Though seen as a patriotic duty and a sacrifice to help win the war, prohibition was also the culmination of generations of effort by TEMPERANCE workers to close the bars and taverns, which were the sources of much drunkenness and misery in an age before social welfare existed. The main temperance organizations were the Dominion Alliance for the Total Suppression of the Liquore Traffic and the WOMAN'S CHRISTIAN TEMPERANCE UNION, whose organ was the Canadian White Ribbon Tidings. Various legislative successes occurred in the nineteenth century such as the passage of the Dunkin Act in the United Province of Canada in 1864, which allowed any county or municipality to prohibit the retail sale of liquor by majority vote; in 1878 this "local option " was extended to the whole Dominion under the Canada Temperance Act, or Scott Act.
By 1898 the temperance forces were strong enough to force a national plebiscite on the issue, but the government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier felt the majority of 13 687 in favour of prohibition was not large enough to warrant passing a law, especially since Québec had voted overwhelmingly against. Much of the country was already "dry" under local option, however, before the war, and provincial prohibition was not a radical break with the past. The fight against "demon rum" was connected to other reforms of the time, such as the WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE movement, and it was motivated in part by SOCIAL GOSPEL sentiments.
The provincial temperance Acts varied, but in general they closed legal drinking establishments and forbade the sale of alcohol for beverage purposes and its possession and consumption except in a private dwelling; in some provinces native wines were exempt. Alcohol could be purchased through government dispensaries for industrial, scientific, mechanical, artistic, sacramental and medicinal uses. Distillers and brewers and others properly licensed could sell outside the province.
Although enforcement was difficult, drunkenness and associated crimes declined significantly. However, illicit stills and home-brewed "moonshine" proliferated. Much inferior booze hit the streets, but good liquor was readily available since its manufacture was permitted after the war. Bootlegging (the illegal sale of alcohol as a beverage) rose dramatically, as did the number of unlawful drinking places known as "speakeasies" or "blind pigs." One way to drink legally was to be "ill," for doctors could give prescriptions to be filled at drugstores. Scandalous abuse of this system resulted, with veritable epidemics and long line-ups occurring during the Christmas holiday season.
A dramatic aspect of the prohibition era was rum running. By constitutional amendment, the US was under even stricter prohibition than was Canada from 1920 to 1933: the manufacture, sale, and transportation of all beer, wines, and spirits were forbidden there. Liquor legally produced in or imported into Canada was exported legally under Canadian law to its "dry" neighbour. SMUGGLING, often accompanied by violence, erupted in border areas and along the coastlines. Cartoons showed leaky maps of Canada with Uncle Sam attempting to stem the alcoholic tide.
Prohibition was too short-lived for real success. Opponents maintained that it violated British traditions of individual liberty and that settling the matter by referendum or plebiscite was an aberration from Canadian parliamentary practice. Québec rejected it as early as 1919 and became known as the "sinkhole" of North America, but tourists flocked to "historic old Québec" and the provincial government reaped huge profits from the sale of booze.
In 1920 BC voted "wet" and by the following year some alcoholic beverages were legally sold there and in the Yukon through government stores. Manitoba inaugurated a system of government sale and control in 1923, followed by Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1924, Newfoundland in 1925, Ontario and New Brunswick in 1927, and Nova Scotia in 1930. The last bastion, Prince Edward Island, finally gave up "the noble experiment" in 1948, though pockets of dryness under local option still exist throughout the land.
Author GERALD HALLOWELL
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
Canadian Women's Christian Temperance Union Fonds
An overview of the history of the Canadian Women's Christian Temperance Union, an organization that fought to expand the role of women in Canadian society. From the Archives of Ontario website.
Alberta Provincial Woman's Christian Temperance Union fonds
View digitized copies of documents and photographs relating to the Alberta Provincial Woman's Christian Temperance Union. From the website for the Glenbow Museum.
View a digitized reproduction of a 19th century "Temperance pledge" engraving. For historical context, read the "Keys to History" notes below the image. From the McCord Museum website.
Prohibition and the Smuggling of Intoxicating Liquors between the Two Saults
An article about the history of the prohibition movement in Canada, the Ontario Temperance Act, liquor smuggling activities in the Sault Ste. Marie region, and related issues. From the website for the Canadian Nautical Research Society. A PDF file.