Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Prohibition north of the Border

Sep 6, 2013

A project that has kept me busy this summer is an illustrated history of prohibition in Canada. Titled Closing Time, it will be published next year.

American prohibition has been enjoying a lot of attention lately. Last year PBS aired a Ken Burns documentary on the subject, based on Daniel Okrent's best-selling book Last Call, and the TV drama "Boardwalk Empire" has had huge success. But most Canadians don't realize that we had our own experience with prohibition. During World War One every province except Quebec banned the consumption and sale of beverage alcohol. While south of the border the ban lasted until 1933, here at home we saw much sooner that prohibition wasn't working and one by one during the 1920s the provinces voted to become "wet" again. (Except PEI, that is, which remained dry until 1948.)

The arrival of prohibition in British Columbia, my home province, was a complicated, and amusing, story (well told in Douglas Hamilton's 2004 book, Sobering Dilemma). In May 1916 the legislature passed a bill banning liquor sales but the ban would not come into effect until a referendum proved that voters actually supported it. The referendum took place that September and prohibition won the day, polling a 56.5% to 43.5% majority. But unlike every other province where referenda took place, BC gave its 20,000 soldiers overseas a chance to vote and these votes were not counted until the end of the year.

The man in charge of counting the military vote was Richard McBride, former premier and in 1916 serving as BC's agent general in Great Britain. McBride was an adamant foe of prohibition so perhaps it was not a surprise that when the votes were tallied he reported that the soldiers had voted overwhelmingly against going dry, so overwhelmingly that they appeared to have overturned the original result. Was BC going to buck the national trend and stay wet?

Prohibitionists were stunned. Soldiers stationed in BC had voted about 50-50 in the referendum. Was it credible that their brethren overseas had such a different view? The government sent a commission of inquiry to England to investigate for fraud. And there was plenty to find. It turned out that many men had voted more than once, many other "voters" were dead or in prison camp, and many others were not residents of BC at all. In the end more than half of the overseas ballots were disqualified. Once again the result was reversed, this time in favour of prohibition, which became law on October 1, 1917.

Prohibition turned out to be so difficult to enforce and so conducive to corruption -- for example, the province's chief official in charge of enforcing prohibition, Walter Findlay, was caught smuggling in a trainload of rye from Ontario worth an estimated one million dollars in today's money! -- that British Columbians quickly soured on the experiment and in 1921 the province became the first to rescind the law and to introduce a system of government liquor stores.

It is an interesting time to be studying liquor prohibition, given the rising tide of public opinion in favour of ending the prohibition of marijuana. Though history does not repeat itself, there are many analogies to be drawn and I'll undoubtedly be coming back to the subject as the book nears completion.