The Rise And Fall Of Prohibition In

Canada Essay, Research Paper


History 2222B: Rough Justice

“Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon

the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by

licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and

Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a

free and open encounter.”

– Areopagitica

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 favour 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

favour, and Quebec strongly opposing,2 created an interesting

paradox in the shaping of Canada’s history.

Though largely seen unfavourably 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 behaviours. 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 the 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, troubles

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


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


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 has 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 licences: (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 licences 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

judgement, 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 favour 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

favour 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

food stuffs 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

boot leggers tended to create a distressing paradox. Maximum

revenues could only be obtained if rum-running and boot-legging

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 meal-times, 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 favour 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.


1. Bleasdale, Ruth, Drink and Drugs. Class Notes

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

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

Greenwood Press, 1976.

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

The Free Press, 1981.

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

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

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

for History 2222B)

6. Fosdick, R. B. & Scott, A. L., Toward Liquor Control, New

York, Harper & Brothers, 1933.

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

Poetry Books, 1984.

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

Gold, Toronto, McClelland & Steward, 1988.

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

University of Chicago Press, 1979.

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

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

Acadiensis Press, 1980.

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

brief, 1982.


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

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

University Department of History, 1974.

2. 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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