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Prohibition Essay

Alcohol and controversy are two words that seem to go hand in hand. The very nature of alcohol, to alter one’s abilities and control allows for a distinct division in the opinion of the people. Just as the people are divided, the law follows a similar path. The legal position of alcohol has undergone many changes throughout time. Whether social, legal or political, problems follow close at hand. Canada’s memorable experience with the Temperance and the Prohibition movements allow for a closer examination of the “Devil’s Drink”.

Canada’s expansive land coupled with the variety of population allowed for a challenging and controversial experience during the Prohibition. Political policy clashed with public opinion and caused social uproar. Examination of those who supported the Prohibition, those who vehemently opposed and those who took a middle stand allow one to better understand Canada’s history through controversial times. While the Prohibition was a fascinating time, it is also a perfect example of Canada’s population division and how the issue of alcohol turned the country upside down.

The most zealous of these divisive sides were the temperance organizations and the Protestant Church. The temperance movement grew out of the Protestant fundamentalist and evangelical church, when the early Methodists first established temperance movements and took the vow of temperance. Beginning in the 1830s, Canadian churches such as the Presbyterian and Baptist joined the temperance movement along side Methodists. Their common ideology evolved into self-restraint from alcohol in all forms, and a fight against those who opposed Prohibition.

The temperance movement began to strengthen as numbers increased through groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union or Alberta’s Temperance and Moral Reform Society. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was an organization that sought to upgrade moral life, specifically through abstinence from alcohol. The National WCTU of the United States was founded in 1874 in Cleveland, Ohio, as a result of the Woman’s Temperance Crusade that spread through the Midwest at that time. Frances Willard, the group’s second president (1879-98), was responsible for the organization in 1883 of the World WCTU. The Dominion Alliance for Total Suppression of Liquor Traffic was eventually established in 1896 as the united and strongest temperance organization in Canada, a type of umbrella organization for all of the social and political temperance interests and groups.

These organizations and religious orders did not tolerate alcohol or any related activity or establishment, such as a bar or tavern. The temperance workers viewed alcohol as a cause of all social errors and misdoings. Alcohol was “universally recognized as the most prolific cause of poverty, disease, and crimeЕand the most formidable obstacle to the moral, social, and material progress of our people. The WCTU felt certain social problems were linked directly to alcohol use. They preached that “poverty, family breakdown, man’s infidelity and hardships for women and children” were the gravest and harshest consequences of alcohol. They also saw alcohol as a method of degrading females, which would result to domestic disturbance and possibly prostitution. As a result, the temperance organizations decided to begin a “Banish-the-bar crusades”.

Temperance activists assumed that demand for alcohol would disappear once law prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol. They saw themselves responsible for much of that task. The Drys, as they were called were involved in a variety of important protests through sermon, letters to editors and association with political parties. The Baptist and the Methodist churches declared rum-running a sin.

The second distinct side to the Prohibition was the government of Canada. It supported the prohibition movement federally, provincially and municipally after WWI. By the end of 1917, Prime Minister Borden announced Prohibition. In 1918, as part of war measures, the federal government banned the use of foods in production of alcohol and outlawed shipment with provinces of alcohol. Beverages with more than 2.5 per cent alcohol were not to be sold, manufactured nor dispersed. To respond to the demand for policing, the federal government created several hundred jobs in the civil service at the three levels of government to enforce Prohibition.

Provincial support for Prohibition was also highly divided. The provinces were first to initiate Prohibition. New Brunswick passed the first non-wartime provincial Prohibition in Canada in 1856. The provinces approved wartime Prohibition during 1915-1917 (with Quebec in 1918), before the actual federal announcement. Many provinces continued Prohibition after the war had ended although the support for Prohibition varied. The Maritimes had extremely important and active temperance forces. The provinces were often the first to allow female vote, resulting in a larger Prohibition support. Another side of Prohibition was the largely underground group of bootleggers, rumrunners, owners of boozoriums and operators of taverns. Many different motives were behind their choice of supporting the legal reality of Prohibition.

Rum running also became a prominent underground alcohol activity that depended on the legalities of alcohol in Canada and in the United States. The rum running ventures drew its participants by opportunity, choice, and often necessity. East Coast rum running was generally a last resort due to the economic depression in the region and very high rates of unemployment during the Prohibition. As a result, many Maritime fishermen were convinced to join the business of helping Americans and Canadians work around Prohibition. For example, the Maritime Merchant reported in 1925 that about half of the Lunenburg fishing fleet, of approximately 100, was involved in the rum trade. In fact, many of these fishermen rented or leased their boats to Americans for $2,000 to $4,000 per month.

Bootlegging was common in every province during the Prohibition. The amount of alcohol varied from small personal amounts to trainloads. Many taverns and hotels continued their previous activities despite convictions and fines. Even women joined the bootlegging and illicit tavern operating business. The lack of employment for Maritime women during the 1920s lured many to participate in the retail rum trade. This was even more common in single parent families.

Another important view of Prohibition was that of the middle position – in between support and abolishment. The most significant aspects of this dual side of Prohibition were the Moderation League and the Canadian government as well as physicians.

The leaders of this middle perspective on Prohibition were the members of the Moderation League. The Moderation League was established in 1919 by a group of anti-dry business leaders, many of which also supported Prohibition. The league publicized that huge profits made by bootleggers and mail-order houses went to the government. The group supported government control of “sealed bottles of liquor and the sale of beer and wine with meals in restaurants,” and using these profits to relieve debts of municipalities and provinces. The Moderation League also emphasized that it did not disregard private retail sale of alcohol, or the return of legal public drinking in the saloon. Despite the league’s small beginnings, its popularity and influence grew as it spread into the prairies and eastern Canada. The league’s value increased even further when British Columbia’s government turned $1,000,000 profit in its first year from the liquor business. The leagues’ code also strengthened their political and social appeal to Canadian. The code’s official goal was to “support constituted authority and promote obedience to the laws of the province promote by educating temperance “encourage high ideals of public service and citizenshipЕinsist on such legislation respecting the sale and use of alcoholic beverages as will command the respect and obedience of the people” and maintain at all times the liberties and rights of the people”.

The federal and the provincial government were in an uncomfortable position in deciding the fate of alcohol – whether as a choice, an economic prospect or a problem which required moderation. These levels of government began to solve these problems by allowing the counties and the provinces to hold referendums regarding their views about the legal and moral status of alcohol. The governments attempted to solve several of the economic and moderation conflicts of policy by allowing the results of these referendums to be authorized in their respected areas.

The physicians were another group in Canada population that held the dual Prohibition view. Most practicing doctors during the Prohibition were faced with several conflicts. Physicians supported Prohibition, because the limited access to alcohol was linked to a decrease in drinking-related deaths. For example, the number of liver cirrhosis related deaths fell to 40 per cent of the figure for the pre-Prohibition years. Doctors also supported Prohibition with hopes of writing larger amounts of prescriptions for alcohol-medication. This practice became so common that prescription alcohol became a larger alcohol operation than bootlegging.

Consequently, the same alcohol prescription overabundance created their opposition to Prohibition. As a result of doctor’s careless alcohol prescription practice, the government set limits on prescriptions to 100 per month and less than 18 ounces. The opposition continued as the doctors and patients believed that alcohol legitimate medication that should not be restricted by the Prohibition laws.

Those opposed to the idea of Prohibition were growing in terms of influence and power. This portion of society had opportunities to practice their evolving attitudes toward temperance and Prohibition. Some of the opposition included the tavern operators and distilleries, the church, soldiers, a portion of the business sector, heavy drinkers and certain levels of government.

Tavern owners and distilleries were great supporters of banning Prohibition. Firstly, Prohibition destroyed alcohol production and distribution. Since it was illegal to produce stronger beer and alcohol, as well as to sell that beverage to the public, these businesses’ profits fell, often to the point of bankruptcy. The illegal taverns were prone to far greater economic troubles, which caused many to be sold to hotels and distilleries to avoid total bankruptcy. The increase in fines and convictions drove the tavern, hotel owners and distillers to oppose Prohibition.

The governments of Canada whether at the federal, provincial or municipal level, also opposed Prohibition at certain times. The Government of Canada was never a true supporter of Prohibition. The federal government never allowed the advocates to impose their views on the rest of Canada. Prime Minister Laurier discredited and overturned the national referendum on Prohibition in 1898. He felt that a voting turnout of 44 per cent did not justify a majority vote in Canada.

Quebec’s continuing positive attitude towards alcohol, detailed in its voting patterns, stood as an example for the movement to eradicate Prohibition. The temperance movement had always encountered difficulties in Quebec. Father Chinique, who headed the temperance movement in Quebec, ran into many problems claiming that the “national survival of French Canadians depends on temperance.” Chinique became one of the most hated men in Quebec, and the movement lost any chance of popularity. Consequently, Quebec was the last province to support Prohibition in 1918, as part of war measures, and the first to abolish it a year later.

The Roman Catholic and the Anglican Churches also opposed Prohibition as they both took little interest in temperance. They had definite problems being associated with Christians through Prohibition. The bible states that Christ gave wine to others and drank it himself. The miracle at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine, further prompted the conflict over biblical support for the temperance movement. Both the Roman Catholic and the Anglican Churches advocated moderation yet encouraged the holiness of alcohol.

Finally, the sailors, heavy drinkers and members of anti-Prohibition organizations supported the elimination of Prohibition. Addicted consumers of alcohol were enraged because they lost the readily available alcohol. Alcohol provided an escape from reality and the reminder of home, which was particularly important to the Canadian soldiers who fought during World War II in Europe.

Never before has an issue so completely turned Canada upside down. Whether one supported Prohibition, vehemently opposed or took a middle stance, Canadians were divided. Moral, social, religious and economic objections were all raised as the war on alcohol intensified. A tumultuous time in Canada’s history, the country was split as social uproar increased. While acting illegally, it pushed a great many people to alternative methods to supply the steady demand for alcohol. Those who supported Prohibition led a crusade against the beverage. No one escaped the controversy surrounding temperance and Prohibition and this intense debate shaped Canada’s history as well as its people.


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Jul 8, 2010