By: Dick Nieuwendyk – mtltimes.ca
In 1611, French explorer Samuel de Champlain named the island, south of the Island of Montreal in the St. Lawrence River, in honour of his young wife, Hélène de Champlain, née Boullé. From 1665 until 1818, it belonged to the Le Moyne family of Longueuil. In 1818 it was purchased by the British government, who built a fort on the island as a defence for Montreal after the War of 1812.
The Canadian government acquired the island in 1870, and converted it into a park with a public beach in 1874. In the late 1930s, during the Great Depression, under the administration of Montreal mayor Camille Houde, a chalet was built using stone quarried on the island. Initially meant to be a sports pavilion, it was built as a make-work project, a relief project using large numbers of unemployed workers. Designed by Émile Daoust, a Montreal architect it resembled a Norman château. The grounds were designed by landscape architect Frederick Todd. In 1955 the building became a restaurant and named Hélène de Champlain Restaurant.
Saint Helen’s Island was chosen as the site of Montreal’s World Fair, Expo 67. The island was greatly enlarged and consolidated with several nearby islands, using earth excavated during the construction of the Montreal metro. In 1966, the building was renovated and became the official residence for Expo 67’s Commissioner General, Pierre Dupuy. It had a Hall of Honour next to the main dining room that was used by Mayor Jean Drapeau as a reception centre for visiting dignitaries and heads of state. During Expo 67, this elegant restaurant welcomed many prestigious guests, such as Queen Elizabeth II, Maurice Chevalier, Princess Grace of Monaco,
Harry Belafonte, Jacqueline Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and many more. A reception for French President Charles de Gaulle was held here after he delivered his controversial “Vive le Québec libre” speech on July 24, 1967, from the balcony at Montreal’s City Hall.
After Expo, the site continued to be used as a fairground under the name Man and His World. Most of the Expo pavilions were dismantled and the island was returned to parkland. Although the restaurant was loosing money, it stayed open until 1977, when it was closed because of a labour dispute. In 1983, the City leased the building to Pierre Marcotte, who operated the restaurant until 2010. The city of Montréal decided not renew the lease and closed the restaurant indefinitely for major renovations, though, after a $16 million overhaul of the old building, it might reopen by 2017.
Source: Ville de Montréal / Mtl Gazette / Parc Jean-Drapeau