Tales of Canadian prohibition
According to an apocryphal story, the teetotaller George Brown once verbally attacked his opponent John A. Macdonald, an alcoholic, while at a campaign stop. Following Brown’s speech, the future prime minister raised himself from his seat, turned around, and threw up. Wiping his mouth afterward, he declared, “Forgive me, but I always do that when I hear George Brown speak.”
Dan Malleck’s Liquor and the Liberal State is replete with similar accounts of activists and politicians hurling insults at one another throughout nineteenth-century Ontario. At the heart of their debates, Malleck argues, was the question of how to run a liberal state — that is, a state that protects an individual’s right to vote, to worship as one pleases, to own property, and to speak freely. As a “rational actor,” a citizen could and should “engage in the sort of debate that shaped the structure” of their governments. But could the people be trusted with liberty if they were intoxicated?
Before Confederation, regulation of alcohol was mostly a local affair. Liquor licences were a reliable source of revenue for municipal councils, but as more taverns popped up and the price of alcohol sank, incidents of disorderly conduct increased. The new distribution of powers provided a chance to re-evaluate jurisdictional authority and the role of governments in controlling alcohol. In 1876, Queen’s Park passed the Crooks Act, which gave the province the authority to appoint liquor inspectors and capped the number of licences on the basis of population. Two years later, the Scott Act (also known as the Canada Temperance Act) introduced the “local option,” according to which “electors in municipalities could vote their communities dry.”
Moderate anti-prohibitionists saw the outright bans as a threat to individual liberty. The historian Goldwin Smith, who served as president of the Liberal Temperance Union, took the philosophical stance that, as Malleck puts it, “moral suasion and nurturing a sense of individual responsibility were the best ways to encourage the temperate use of liquor.” Similarly, the Anglican priest (and teetotaller) J. C. Farthing of Woodstock held the view that prohibition deprived men of their “Christian liberty.” With the aid of common sense and scripture, Farthing argued, people will usually choose moderation.
On the other side were the so-called Drys like Frank Spence, a journalist and secretary of the Dominion Alliance for the Total Suppression of the Liquor Traffic. The organization, established in 1877, was one of the most prominent temperance lobby groups in Canada. According to Spence and the alliance, drink was an evil too dangerous to be merely regulated; it had to be cast out of the realm altogether. Spence defended prohibition as a way “to uphold and strengthen the church, the law, the school, the home, and all that helps to make men nobler.” Alcohol threatened the peace — and, therefore, the rights of others. “Liberty for men to injure others,” he reasoned, “is a condition that pertains to barbarism and savagery.”
Amid all the debate about civilization, rights, and liberty, Malleck identifies a “tendency for rational discourse to be replaced by (irrational) histrionics.” Temperance advocates in particular, he says, were guided by a stringent idealism and often betrayed “a bloody-mindedness that made them both righteous and unrealistic.” They could be richly prejudiced, for instance. In 1899, the Toronto Evening News referred to Quebec as “the most backward province in the dominion” and complained that the whisky trade existed because “Canada is ruled by the descendants of the conquered Frenchmen.”
The debates about the regulation of alcohol continued at all levels of government into the early years of the twentieth century as “different versions of liberalism” were used “to justify a variety of government approaches to liquor.” It was only in 1916 that Ontario-wide prohibition came into effect — during wartime, when it was easier to enact restrictive laws. Almost ten years after the war ended, the province finally permitted drinking again in 1927 under the aegis of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. Local mandates would continue in some jurisdictions, however. The Junction neighbourhood in Toronto, for instance, was dry until a ragtag group called Working for Equal Treatment, or WET, successfully campaigned to have the liquor ban overturned in 2000.
Not so long ago, in 2015, Stephen Harper attacked Justin Trudeau’s plans to legalize cannabis. At a campaign stop in Montreal, the prime minister called marijuana “infinitely worse” than tobacco. Conservative campaign ads claimed that the Liberal leader supported the sale of marijuana to children, the expansion of safe injection sites and the establishment of neighbourhood brothels. Meanwhile, Trudeau asked whether it’s the government’s business what anyone smokes.
That same year, Dan Malleck and Cheryl Krasnick Warsh invited scholars from across North America and the United Kingdom to discuss historical policies and legal cases involving recreational and medical drugs. Their conference resulted in Pleasure and Panic: New Essays on the History of Alcohol and Drugs, a compilation of fascinating studies that examine how the regulation and use of addictive substances have informed social movements, medical innovations, marketing, and even cultural identity.
Jonathan Reinarz, a history professor at the University of Birmingham, writes about the early days of the liberal state and standards of quality control. British brewers used to put sugar, glucose, sulphuric acid, arsenic, and bits of horseflesh into people’s favourite brews. (Today’s beer drinker will be relieved to know that calves’ brains were saved for making the froth on milk.) But consumer revolts ensured that certain standards would be introduced and upheld. The ingredients list on beer is now usually kept to a minimum: barley, hops, and yeast.
The same is not true for street drugs, which are often adulterated with substances like fentanyl. The essays of Pleasure and Panic don’t address the overdose crisis specifically, but they do show how difficult it can be to make safe supplies available. The independent scholar Chris Elcock offers an illustrative example. In Chicago in the 1960s, a man named George Peters opened a treatment centre for young people on bad acid trips. The LSD Rescue Service provided emergency and post-incident help, but the local police narcotics unit warned Peters that “handling illegal drugs would make him subject to arrest like everyone else.” Eventually, he had to shut the centre down.
In a fitting nightcap to the other essays, the historian Matthew J. Bellamy describes how dozens of Canadian brewers — motivated by economies of scale — consolidated from 1945 to 1962 under the umbrellas of Molson, Labatt, and Carling O’Keefe. These giants created “ ‘milder,’ ‘smoother,’ and ‘mellower’ ” brews to appeal to more people. Basically, they all tasted the same. And since the price of beer was determined by provincial authorities, the Big Three had only one way to compete with each other: by selling a “desirable lifestyle” with expensive advertisements that featured “fit, happy, handsome, heterosexual people engaged in a range of pleasurable pursuits.”
The country was done debating whether alcohol belonged in this nation. It clearly did. The question now was whether Molson or Labatt better represented the “good life.”