Canada Essay, Research Paper
THE RISE AND FALL OF PROHIBITION IN CANADA
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.”
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
‘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
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
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
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
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,
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,