Prohibition in Canada
Let’s take a trip back to the Prohibition Era in CanadaF and discuss its origins, the politics, and the people!
By Emma Zhao on Jun. 30, 2022
Prohibition in Canada, much like Prohibition in America, was a political move to moderate, and ultimately prevent, the production, sales, and trade of alcoholic beverages. However, in Canada, Prohibition was implemented as a provincial law instead of a federal law. This was known as the the Canada Temperance Act, or the Scott Act created in 1878, which gave provinces the ability to ban alcohol.
Prince Edward Island would be the first to enact this law, with most other provinces following during the First World War. While liquor could not be purchased by Canadian consumers, alcohol could still be made and exported out of Canada. Let’s take a look back at Prohibition in Canada, so we really have an appreciation for that crisp craft beer, glass of vino or fruity cocktail that we can legally buy these days!
A Timeline of Prohibition in Canada
When did Canadian Prohibition Start?
Canadian Prohibition had a staggered start date, because each province implemented Prohibition at different times. However, the first significant move towards Prohibition was an attempt to make it a federal law in 1898. Later, PEI would adopt Prohibition in 1901.
In general, Prohibition in Canada started in the early to mid-1800s.
The Beginning of Prohibition in Canada
Much like Prohibition in America, Canada’s prohibition kickstarted with the Temperance Movement, led by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The Temperance Movement began in 1827 as a social campaign against alcohol consumption that promoted alcohol abstinence. They campaigned in an effort to remove social ills, such as abuse, crimes, violence, etc. The Women’s Temperance Movement campaigned to close down all bars and taverns.
Many of the members and supporters often lobbied to the government, encouraging for prohibitory laws towards alcoholic beverages. These early campaigns really only targeted hard alcohols, while alcohols such as beer, wine, and ciders, were not seen as a significant problem. However, after the Maine Law was established, which encouraged a total ban of all alcoholic drinks, the WCTU and its members adopted the strict morals, aiming to prohibit all alcoholic beverages.
As the movement to push Prohibition in Canada progressed, the WCTU attempted to spread the message using all possible avenues. They pressured provincial governments to create school curriculums centered around the importance of Prohibition in Canada. For example, health classes would be forced to explain why alcohol was particularly harmful to the body, in an attempt to scare the youth off alcohol.
Prohibition in Canada During the 1800s
Throughout the century, with the relentless work of the WCTU and other supporters, there had been a handful of pre-Confederation acts.
Among these acts, the Dunkin Act of 1864, which was created under the Province of Canada at the time, had been one of the first acts that allowed a “local option” to ban alcohol. This meant that communities across Canada could decide to prohibit alcohol among their members.
In 1878, the Dunkin Act ultimately expanded to become the Scott’s Act, which allowed the newly formed provinces to make that decision.
A referendum was held in 1898, where Canadians voted on whether they wanted to enact a nation sweeping Prohibition law. The federal government decided that of those who voted, there wasn’t enough of a majority who wanted a federal law. Therefore, it remained as a local option. At that point, most of Canada was already “dry” due to the local option.
Prohibition and Discrimination in Canada
As the federal government of Canada was stewing over a nationwide Prohibition law, the Indigenous peoples of Canada were already subjected to Prohibition laws under the Indian Act of 1876.
Prohibition targeted towards the Indigenous peoples was one out of many ways (which were often inhumane) that the British government used in an attempt to assimilate them into a colonized Canada. By demonstrating sobriety, Indigenous people would qualify for enfranchisement. Only when enfranchised could an Indigenous person purchase alcohol legally.
An article published by the Journal of Canadian Studies found that it reflected the “firewater myth,” a belief that Indigenous people were overly reliant on alcohols and other intoxicants. According to the article, aspects of Prohibition targeted towards the Indigenous peoples of Canada in the Indian Act weren’t repealed until 1985.
Prohibition in Canada During War
Prohibition was first enacted in the province of PEI, as early as 1901. Most other provinces followed PEI, banning alcohol during the First World War. Prohibition in Canada during the First World War was advertised as a noble wartime sacrifice and a duty to the country of Canada.
Prohibition in Canada vs. Prohibition in America
Perhaps the one defining difference in Prohibition in Canada and Prohibition in America, was that while America undertook sweeping efforts to ban alcohol sales federally, Canada’s Prohibition was controlled mainly by the provinces.
In fact, unlike Prohibition in America, Prohibition in Canada was actually complicated by the federal government. While the provinces controlled the sales of alcohol, the federal government was responsible for the creation and international trade of alcohol.
Where constitutionally, all alcohols were completely banned in America, Canada was still producing liquors, just nothing that could be legally purchased by Canadian consumers.
Was Alcohol Illegal in Canada: The Blind Pigs, Speakeasies and Liquor Smuggling
While it seemed that alcohol related crimes had diminished in Canada following Prohibition, people began to work with illicit alcohols. Alcohols like moonshine and other inferior beverages were often homebrewed. Illegal places where people could buy alcohol were called “speakeasies” or “blind pigs.”
In America, Prohibition was especially strict, and lasted until the 1930s. Since the creation of alcohol was still technically legal under the Canadian federal government, smuggling alcohols from Canadian ports into America became increasingly common.
When did Prohibition End in Canada?
Prohibition in Canada was relatively short-lived. After the First World War, the provinces began to repeal Prohibition laws one by one. Most provinces repealed Prohibition in the 1920s, with Quebec having been without the law since 1919. The last province to give up the “noble experiment” was none other than PEI, in 1948.
The Legacy of Prohibition in Canada
While Canada is generally “wet” now, some “dry” pockets across the country remained. For example, Cardston is a “dry town” in Alberta where Prohibition laws were still in effect up until 2020.
It’s generally agreed upon that Prohibition was one of the many early instances that highlighted how the Canadian government functioned. Prohibition was one of the many laws that saw Canada from pre-confederation to post-confederation.
Prohibition was a feat of provincial government work, which is the same reason why now, there are different drinking ages in each province, and different licenses needed to sell alcohol in each province. Prohibition in Canada essentially solidified the way that Canadian governments control the distribution, creation, and trade of alcohol.
Here are some Prohibition themes articles, beers, and breweries for you to check out:
What is a Hefeweizen?
Hefeweizen: a German wheat beer (Weizen) that is unfiltered; brewed with the yeast left suspended in the beer.
Does Beer Go Bad? How to Prevent a Skunky Beer
Sometimes a bottle of your favourite beer that gets pushed to the back of the pantry and forgotten. It’s sad, but it happens. If you’re thinking “Can I drink old beer?” “Does beer expire?” “What is a skunky beer?”, keep on reading to find out all you need to know about beer gone bad!
What Are Adjunct Beers? – Beer Styles: The Ingredients
Ever wondered what beer is made of? You may already know about the four basics: malt, hops, yeast and water…but what about “everything else”? Follow along as we cover adjunct beer ingredients from starches, grains and sugars, to flavours, bacteria and more…
What are Beer Varieties? – The Origins
David Nuttall is an instructor at the Alberta Beer Festivals’ Beer School. He has worked in almost all aspects of the liquor industry. He is the current Judging Co-ordinator for Calgary International Beerfest and completed the Beer Judge Certification Program in 2012. He is passionate about beer and beer culture. This article is the first of a fascinating series on different beer styles.