Vices Then and Now

A new book looks at the colourful history of moral regulation in Canada

Vice exerts a perennial interest, -regardless of how and by whom it is defined. In Canada the Good: A Short History of Vice since 1500, an admirably condensed social history of Canadian vices over the past five centuries, York University historian Marcel Martel shows exactly how during this time the definition of vice in Canada has shifted from a discourse centred on sin to one that, when still applied, is viewed primarily in medical terms.

That the labelling of particular actions as vices is the product of social and historical contingencies seems self-evident. What is less obvious is the interplay of factors that contribute to this labelling and the accompanying efforts at regulation. For example, what determines how the notion of vice is applied in particular contexts? Which positional interests have the greatest say in its definition? And why do some vices attract special interest in their regulation? These questions continually reappear throughout Martel’s book, in an analysis whose main actors include churches, the state, grassroots moral reform movements and, in later years, the medical profession.

Martel focuses on the vices that have called forth the most concerted efforts at regulation: alcohol, sex, gambling, drugs and tobacco. In some cases, such as gambling, there is significant change in the deviant status of the activity and in the forms of regulation, while in others, such as prostitution, the concerns and responses have changed far less. He begins with the period from 1500 to 1700, when French settlers interacted and traded with aboriginal groups. Given their ethnocentric views of aboriginal life, the early missionaries and explorers were most struck by the aboriginals’ starkly different attitudes toward sex. For the missionaries in particular, the imposition of European notions of monogamy was paramount. But Martel illustrates the extent to which colonial officials often showed more sympathy. He quotes Antoine Denis Raudot, intendant of New France in the early 18th century, who noted: “The manner in which the girls live among the savages is very convenient. They are mistresses of their body until they are absolutely married.”

In the interaction of aboriginal and European cultures, each side was responsible for passing on new habits to the other. Aboriginals introduced tobacco—for them a sacred substance. The Europeans, besides carrying the scourge of smallpox, also brought alcohol. It is interesting to consider the trade in moralities that surround particular substances, and the cultural effects of these substances. Aboriginals involved in fur trade made it clear that if they could not get their alcohol in trade with the French, they would do so with the British. So while the Catholic church in New France sought to prohibit aboriginal consumption, its morally based arguments had to compete with the use of alcohol in diplomacy and exchange. This conflict between morality and commerce reappears many times in Martel’s account.

As much as the Catholic church attempted to regulate sexual mores, it had only limited success, especially in the first centuries of New France’s existence. It is fair to say that early French settler society evinced a frontier morality, developing its own habits and mores that did not necessarily align with those back in Europe. As Martel demonstrates, despite some settler resistance, the church gradually extended its influence to implement a “Christian-driven moral order.” In this campaign the French royal state played a supportive hand. These circumstances help explain the legal age of consent at the time: boys could marry at 14 and girls at 12. Similarly the colonial authorities enforced a fully patriarchal marriage structure, where women had no legal rights whatsoever. The “unnatural acts” of homosexuality were proscribed, but it was up to the church rather than the state to impose penalties for private acts, likely with much leeway in particular cases. And while prostitution spawned considerable debate on its public aspect, it was tolerated, at least up to the end of the 18th century. With these and other sexually based activities, such as abortion and birth control, Martel shows how the live-and-let-live considerations of frontier morality often trumped attempts at formal censure.

Alcohol’s role in colonial communities was ambiguous; wine in particular became an important social lubricant in a number of ways, not only by being enjoyed by many, but also by being a vehicle through which the state could levy duties and fund government operations. The state had a direct interest in controlling prices. The 19th century saw the expansion of the alcohol trade and consumption with the influx of British settlers. In both French and British colonial Canada, alcohol was central to social life, in part because it was the beverage of choice, but also because it was safer to drink than water. While some Protestant denominations adopted a highly negative stance against these trends, the Catholic church was not concerned about alcohol consumption per se, but rather excessive consumption, because it was seen as leading to other sins. From the church’s perspective, drunkenness was a mortal sin. But alcohol continued to have tactical importance due to trade with aboriginals.

In these frontier conditions, it is no surprise that settler communities had their own ways of dealing with deviance, which pitted its moral control against that of the church. Martel describes in some detail the use of charivaris, a shaming practice imported from Europe. Members of small communities would dress up in frightening costumes and confront deviants, such as adulterers or married people with too large an age gap between them. The charivari as a living institution continued into the early 20th century, although its meaning changed to mark a practice to welcome newcomers.

By the early 19th century, concerns about self-conduct tended to centre more and more on alcohol. This period, which coincided with expanding industrialization, saw the beginnings of the temperance movement, in which a central role was played by women. The anti-alcohol stance of moral reformers was distinctive in several ways. It is at this time that we begin to see health as a form of morality and social control, with the appearance of the notion of addiction, a term coined in the late 18th century and applied first to alcohol use. Although conceptually separate from religion, the new health-based morality was closely connected to Christian—particularly Protestant—principles. And though the Protestant moral emphasis on self–control and self-discipline was primarily on alcohol, other perceived ills such as prostitution, homosexuality and gambling were far from ignored.

Within British North America, moral reformers had some influence in the first half of the 19th century, but it was from 1850 onward that their efforts had the greatest impact. This is when the twin trends of urbanization and industrialization began to fully emerge within Canadian society. Given the changes in social organization, the sanctity of the family was seen as being under threat by a range of mostly male vices. The growing power of evangelical Protestantism, with its social gospel goal of “building the kingdom of God on Earth,” was also a factor. Churches continued to exert influence over morality, but reformers were willing to band together and recruit the state to enforce morality, using arguments concerning the regulation of the health of populations to do so.

Led by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, spearheaded in Canada by Letitia Youmans, the reform movement grew and prospered. It was in many ways class based. The middle classes feared being proletarianized by alcoholism, gambling losses and sexual licence, but it was the working class whose behaviour was most often the object of reformers’ attention, while the bourgeoisie’s drinking, gambling and sexual mores continued with little change. The intermittent successes of the reform movement began in the 1870s with the Canada Temperance Act, which allowed for local citizen-initiated referendums on banning alcohol in local jurisdictions. By 1916, and the appearance of the argument that war conditions necessitated seriously curtailing alcohol consumption, four provinces—Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Quebec—were officially dry, and for the twelve-month period starting on April 1, 1918, the entire country was formally under prohibition.

Similarly, gambling and perceived sexual vices were challenged with a new enthusiasm, with women again playing a key role. Reformers successfully lobbied for federal and provincial laws that outlawed gaming houses and restricted lotteries to fundraising activities “at religious and charitable bazaars.” In the case of sexual acts, the perceived link between promiscuity and sexually transmitted diseases meant that health-based discourses typically came to the reformers’ aid. Abortion was kept illegal, and both birth control and homosexuality were explicitly criminalized.

Given these successes, it is no surprise that reformers came to view themselves on the winning side of history. Martel quotes Francis Spence, a leading light in the Dominion Alliance for the Total Suppression of the Liquor Traffic, who in 1908 remarked:

The temperance cause is winning; the temperance cause will win. Lack of confidence in this certainty is the result of a failure to understand the end of the movement. That movement is not a mere human invention or fake, created by some novelty-seeking cranks. It is the inevitable result of great universal conditions and forces.

Despite the confidence evinced by Spence and his allies, the immediate aftermath of the First World War was to prove to be the high point of the reformers’ influence. Already in the latter decades of the 19th century, cracks had begun to appear in the unofficial alliance between reformers and the medical profession, a minority of physicians beginning to disagree with mainstream censure of birth control and abortion. From 1920 onward, this proportion grew. More generally vice-based conceptions of morality started to give way to the medicalized conception, and  behaviour such as gambling, homosexuality and the use of alcohol and drugs was increasingly viewed in purely medical terms.

With this conceptual transformation came a slow but visible liberalization of these activities, even when, in particular cases, moral reformers continued to exert influence by pressing the state to maintain its regulatory role. For example, the Second World War was used as an opportunity to strengthen prohibitions on prostitution, given the concern about the spread of disease and the deleterious effect on soldiers. Similarly, in the immediate post-war period security fears connected with the spreading of state secrets led to a clamping down on homosexual activity, along with a protracted government campaign to identify and remove gays from positions of public authority.

But overall, the impetus toward greater tolerance proved unstoppable, especially by the 1960s. This watershed decade saw a confluence of factors challenging the social order: a strong women’s movement and the influence of feminism, the counterculture and its positive view of pot smoking, and the emergence of gay liberation as a political force. The liberalization of several activities that occurred with Pierre Trudeau’s omnibus bill in 1969 was particularly important. Not only were abortion and homosexuality decriminalized, but lotteries were permitted. Although activities such as drug use and prostitution have remained contested ever since, the health framework used to legitimize these changes still dominates what might be termed the new morality of today.

Smoking is one exception to these broader shifts, so it is no surprise that Martel analyzes this topic in detail. In the contemporary assemblage of what are now largely viewed as health-based concerns, it is the only one that did not evolve from a religious proscription but is rather due to shifting perceptions within the medical field itself. Martel notes how, in earlier centuries, tobacco use was not a moral concern, even when it involved minors. There was a time when female smoking in public was frowned upon, mostly due to religious framings of gender. But it was not until the 20th century, and the dissemination of new medical information concerning tobacco’s health effects, that its use became the target of considerable attention. Today, in the case of smoking we see an interesting dichotomy between the regulation of public and private behaviour, as the conduct of smokers is shaped, not only by the health information and cautionary images of cancer victims on cigarette packages, but by the aim of reformers to eliminate public, and even outdoor, places where it might occur. Indeed, this dichotomy between public and private behaviour is an implicit theme of Canada the Good. Just as with smoking, prostitution has been, and continues to be, problematic in part because of its public manifestations. The same is true of homosexuality and use of alcohol: public sex is still widely frowned upon, as is alcohol consumption leading to public drunkenness.

Martel’s book offers further general conclusions. First, although the discourse of vice itself declines considerably in the 20th century, the effects of religion are still felt in the influence that religion has had on the development of the state in Canada—aside from the particular religious proclivities of those who might occupy influential positions within the state apparatus itself. Second is the phenomenon that could be called state moralism. When state control of a vice is deemed necessary the effect is often the dominance of government in supplying the activity, with all of the inherent conflicts of interest that this entails. The monopolization of alcohol sales in most provinces and the major role of provincial governments in owning gambling venues are obvious examples. These forms of intervention have become major revenue earners, legitimated by government’s “moral” position that Canadians should be responsible drinkers and gamblers, and supported by the Protestant notion that if these activities are to be allowed, any profits should be devoted to the “public good.”

Canada the Good is a well-researched and informative discussion of the trajectory of Canadian morality and the significant actors who have sought to define it. As Martel tells it, Canada’s “good” flows to a great extent from the activism of middle class Christian reformers. Notwithstanding the shifts in morality that have occurred in the late 20th and into the early 21st century, the efforts of these reformers continue to have an enduring effect. Even when the particular causes taken on by present-day reform movements may diverge markedly from those in the past, there is a discernible continuity in the methods and tactics. By giving his readers a sense of the long-term trajectory of Canadian moral beliefs and their practical application, Martel allows us to see how the regulatory compromises of today are likely be just as transitory and provisional as those of the past.