When you think of Prohibition, chances are that you are thinking of the American Prohibition era. That is natural since it is primarily the prohibition you hear about, but Canada had its own prohibition era and it had that era before the United States ever did.
While the American Prohibition era lasted from 1920 to 1933, Canada had a national prohibition from 1918 to 1920, as well as several provincial and municipal bans.
Drinking was a common pastime in Canada in the 19thcentury. In 1851, a survey of taverns in Upper Canada found that there were 1,999 taverns. This equated to one tavern for every 478 people. Naturally, the problems associated with alcohol abuse were rampant during the era.
The very first prohibition in Canada was due, like it would be later, to a war. During the War of 1812, a war measure was put in place that prohibited the exportation of grain to restrain the distillation of liquors and grain.
New Brunswick would bring in prohibition in 1854 and repeal it that same year, becoming the first place in Canada to ban alcohol.
Eventually, this led to the creation of the Canada Temperance Act of 1864, also known as the Dunkin Act. This act didn’t institute national prohibition of any sort in the Province of Canada but allowed any county or city to have its own ban on the sale of liquor if most residents voted in favour of it.
In 1874, the Northwest Territories banned the sale of alcohol, the same year that the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was formed. The Northwest Territories would keep the ban in place until 1891.
In 1878, this local ability to ban the sale of alcohol was extended throughout Canada by the Canada Temperance Act, which was extended nationwide. It was also known as the Scott Act.
The first real push for a national prohibition happened in 1898 when there was a federal referendum on the matter. A total of 51 per cent of voters voted in favour of it, but voter turnout was incredibly low for the time at only 44 per cent. In every province but Quebec, prohibition votes were in the majority. With the majority vote, it would have been feasible for the government to push for a federal bill on prohibition. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier chose instead not to pursue it because of the strong opposition to the matter in Quebec, as well as the low turnout of voters.
Between 1900 and 1914, one province after another began to ban the sale of alcohol. The first province in the 20th century to ban the sale of alcohol was Prince Edward Island. This decision to ban alcohol came about after an 1898 referendum in the province, which had only 20 per cent against prohibition. The province would put in prohibition in 1901 and that ban would remain in place through the First World War and the Second World War and would not end until 1948.
Saskatchewan would ban alcohol in 1915, followed by Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario would ban it in 1916. In 1917, British Columbia and New Brunswick would ban alcohol, followed by the Yukon in 1918 and Nova Scotia in 1921. Between 1915 and 1918, every province but Quebec would have a ban in place. This was done under the War Measures Act of 1914 that limited the freedom of Canadians due to extreme circumstances. Under the Ontario Temperance Act of 1916, brewing and distilling of liquor was not outlawed, and liquor could be shipped out of province but not sold within the province.
Quebec would ban alcohol in 1919, but that was quickly repealed due to public backlash over the matter. Only spirits will be banned.
In 1921, both Quebec and British Columbia change their prohibition systems to a government-controlled liquor system, which still exists today. In 1923, Manitoba does the same, followed by Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1924. In 1927, Ontario switches to its own government system, one that still exists to this day.
These bans had a detrimental effect on the brewery industry in Canada. Between 1878 and 1928, 75 per cent of Canadian breweries closed.
With so many provinces banning alcohol, the time had come for the federal government to do the same. Following the 1917 federal election, national prohibition was made effective on April 1, 1918. Any alcohol of more than 2.5 per cent would be banned from importation. In addition, there was no inter-provincial trade of alcohol and there was a total ban on prohibition. The ban lasted two years and it would be the first and last time that national prohibition would be instituted in Canada.
It was naturally difficult for police to deal with individuals making their home brew. Immigrants from Central Europe were more than capable of making alcohol from fermented grain and potatoes and they quickly got down to work. In places like Loon Lake, Saskatchewan, according to Howard Morton, the illicit alcohol trade was so common that there were only two places in the town where you couldn’t buy alcohol; the post office and the priest’s house.
The difficulty in policing illegal alcohol was made apparent by the fact that during the First World War, the NWMP had a shortage of manpower and relied heavily on the provincial police force of Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan presented a difficult situation. In 1923, it was reported that there were more illegal stills in Saskatchewan than in all the rest of Canada.
Beginning in 1920 and ending in 1925, five provinces repealed prohibition, but the impact of prohibition had a large impact on Canadian society. In 1922, the number of convictions for alcohol related offences declined from 17,413 in 1914 to 5,413 in 1921. Cases of public drunkenness also dropped from 16,590 in 1915 to 6, 766 in 1921.
Even though prohibition had been lifted, some aspects of the legislation remained in effect well into our current era. It remained illegal to ship many types of liquor across provincial borders well into the 21stcentury and was only repealed in June of 2012 after a unanimous House vote.
Other communities kept bans in place of their own well after prohibition ended. Orillia, Ontario ended prohibition until 1955, while Owen Sound banned it until the 1970s. A ban on the sale of alcohol in parts of west Toronto lasted until 2000.
Several communities in Canada still ban alcohol to various degrees. All Cardston County, due to its Mormon founding, remains dry, as does large portions of the County of Warner No. 5 in Alberta. In Manitoba, Steinbach did not allow the sale of alcohol until 2011, while Natuashish in Newfoundland and Labrador banned alcohol in 2008.
This was a brief overview of prohibition on a national level, but what about locally?
In Yorkton, Saskatchewan, there was a rising crime rate between 1915 and 1925 and the police force did its best to enforce the Saskatchewan Temperance Act. Looking at the local Yorkton newspaper, we are offered a glimpse of what this was like.
“Wasyl Yarmae was fined $200 and cost on Saturday by the Justice of Peace Caldwell on a charge of violating the Saskatchewan Temperance Act. The police allege that Yarmae has been coming to Yorkton regularly and disposing of hoe-brew and on Friday last, after laying wait for him for six hours, they caught him in the act. He was given 10 days in which to raise his fine and is out on bond for $500 in the meantime.
The town police yesterday confiscated six barrels of beer, alleged to have been greater alcohol content than is allowed by law. The shipment was consigned to J. Raymond of Yorkton and a sample has been sent away for analysis.”
In Sarnia, Ontario, as with other places, bootlegging was a serious and sometimes deadly problem. Inexperienced bootleggers could ferment mixtures that could kill or harm a person. Green beer was an unrefined alcoholic drink that would have a severe and damaging impact on the nervous system.
In Radville, Saskatchewan, a vote on prohibition took place on Oct. 25, 1920 with three polling booths in the Province Theatre. One polling booth was for the town of Radville, while the other two were for the districts to the east and the west. A total of 192 votes were polled and the results were 113 dry, 74 wet and six spoiled ballots. This gave the dry vote the majority.
In Alberta, St. Albert was one of the most ardent opponents of the prohibition in the province. Many opponents to prohibition in Alberta said that banning it would increase the consumption of soft drinks, which would lead to deaths through gastritis, dropsy and anemia. They also felt it would lead to government corruption. Within the province, the Edmonton Bulletin, Calgary News Telegram and Calgary Albertan were all in favour of prohibition, while the Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald opposed it.
In Wilkie, Saskatchewan, it was common for druggists to sell alcoholic tonics for health at two dollars per six-ounce bottle of brandy. This could only be done with a doctor’s prescription but eventually the Saskatchewan government eased this due to public pressure and it became possible to get the alcoholic tonic without a doctor’s prescription. This decision was reversed within six days due to a huge run on medicinal alcohol.
Montague, Ontario was one of the first places in Canada to ban the sale of alcohol when it did in 1865. For the next few years, no liquor sales were allowed but residents could still travel to nearby towns to buy alcohol. Nonetheless, local taverns were missed in the community. On April 1, 1869, 31 residents of the town sent a petition to Montague council to demand another poll to determine if liquor sales were desired by town residents. When the poll was done, it was found that most residents were in favour of repealing the prohibition against alcohol.
The nineteenth hole is a common golfing tradition, and prohibition didn’t stop golfers from enjoying a drink after a round. While golf clubs themselves stopped serving alcohol, it was not uncommon for players to keep bottles in their lockers. According to Harry Boyce of the Wascana Country Club, the players said it was important to have alcohol around as an antidote in case of a sudden snake bite.
In Carstairs, Alberta, there was something known as bee wine, which was available after the First World War during Prohibition. It was made from a packet of white pills called bees, which were placed in a quart sealer, three-quarters full of water and a bit of molasses, honey or prune juice. The pills sank to the bottom and as they swelled, a bubble began to appear on the pill. The pill then rose to the top where the bubble burst and the pill sank. This process was repeated over and over for three weeks. Once the pills had broken in half, the wine was ready, and the pills were strained out. In that same community, there were Dry Squads of police officers that would destroy stills and alcohol when they found them. Often, the alcohol would never be destroyed, but would end up being sold by members of the Dry Squad to family members and friends.
Following the end of prohibition in many areas, there was a battle between those who wanted prohibition and those who didn’t. In Regina in 1923, the Prince Albert Anti-Prohibition League was formed, following by the Prohibition League of Saskatchewan that same year. Bishop G.E. Lloyd of Prince Albert became president of the league. On July 5, 1924, about 1,000 people attended a meeting at the Prince Albert skating rink, organized by those against prohibition. On July 10, the prohibitionists met in Wesley Methodist Church in Prince Albert. W.D. Bayley, a member of the Manitoba Legislature, poured alcohol on an egg to apparently show its impact on the human nervous system.
Eventually, Prince Albert rejected prohibition by an overwhelming margin of 1,640 votes to 377.
Information for this piece comes from Wikipedia, The Loon Lake Story, Sarnia: Gateway to Bluewaterland, the Black Robe’s Vision, Wilkie Saskatchewan 1908 – 1988, Montague A Social History Of An Irish Ontario Township, Golfing History of Saskatchewan, Beyond Our Prairie Trails, Prince Albert History, Prohibition in Canada, Marianopolis, Examining Prohibition.