Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Happy Anniversary

Jun 5, 2017

This year is a busy one for centenaries, and sesquicentenaries: Vimy, the Russian revolution, Canada 150, to name but three.

Here in BC we are commemorating a couple of hundredth anniversaries: women's suffrage and prohibition. Both came into effect in 1917. On the face of it they are an unlikely pairing. What were voters thinking? The vote for women was one of the most significant progressive reforms of the 20th century, while prohibition was probably the worst attempt at social engineering in Canadian history. Yet in BC -- and in some other provinces as well -- they were introduced at almost precisely the same time.

Both women's suffrage and prohibition were approved by popular referendum during the BC provincial election of 1916 and introduced the following year. The fact that they were linked suggests that, like womens’ suffrage, prohibition was considered a progressive measure. At the time it was supported by many of the most forward-thinking elements in society. Yes, it was promoted by what today we might call the religious right, the hellfire and damnation crowd. But it was also favored by social reformers who were concerned at the human and social costs of alcohol abuse. The two issues were also linked because many prohibitionists expected that women, if given the vote, would vote in favor of going dry.

As things turned out, of course, prohibition was not the reform its proponents hoped it would be. It may have reduced drinking – the jury is still out on that – but it definitely encouraged political corruption, crime and hypocrisy. In BC it lasted less than four years before it was repealed as a bad idea.

No such second thoughts about women’s suffrage, of course. Making the centenaries a bit of an odd couple, commemorating as they do one of the landmark achievements in women’s equality and one of the most notorious public policy failures in provincial, even in North American, history.