Dear Sir or Madam:
Can you imagine a glass of wine at the end of a long work week being not only frowned upon, but outlawed? Can you imagine having a wine and cheese, but the wine had to be non-alcoholic? What about a society where wine tours, and craft beer tastings were banned by the government? Consuming alcohol is very much the status quo in our society, with many people choosing to consume alcohol in moderation. Though if we flashback to the late 1800s and early 1900s, the practice was not as widely accepted.
Prohibition is often associated with the United States’ decision to completely bar alcohol consumption, sales and distribution. The prohibition movement was an international phenomenon beginning in the late 19th century, with countries ranging from long-standing periods of prohibition (i.e. The United States) to more moderate regimes (i.e. Canada).1 Canada was actually the first country to have a referendum regarding alcohol prohibition.2 Prime Minister Laurier called the referendum in 1898, with 51% of the population voting in favour of prohibiting alcohol sales and consumption in the country.3 Although a narrow majority was in favour of prohibition, the government decided against passing a prohibition law because Quebec was vehemently against it.4 In fact, national prohibition only occurred as a war measure during the First World War.5 Today’s post will examine a brief history of the prohibition movement in Canada, and discuss why prohibition failed.
Prohibition first began with a movement towards alcohol temperance. The temperance movement was an international campaign promoting abstinence from alcohol, with proponents believing alcohol consumption was responsible for “society’s ills.”6 In Canada, “temperance societies" (collections of individuals who believed in the movement) formulated around 1827, with members tolerating moderate consumption of beer and wine.7 The main temperance advocates during the 19th century were the Dominion Alliance for Total Suppression of the Liquor Traffic and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.8 Gradually these societies shifted their values, advocating for a total prohibition.9
The Dunkin Act, 1864 was one of the first pieces of legislation to address prohibition. The Dunkin Act allowed municipal governments within the Province of Canada to prohibit retail sales of alcohol.10 The Canada Temperance Act of 1878 extended this local retail prohibition option to the entire Dominion after Confederation.11 Therefore, prohibition implementation was left largely to local governments in the early stages.
Provincially, the first attempt at prohibition occurred just before the First World War.12 Provinces banned alcohol at this time as a social sacrifice to help the war effort across the pond.13 A few years later, the federal government followed the provinces and enacted national prohibition in 1918 under the War Measures Act, 1914.14 The federal government believed that prohibiting the manufacturing and importation of alcohol would help the war effort by promoting the economy and conserving financial resources.15
Although there were small victories for prohibition supporters in Canada, the concept largely failed. Prohibition was more difficult to implement in Canada than the United States due to jurisdictional conflicts over alcohol regulation.16 The federal government has jurisdiction over the manufacturing and trading of alcohol, whereas the provincial governments have power over the sale and consumption.17 Further, Quebec rejected prohibition from 1919 because the province was making huge profits from alcohol related sales.18 Throughout the 1920s, the remaining provinces began to advocate for liquor sales, and voted to become “wet” provinces.19 Prince Edward Island was the last province to give up the prohibition movement during the 1940s, but some communities remained dry out of personal preference.20
Social gatherings and situations would be significantly different today if prohibition continued to gain traction after the 1920s. You can not seriously tell me you actually enjoy talking to your great uncle Fred at family functions without a little alcoholic pick-me-up. Further, the alcohol industry is expected to be worth C$42 billion by the end of 2016.21 Consider the revenue the government would be losing by banning alcohol sales; and here in Edmonton we thought Rogers Place was a big investment.
Your Humble and Obedient Servants,
1 Benoit Dostie & Ruth Dupré, “The people's will: Canadians and the 1898 referendum on alcohol prohibition” (2012) 49 Explorations in Economic History 498 at 498.
2 Ibid at 499.
3 Ibid at 499.
4 Gerald Hallowell, “Prohibition in Canada” (12 August 2013), The Canadian Encyclopedia, online: <www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/prohibition/>.
5 Dostie & Dupre, supra note 1 at 499.
6 Graeme Decarie, “Temperance Movement in Canada” (23 July 2013), The Canadian Encyclopedia, online: <www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/temperance-movement/>.
8 Hallowell, supra note 4.
9 Decarie, supra note 6.
10 Hallowell, supra note 4.
14 Jack S Blocker Jr, David M Fahey & Ian R Tyrrell, Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History, 2nd ed (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2003) at pg 229.
15 Ibid at 229.
16 Hallowell, supra note 4.
21 Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Consumer Trends Wine, Beer and Spirits in Canada, Market Indicator Report September 2013 (Ottawa: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2013) at 3.