park transforms into the site of one of the most popular and unique races on the F1 calendar. The track produces both some of the fastest and some of the most confined conditions to be found at the top level of motor racing, with many a car having met its doom at the infamous Quebec Wall (a.k.a. the ‘Wall of Champions’, thanks to the big names over the years who’ve seen their races end trying to navigate the corner). Regular recreational access to the island is closed during this week.


Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Source: W. Pittenger, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:%C3%8Ele_Notre-Dame_%28Circuit_Gilles_Villeneuve%29.svg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Animals have also made a home for themselves on the island, most notably groundhogs. The rodents cause major logistical issues each year for the Grand Prix, forcing park officials to trap as many as they can and remove them to Île Sainte-Hélène for the week in order to save them from running onto the track. In 2007, however, one did make it onto the track, only to find himself in the path of English driver Anthony Davidson and his Super Aguri. The accidental self-sacrifice of the ‘beaver’ (as Davidson identified it) damaged the front wing of the car and sent the Brit from third place down to eleventh after a replacement. Fortunately for both drivers and rodents, no other groundhogs have been turned into roadkill since.

Below, a flyover of Île Sainte-Hélène and Île Notre-Dame (when the flyover reaches Île Notre-Dame, the hairpin turn, the Casino de Montréal, the Quebec Wall, and the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve grandstand are readily recognisable):

Further Reading

Phillips, R. (2008). Peart left lasting legacy on Montreal. Montreal Gazette, 2 June 2008. Available at http://www.canada.com/cityguides/montreal/story.html?id=b02ebc09-c030-4583-9a45-d30cd2f973e6. Accessed 19 May 2011.

Société du parc Jean-Drapeau (2011). Parc Jean-Drapeau. Available at http://www.parcjeandrapeau.com/home.html. Accessed 19 May 2011.

Stanton, J. (2004). Building Expo 67. Expo 67 – Montreal’s World Fair. Available at http://www.westland.net/expo67/map-docs/buildingexpo.htm. Accessed 19 May 2011.

Vancouver Sun (2007). ‘Beaver’ gets all the blame. 12 June 2007. Available at http://www.canada.com/topics/travel/canada/AB/story.html?id=061eb1f5-2438-46a7-8474-2903cb9764e2 Accessed 19 May 2011.

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