Dry Times

Recalling failed Canadian attempts to outlaw booze

Thanks, in part, to Rick Mercer’s tireless efforts, the trope of the American who has a few, er, gaps in his or her knowledge about Canadian history and culture is not only established; it is etched on our nation’s brain.

As such, it was easy for me to write off a brief lapse in a seminar given by a visiting American drink pundit last fall that included a nod to differences in Canadian alcohol history. Unlike the United States, he said, we Canucks had not had to suffer through Prohibition.

The slip was one thing. How much should Americans really be obliged to know about Canada anyway? Way more shocking was the fact that, from this group of 30 or so liquor aficionados, not one person corrected him that, between 1915 and 1930, every single Canadian would have experienced some version of a law that made the sale of alcohol illegal.

Maybe they were just polite? Possibly. But given a later discussion, it became clear that, never mind the Americans, most Canadians do not know anything about our own brush with prohibition. They know all about forbidden fruit, jazz-era speak-easies run by Texas Guinan and Sherman Billingsley, untouchable federal agents such as Eliot Ness, Al Capone and all those bootlegging gangsters and the unintended consequences of the “noble experiment.” If pressed for a Canadian angle, they might possibly start (and end) with the Bronfmans.

While the 13-year, country-wide, capital “P” Prohibition in the U.S. could not be better known if it hired a publicist, Canada’s moderate patchwork attempt to ban booze tends to fly under the radar. Fortunately, Daniel Francis, prolific Canadianist, has recently published a lovely, visually rich and comprehensive book that promises to rectify that—Closing Time: Prohibition, Rum-Runners and Border Wars.

So, let’s start with some facts: Canada did have a national prohibition on alcohol, but it was not as comprehensive or ambitious as the American version. The trans-Canada portion of our prohibition was part of the War Measures Act and only lasted from March 1918 until the end of the following year. When that statute ended, provinces decided their own alcoholic fates. Quebec lost no time getting back to normal, whereas others came around gradually. By 1924, British Columbia, Manitoba and Alberta (in that order) were all wet, while Saskatchewan followed suit the following year. New Brunswick fell off the wagon in 1927, as did Ontario, which promptly established the much-loved Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which has enjoyed its monopoly on selling alcohol ever since.

Nova Scotia stayed dry until 1930, but it was Prince Edward Island that would prove to be master of its domain with laws that made alcohol illegal for nearly half a century—1901 to 1948. Public drinking (in bars) would not be legal there until 1964. Possibly related: Charlottetown is known for its moonshine and legendary kitchen parties.

Islanders, of course, were not the only Canadians who found creative ways to flout the law and keep drinking through provincial booze bans. Finding loopholes in Canadian legislation was practically a national pastime in the 1920s and it was not as if they were particularly hard to find, seeing as most provinces had fairly liberal exceptions, including the production of alcohol for export and industrial use and the sale of alcohol for sacramental or medicinal purposes. Need a drink? See your doctor—he has a prescription for that. This cocktail of legislative gaps led to what is usually represented as a fairly moist “dry” period. Add to this the fact that ours is a more complicated story in comparison with America’s and you have a large part of the reason why our version of prohibition does not get nearly the airplay that the Volstead Act does.

We might expect that our more moderate approach to alcohol legislation is commensurate with our population’s relatively temperate relationship to alcohol. As in, maybe we did not need to enact a national prohibition as the United States did because we were more responsible drinkers than our American cousins. Sounds like a reasonable assumption, given that at least one historian dubbed 19th-century America the “alcoholic republic.” Thanks to a surplus of corn that was easier to transport after being processed into whiskey, Americans drank a shocking amount of alcohol. At one point, before the Civil War, this amounted to more than nine gallons of spirits per capita annually. Such excessive consumption could only enhance the colonial tavern’s already central role in society. Besides drink dispenser, it also served as polling station, transportation hub, post office, information exchange and town hall. Ultimately, though, rampant drunkenness also helped fuel the indignation of Methodist reformers such as Lyman Beecher, which paved the way for the formation of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, whose campaigns for Prohibition in the U.S. eventually met with success in 1920.

Well, turns out, Canada was not any more moderate, as Francis explains in his background to Canada’s prohibition era in Closing Time. The colonial tavern north of the border was just as crucial, just as respected and—paradoxically, perhaps—just as debauched as the American bar. Francis calls liquor the “lifeblood” of colonial Canada and says the ubiquitous, 24-hour taverns were the “corner coffee shops of their day.” They were de facto town halls, courthouses, stage coach depots, entertainment venues and even medical clinics. The central role of the tavern in Canadian society horrified reformers such as Samuel Leonard Tilley, a Saint John druggist, politician and prominent member of the Sons of Temperance, no less than their American counterparts. Tireless agitation by early water-wagon advocates like Tilley eventually effected legislation in the form of the Canada Temperance Act (aka the Scott Act), which made it possible for local cities or counties to vote for a “local option” that would turn the jurisdiction dry.

The author of this legislation, R.W. Scott, favoured local option over federal law because he considered a total prohibition on alcohol unenforceable, a notion that is still occasionally used to explain (albeit erroneously) why Canada never went coast to coast with its booze law outside of the War Measures Act. Another common explanation for our lack of federal legislation is the distinctly wet cultural values of Quebec. And there is certainly some truth to that, since, in an 1898 plebiscite, la Belle Province resoundingly rejected the possibility of an act ever prohibiting the sale, manufacture and importation of alcohol. As Francis illustrates, though, the real reason Canada resisted a blanket law was that it simply could not afford it. Brewing and distilling provided markets for farmers, jobs in industry, outlets for entrepreneurship in cities and lucrative tax revenues for government. The landscape was actually pretty similar in America and it was only the introduction of income tax in 1913 that made it possible for the U.S. to seriously consider Volstead.

In case the distinction between the American federal ban and the Canadian patchwork prohibition on alcohol sounds minor, it was not. The practical implications of a wet province right next door to a dry one were massive, since, with no border crossings, it was easy to ship liquor from, say, Montreal to Toronto the Good. This, in combination with medicinal alcohol available by prescription as a cure for just about any small ailment, turned the exercise into what came to be known as “one hell of a farce.” Sam Bronfman and brothers were obviously the best-known profiteers from Canada’s signature liquor regulation system, but they were hardly the only ones. There were liquor barons in Vancouver, mafia-run organizations in Hamilton and, especially toward the end of Prohibition, a veritable cottage industry of “rum-runners” on the East Coast.

Thanks to shows like Boardwalk Empire that feature bottles of Canadian whisky washing up on the Jersey shore, the fact that distillers and transportation experts branched out into American sales is hardly obscure history. Canadian whisky marketers try to make the most of this today by playing up the romantic lore of bootleggers supplying whisky to American “victims” of a repressive, hypocritical, anti-modern law that people delight in saying could never work. We love the idea of “forbidden fruit.” Add to that our fascination with the concept of “unintended consequences” and Prohibition is the perfect story. No wonder we know it so well.

But the story of capital-P American Prohibition is far more complicated and nuanced than the oft-told version. It was actually fairly successful at curbing drinking—especially in the first few years when people consumed an estimated one third of the amount prior to Volstead. Even toward the end of Prohibition in 1933, people were only back up to consuming about two thirds of what they had. These fairly well-established estimates are the result of an analysis of police and hospital records, which provide much of the evidence for contraband drinking. As Francis points out, nobody has ever done a similar comprehensive study in Canada to determine if people drank less where alcohol was illegal and, given our checkerboard legislation, it is unlikely we will ever have a perfectly clear picture.

No matter what people say, though, Prohibition in the U.S. did not lead people to drink “more than they ever did.” What Prohibition did change was the way people drank. There are a number of well-documented changes in drinking culture including, one of the most fun and least explored, namely, the advent of alco-tourism for which Canada was, happily, on the receiving end. Francis points out that Prohibition occurred at the same time as the rise of car culture, which led to a rise in “booziness” trips to Canada, detailed in a fun and enlightening chapter called “Hello Neighbour, Let’s Have a Drink.” Although border towns in wet provinces across the country profited from liquor tourism, Montreal firmly established itself as the premier destination for thirsty American tourists, not to mention those Canadians whose provinces had run dry. Much of the action centred on Little Burgundy, a neighbourhood southwest of Old Montreal that was Canada’s answer to jazz-age Harlem.

Car culture also helped with smuggling, especially in the Detroit-Windsor area, which was an early artery for contraband. But the Detroit-Windsor “funnel” would wind up representing a mere trickle compared to the cases and cases coming in through other routes—the Mexican border, the Gulf of Mexico, and Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, just south of Newfoundland. Liquor from Canada, the Caribbean and Europe was stored on the French islands in the St. Lawrence and shipped to “Rum Row”—where ships sat in international waters, several kilometres off Eastern Seaboard states. This became the site of several tense skirmishes that were the most obvious manifestation of the border wars Francis chronicles. One of the most famous incidents involved the I’m Alone, a Canadian ship sunk by the United States Coast Guard in international waters, sparking concerns about national sovereignty that, of course, are not dissimilar to the ones that still exist.

The philosophy underpinning the border wars is the most fascinating aspect, though. Francis mentions the diplomatic pressure that the United States exerted, successfully forcing the Canadian government to make the export of liquor to countries with Prohibition illegal in 1930. Prior to that, Canadian exporters such as Rocco Perri (Canada’s Al Capone) and Ben Kerr (one of our most famed rum-runners) broke no laws, and only those on the receiving end were doing anything illegal. But, from the other side of the border, American reformers, meanwhile, were going to tremendous lengths, literally working to make the entire planet dry. No sooner had the Anti-Saloon League managed to win the battle against alcohol on the domestic front than it started the battle for world domination with the World League Against Alcoholism, an international temperance agency. And, since this war on alcohol was largely being waged on behalf of American citizens who needed to be protected from illegal alcohol smuggled from other countries, this can be seen as a precursor to the interventionist moves enacted in the name of the never-ending American drug war.

The World League Against Alcoholism was formed in 1919, as a joint effort between the American Anti-Saloon League and the Dominion Temperance Alliance of Canada. Note that this is actually before Volstead came into effect on January 17, 1920, so it was hardly a reaction to smuggling. There may have been unintended consequences from American Prohibition, but they were hardly unanticipated. In fact, temperance organizations had made it clear as early as 1911 that they had Europe in their crosshairs.

Hindsight tells us that wine-loving Europe was never going to be a convert, but the reformers’ global ambition was fuelled by having achieved successes that exceeded everyone’s expectations—anti-alcohol forces successfully amended the Constitution, despite people’s objections that it might violate people’s inalienable rights to property. The World League Against Alcoholism feared that all efforts to keep America dry would be undermined by imports from wet regions such as Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean and Canada. But, in addition, it was perfectly in line with “manifest destiny,” the American philosophy that underpins expansionism, which was, at that time, finding new legs in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War and the start of the First World War. The move to export Prohibition outside its borders is an interesting early failed attempt at imperialism. And, it is actually kind of fascinating that Canada, a fledgling free-trade zone struggling to establish its own national identity, was negotiating an alliance with this early expression of American manifest destiny.

Maybe that is why we choose to have some kind of collective amnesia about this episode in our history. It is way more fun to define ourselves in opposition to the United States—liberal law breakers and rustic rum-runners—than it is to examine our similarities with those south of the border. But, like it or not, we share an awful lot of drunken history with the Americans.

Including, most stunningly, a ferocious and wilful ignorance about Canada’s own history of getting on and falling off the wagon. Closing Time is the first real challenge to this self-denial and should prove enlightening to our country’s drunken history geeks.