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Prohibition In Canada Essay, Research Paper

Canadian Temperance groups began to rally for prohibition during the 1840’s and 1850’s. It was not until after World War I began in 1914, that the temperance groups’ support for prohibition grew. A need for grain for the armed forces was viewed as a major catalyst for Canada’s Prohibition Law. Although Canada’s Prohibition Era only lasted two years from 1917 to 1919, it created the stage for many historic successes and failures in Canada. This paper looks at the emergence, successes, and failures of Prohibition of Alcohol in Canada. Particular emphasis is placed upon Nova Scotia that, along with Manitoba, scored a large majority in favor of prohibition during the national plebiscite on the matter held by the Laurier Federal Government in 1898.(1) This national support of prohibition, when provinces in Canada were only moderately in

favor, and Quebec strongly opposing,(2) created an interesting paradox in the shaping of Canada’s history.

Though largely seen unfavorably today, prohibition did have some partially successful facets in its overall focus. Prohibition forces argued that alcohol led to an increase in crime and other anti-social behaviors. Substantial reductions

in the amount of alcohol consumption and a decrease in the crime rate were two measures of prohibition’s success. Statistical evidence supported prohibitionist’s thoughts regarding crime and alcohol. Following 1919, when the spread of alcohol control expanded to the provinces, crime increased. In 1922, there were

15,720 convictions for indictable offences and in 1928, 21,720 convictions. This was an increase of 38 per cent and more than three times the increase in Canada’s population. From 1922 to 1928, the number of criminals who were moderate drinkers rose at the same rate as the total number of convictions. The number of criminals who drank in excess, however, increased by 64 per cent, or nearly twice as fast.(3) Along with crime, alcohol was linked to other negative occurrences such as insanity, vice, wife and child abuse, family destruction, poverty, and economic inefficiency. It was believed that money that spent on alcohol should have been spent on things such as housing and clothing.(4) Supporters of prohibition claimed it was better for society and the economy as a whole as well as improving health and decreasing crime. It should be noted, however, that prohibition was not entirely about alcohol and its use. It was a vanguard through which society attempted to ‘purify’ itself of all its evils. If liquor was banned, then the money it used could be spent on other industries, benefiting society as a whole. Unfortunately for prohibitionists, this was not to be the case.

Much time and effort were spent by anti-prohibition forces in avoiding and breaking the law. (5) Professional smuggling from Canada turned out to be a big business. For example, in the first seven months of 1920, approximately 900,000 cases of liquor were transported within in Canada to border cities in the

United States.(6) ‘Scientific Temperance’ was another claim prohibitionists used in their fight to legalize their stance. Arguments of this genre sought to persuade listeners with scholarly academics who added an air of authority and prestige to the movement. In 1906 two German scientists, August Forel and Emil Kalpelin, even went so fart as to label alcohol poisonous.(7) Other scientific temperance claims included alcohol being responsible for many aliments such as heart failure, flabby muscles, troubled breathing, etc. … This aliment list is endless.(8) It is now known that alcohol in moderation is not a direct cause of several of these claims. Even though many of the allegations against alcohol were on the extreme side, there is some merit to a few of the accusations. Much of this harm linked to alcohol consumption, however, stems from its abuse father than its

simple use.

Alcohol, during the years leading up to and including prohibition, presented itself to be a convenient scapegoat for society’s problems and woes. At a time when society was “stimulated by accelerating technical progress and jolted by the intensifying social problems created by industrialization, many North Americans were convinced of the need and the feasibility of reform.”(9), it is ironic that prohibition is deemed responsible for the advent of organized crime in Canada. Regardless of the pros and cons of prohibition, it cannot be denied that the Canadian response to prohibition helped make this nation among the largest liquor industries in the world, with distilled liquors being the sixth largest of Canadian exports.

Temperance in Nova Scotia had a strong tradition dating back to Beaver River, Yarmouth. It was here, in 1828, the first temperance society was formed.(10) Like the other temperance societies that followed, alcohol consumption was forbidden except for medicinal purposes. The influx of American temperance societies in the 1850’s affected the Nova Scotia temperance movement as their aim became a position of total abstinence.(11) An influential Sons of Temperance Society from the United States established its local division in Yarmouth in 1847. It was not until 1858 that this society opened a division in Manitoba.(12) Both of these chapters resulted in a close connection with temperance workers between Canada and the United States.

The Dunkin Act, passed in the United Provinces of Canada (Ontario and Quebec), of 1864 permitted the residences of Canada to declare their counties dry under prohibition by a local option. This system fell into disregard following Confederation but was brought back fourteen years later in 1878. At this time

Canada passed the Canada Temperance Act (or the ‘Scott Act’ as it came to be known). The Scott Act provided individual localities the right to decide for themselves the advisability of permitting the sale and/or making of liquor on presentation of a petition signed by 25 per cent of the electors. The result of such ambiguous legislation was a widely varying pattern of legality. Prince Edward Island went completely dry and Nova Scotia almost so by the early twentieth century. Despite its acceptance in the Maritime Provinces, the Scott Act was quite unpopular in Ontario and Quebec. Their dislike of the Act does not stem from a disapproval of prohibition; rather, that both provinces were in the process of trying to assert their provincial independence from Canada’s central government.(13) The federal government could impede the making of alcohol within Canada and hinder its migration across national or provincial borders. Only the provincial government could thwart the sale and transportation of alcohol within its provincial boundaries.(14) Such dividend responses caused much indecision on both the provincial and federal level, making definite, decisive legislation hard to realize and enforce.

The Dominion Alliance, formed in 1876, became Canada’s first national temperance organization. The alliance was founded on “… the principle that … ‘the traffic in intoxicating beverages is destructive of the order and welfare of society, and therefore ought to be prohibited’.”(15) This Dominion Alliance funded a prohibition movement that was vocal, well organized, and closely connected with the conservative and progressive components in society in the fight alcohol.(16) Prohibition forces were not the only side of the prohibition debate to be funded. The anti-prohibition movement was funded by liquor companies who obviously had massive investments in alcohol that they did not want to lose. Financing for this movement was provided through organizations such as civil liberties and citizens’ groups, designed to be fronts for liquor interests.(17)

In 1886, Nova Scotia had its own temperance act. The Nova Scotia Liquor Act, aimed at tightening liquor regulations in areas not already prohibitory under the Scott Act, was passed. This act entailed three subsets of licenses: (1)wholesale, (2) shop for sale only and, (3) hotel for sale only to guests in rooms or at meals.18 While only a few licenses were granted, this did not halt the sale of illegal alcohol very much. The anti-alcohol movement did not just focus their attention on the older population. Prohibition also gained support in areas of education. After much lobbying, the provincial government passed a mandatory act that required all public schools to offer temperance education to their students. At the risk of losing grant money, the schools complied, much to the delight of the prohibition movement.(19) In a landmark decision during 1895, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a province did not have the right to halt the marketing or production of alcohol.(20) This monumental judgment, however, was overruled the following year by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. This reversal also declared that only when an area was already prohibitory did the province’s right not apply. A later upholding by the same committee of the Manitoba Liquor Act five years later solidly established a province’s right to block transaction of liquor in their area.(21) Again, prohibitionists rejoiced.

The Laurier Federal Government finally bowed to overwhelming pressure from the public on the prohibition issue. A national plebiscite was held in 1898. While the national results showed a small majority in favor of prohibition, it should be noted that prohibitionists campaigned vigorously to obtain greater public support, while anti-prohibitionists did not.(22) The fact that a large number of voters did not even vote was no doubt a factor in the indecision that plagued the federal government on the prohibition question. Several interesting points do emerge from this plebiscite of those who did vote. The Maritimes and Manitoba emerged as strongly in favor of prohibition, whereas Western Canada was moderate and Quebec vehemently opposed.(23) ‘Wet or Dry’ voting patterns seemed very strongly influenced by ethnic origins with cities voting wet and rural areas voting dry.(24) Prohibition was once again thrust into the arms of the provinces. Several small bills were introduced in the years 1900 to 1905 in Nova Scotia. These were usually private-member bills dealing with liquor transportation and inevitably failed. A 1906 amendment, however, did succeed in prohibiting the sale of liquor to a dry-area resident. This was followed by a ban on the marketing and production of alcohol in all of Nova Scotia except for Halifax.(25) Ontario, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Nova Scotia all had enacted province-wide prohibition by the end of 1916. British Columbia followed suit in 1917. In 1916, the Borden Federal Government added their support with the introduction of a bill in that disallowed the sale of alcohol into a province where it was prohibited. This was followed with a prohibition on the use of foodstuffs or grain in the distilling of spirits and was in effect for the length of the war. It failed, however, to affect the wine makers and brewers.(26) Other laws under the War Measures Act included the non-legalization of 2.5% proof imports in 1917 and the 1918 measure forbidding the transportation of liquor of any kind for any use into a province where it was prohibited. A further law in March of 1918 stated that until the end of the war plus one year, the production of liquor would be halted, as would its transportation between provinces.

Quebec eventually joined the prohibition movement. In 1919 Quebec adopted a law prohibiting the sale of liquor with the exception of light beer, cider, and wine. This move came from the results of a provincial plebiscite held there. Despite this plebiscite, Quebec still was the only legal place in Canada for alcohol when American prohibition passed. Nova Scotia’s referendum in 1920 resulted in the prohibition of import liquor in every county except Halifax, effective 1921. Under this law, alcohol could be made for exportation but not for consumption in Nova Scotia. Coupled with the debate on prohibition, this 1920 plebiscite was also memorable as it was the first time women could vote in Nova Scotia. Even with these laws, prohibition was still not easy to enforce. The appointment of provincial inspectors working in the individual municipalities seemed like the right start to enforcing prohibition successfully. Unfortunately, the corruption ran deep. Many Americans reached out to Nova Scotia for a bootlegged supply of alcohol. For example, the schooner, I’m Alone, was purchased from Lunenburg shipbuilders by a group of American bootleggers. From 1924 to 1928, the ship carried illegal alcohol to smaller coastal boats off the shores of America.(27) Revenues secured by fines from bootleggers tended to create a distressing paradox. Maximum revenues could only be obtained if rum running and bootlegging were successful. To solve this, occasional fines kept everyone happy and both the government and bootleggers in business.(28)

The government sale system, whereby the government was given a commission of the sales and distribution monopoly on spirits and wines, replaced the much violated prohibition law in 1921.(29) Intoxicating beverages were placed in two categories based on intoxication capacities. The less intoxicating was easier to obtain while the more intoxicating posed more of a problem. Beer was bought by the bottle (store) or glass (tavern). Besides being served at mealtimes, wine had no limit on the amount available for purchase. Only a restriction seemed to be on hard liquors that could be bought, for private consumption, at a government store one bottle at a time. British Columbia and the Yukon soon abandoned total prohibition in 1921. Following them was Ontario and the Prairie provinces, Newfoundland in 1925, New Brunswick in 1927, and Nova Scotia in 1929. Prince Edward Island stayed dry until 1948. Most provinces abandoned prohibition in favor of government-controlled liquor stores.

The latter half of the 1920s saw an increased demand for the legalization of alcohol and a decrease in strength of those opposed.(30) The end of prohibition was a difficult adjustment, especially for single female parents who were particularly evident in the retail trade.(31) They were aided somewhat by the

Mother’s Allowance Bill of 1930.(32) It has been suggested that rum-running in the Maritimes was economically based on our of work fishermen selling their boats to rum-runners. This “… created a growing market for second-hand boats, and eventually, for new vessels from the boat yards of the region.”(33)

The collapse of prohibition can be attributed to several items. Disillusionment in the extent of preventing crime, poverty and disease, as well as frustration at the difficulty of enforcing its laws all contributed to its demise.(34) A compromise of sorts spelled the end of an era of prohibition. Citizens wanted to drink and the government needed money. The introduction of liquor sales as revenue for the government solved both issues. The public, to whom prohibition forces were

preaching, had also changed during the 1920’s. They were the product of the Great War and the Roaring Twenties and wanted no part of the prohibition movement.(35) A lack of revenue to fund social programs may also have contributed to the death of prohibition. Reform groups had to choose between an

increasingly unpopular law and social welfare programs that were desperately required. Prohibition can be looked at as a struggle between the working class and the establishment. Prohibition joined education as part of a struggle to minimize the influence foreigners held on the development of a province. The question divided Canada in the midst of finding its own identity in turbulent times, adding much to the country’s history.


Blocker J. S. Jr., Retreat From Reform: The Prohibition

Movement in the United States 1890 – 1913., Westport, Conn. Greenwood Press, 1976.

Cashman, S. D., Prohibition: The Lie of the Land, New York,

The Free Press, 1981.

Clark, N. H., Deliver Us From Evil: An Interpretation of

American Prohibition, New York, Norton & Company Inc., 1976.

Forbes, E., “Rum in the Maritimes” (found in text readings

for History 2222B)

Fos*censored*, R. B. & Scott, A. L., Toward Liquor Control, New

York, Harper & Brothers, 1933.

Grant, B. J., When Rum Was King, Fredericton, Fiddlehead

Poetry Books, 1984.

Hunt, C. W., Booze, Boats, and Billions: Smuggling Liquid

Gold, Toronto, McClelland & Steward, 1988.

Kyvig, D. E., Repealing National Prohibition, Chicago,

University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Merz, C., The Dry Decade, New York, Doubleday, 1930.

Rose, C., Four Years With the Demon Rum, Fredericton,

Acadiensis Press, 1980.

Webb, R., “The Most Famous Rum-Runner of Them All”, CD-Rom

brief, 1982.

Strople, M. J., Prohibition and Movements of Social Reform

in Nova Scotia 1894-1920, M.A. Thesis, Halifax, Dalhousie

University Department of History, 1974.

Thompson, J. H., The Prohibition Question in Manitoba

1892-1928, M.A. Thesis, Manitoba, University of Manitoba, 1969.


1 Prohibition and Movements of Social Reform 1894 – 1920,

Strople, M.J., 1974, p. 109.

2 Ibid., p. 109

3 Prohibition: The Lie of the Land, Cashman, Sean Dennis,

The Free Press, 1981, p. 262.

4 Prohibition and Movements of Social Reform 1894 – 1920,

Strople, M.J., 1974, p. 1.

5 Ibid., p. 27

6 Prohibition: The Lie of the Land, Cashman, Sean Dennis,

The Free Press, 1981, p. 31.

7 The Prohibition Question in Manitoba 1892 – 1928, Thompson,

J.H., 1969, p. 38.

8 Prohibition and Movements of Social Reform 1894 – 1920,

Strople, M.J., 1974, p. 11.

9 Four Years With the Demon Rum 1925 – 1929, Rose, C.,

Acadiensis Press, 1980, p. v.

10 Prohibition and Movements of Social Reform 1894 – 1920,

Strople, M.J., 1974, p. 2.

11 Ibid., p.3.

12 The Prohibition Question in Manitoba 1892 – 1928, Thompson,

J.H., 1969, p. 5.

13 Prohibition: The Lie of the Land, Cashman, Sean Dennis,

The Free Press, 1981, p. 264.

14 Four Years With the Demon Rum 1925 – 1929, Rose, C.,

Acadiensis Press, 1980, p. vii.

15 The Prohibition Question in Manitoba 1892 – 1928, Thompson,

J.H., 1969, p. 7.

16 Four Years With the Demon Rum 1925 – 1929, Rose, C.,

Acadiensis Press, 1980, p. vi.

17 Drink and Drugs, Bleasdale, Ruth, class notes.

18 Prohibition and Movements of Social Reform 1894 – 1920,

Strople, M.J., 1974, p. 6.

19 Ibid., p. 8.

20 Ibid., p. 101.

21 Ibid., p. 102.

22 Ibid., p. 109.

23 Ibid., p. 109.

24 The Prohibition Question in Manitoba 1892 – 1928, Thompson,

J.H., 1969, p. 26.

25 Four Years With the Demon Rum 1925 – 1929, Rose, C.,

Acadiensis Press, 1980, p. viii.

26 Prohibition and Movements of Social Reform 1894 – 1920,

Strople, M.J., 1974, p. 147.

27 The Most Famous Rum-Runner Of Them All, Webb, Robert,

Nova Scotia Historical Review, 1982, p. 30 – 43.

28 Four Years With the Demon Rum 1925 – 1929, Rose, C.,

Acadiensis Press, 1980, p. x.

29 Repealing National Prohibition., Kyvig, D. E., University of

Chicago Press, 1979, p. 109.

30 When Rum Was King, Grant, B.J. Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1984,

p. 181.

31 Rum in the Maritimes, Forbes, E., p. 86.

32 Ibid., p. 87.

33 Ibid., p. 86.

34 Prohibition and Movements of Social Reform 1894 – 1920,

Strople, M.J., 1974, p. 173.

35 When Rum Was King, Grant, B.J. Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1984,

p. 209.

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