The Rise and Fall of Prohibition in Canada (Part One)

Tree of Intemperance by Archibald Macbrair (c. 1855) – This is an American cartoon, but I think it best sums up the temperance movement. To supporters, alcohol was the root of social and moral evils.

Continuing our look into ridiculous events in Canadian history: Prohibition. The banning of alcohol has a bit of a convoluted history in Canada. Unlike in the United States were the Volstead Act was a federal bill that banned alcohol nationwide from 1920-1933, prohibition was a matter largely left up to the Canadian provinces and therefore happened stages and at different times. By-and-large, the provinces instituted the ban during World War One and repealed it during the 1920s (minus a few exceptions) because not only was prohibition a major failure, it was vastly unpopular. It wasn’t always that way though. Before we get to the “fall” aka speakeasies, rum-running, and all that fun stuff, we have to cover the “rise.” This post will look at how prohibition came to be in Canada.

Alcohol Consumption in 19th Century Canada

Taking a beer break (c. 1899, Langenburg, Saskatchewan) [Source: LAC]

In a country where wheat, rye, and other grains have long been major players in the economy, it should be no surprise that the production (and consumption) of alcohol was widespread in Canada. In both Upper and Lower Canada, brewing and distilling industries amassed some of the largest and earliest fortunes. Moonshine (unregulated homemade alcohol) was also rampant. As a result, alcohol consumption levels were high nationwide. The reason for this is that aside from accessibility, society’s view of alcohol was a bit different back then, especially prior to 1850. In the pre-industrial era, drinking alcohol was seen as a way to rejuvenate oneself as opposed to having a negative effect on one’s physical and mental capacities. Drinking before, during, and after work was normal. (There is also a longstanding joke/harsh reality that it was safer to drink alcohol than water back then due to the lack of sanitation measures). All of this was basically a breeding ground for alcoholism and public drunkenness; two problems that were amplified with the rise of industrialization and urbanization.

Temperance Movement

Group of WCTU meet in Toronto (c. 1889) [Source]

The temperance movement was a social campaign against alcohol consumption and promoted full abstinence. In Canada, the first temperance organizations were established by 1827. Supporters saw alcohol as the root cause of nearly all societal problems such as unemployment, poverty, crime, violence, prostitution, and illness. Moreover, alcohol hurt financial success and social cohesion. In Canada, temperance efforts were initially more focused on local circumstances and did not have national ambitions until much later on. Their efforts paid off when the Canada Temperance Act (aka the Scott Act) was passed in 1878, which allow municipalities nationwide to hold votes on prohibition. The rise of cities and factory work meant that there was a higher (and more visual) concentration of heavy drinkers in a localized area. This, along with the rise of other big Industrial era movements brought the debate over alcohol to the forefront of politics:

Hillhurst Presbyterian Sunday school group promoting prohibition/temperance, Calgary, Alberta (c. 1912-1916) [Source: Glenbow Museum – NA-1639-1]

Evangelicalism – Evangelical Christian denominations were booming in 19th century North America. Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists disapproved of alcohol and their numbers were growing. Moreover, members of the two leading temperance organizations, the Dominion Alliance for the Total Suppression of the Liquor Traffic and the Canadian branch of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), were largely Protestant. As the denominations’ numbers grew, so did temperance supporters. (Click here to see a WCTU campaign leaflet, “The Church Versus the Saloon.”)

Maternal Feminism – A popular 19th century feminist ideology based off of women’s reproductive abilities. Basically it’s the idea that women deserve equality because the health and morality of the nation is dependent upon their distinctive role as mothers and caregivers. Drinking alcohol not only put women and children’s health at risk, but eroded family life, and it undermined the idea of female moral superiority. The latter was a major problem because many maternal feminists were suffragettes. One of the reasons women weren’t allowed to vote is because involvement in politics would debase women’s morality. To this point, suffragettes argued that under male control society had devolved into absolute mess of corruption and vice. As such, moral superiority was needed to remedy the situation so voting rights for women was necessary. Suffragettes often saw alcohol as a threat to their fight for voting rights and so it became a target of theirs. For better or worse, suffrage and temperance became linked.

Racism – Waves of immigration happened over the course of the 19th century, however the later half of the 1800s saw huge numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. A lot of these immigrants were also Catholic and Jewish. The Anglo-Protestant elite were not happy about this. Drinking culture between old and new immigrants clashed. Racism and the desire to stop the further degradation of society helped fuel the temperance movement, (Dominion Alliance and WCTU were both anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic). Fun Fact: The Catholic Church was on the “wet” side of the argument.

Labour Reform – Support from the working class was necessary for the temperance movement to succeed. As labour movements grew, a desire for respectability and professionalism meant that alcohol no longer fit into the culture of many workplaces. Canadian labour organizations incorporated the ideals of the temperance movement into their own platforms.

The Indian Act and Prohibition

Governor Guy Carleton’s 1775 directive, “No Trader shall sell or otherwise supply the Indians with Rum, or other spirituous liquors,” is often listed as an example of how early the federal government’s fixation on controlling Indigenous Peoples access to alcohol began. However, the Catholic Church and officials all the way back in the days of New France had also tried to clamp down on their access by banning the practice of trading alcohol with them. It wasn’t out of any concern for their well-being; controlling Indigenous Peoples’ access to alcohol was grounded in the racist idea that it hindered the “civilization” process. This was solidified in the Indian Act which officially prohibited the sale and consumption of alcohol by Indigenous Peoples from 1876 to 1985. The result was the creation of lasting negative stereotypes and myths surrounding Indigenous Peoples and alcohol. In the end, the only people who really benefited were black market dealers. For more on this subject, click here.

The 1898 Failed Referendum

By 1898, the temperance movement had grown strong enough to convince the Laurier government to hold a national referendum on prohibition. Turns out though that their support was not as widespread as they thought. Take a look at the numbers:

Note: To learn more about the 1898 referendum, click here.

Prohibition won by 13,687 votes, however most Canadians did not bother to vote. Why? Well, women weren’t allowed to vote. The numbers above are all male votes. You can bet that the pro-prohibition vote would have been a lot higher if the majority of the temperance campaign had been able to vote. Another possible reason may be that parts of the country already had prohibition thanks to local laws, so what the point in voting?

Prime Minister Laurier’s response?

Laurier decided that the slim majority that prohibition won by was not enough to warrant an all-out ban, especially given the low voter turnout. (Also, francophone Laurier wasn’t about to piss off Quebec. Just look at those numbers!) His administration backed away from the issue.

World War I and Prohibition

The Great War gave the temperance movement the boost it needed to succeed in obtaining prohibition. The two ideas emerged: (1) it was shameful to indulge in alcohol when men were sacrificing their lives overseas and (2) veterans should be able to return to a country that was better than when they left it.  By connecting prohibition to patriotism, the temperance movement were finally able to achieve their goal. During the years of 1916-1918, one-by-one most of the Canadian provinces (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, Yukon) and Newfoundland began to prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol. In March 1918, Prime Minister Borden officially stopped the manufacture of alcohol. As for Quebec, citizens were not overly swayed by the patriotism/prohibition connection. Desire for the banning of alcohol and support for the Great War remained low throughout WWI (which added to the English vs French Canadian animosity of the era). The province did briefly ban distilled alcohol in 1919, but it was repealed in the same year.

So how did most returning soldiers feel about prohibition?

Veterans were not happy that Canada had gone “dry” while they were gone. When the news spread to Europe, many soldiers were upset that they did not have a say in the matter and their bitterness remained when they returned post-war.

Bar owners and employees also weren’t happy because the ban greatly impacted their livelihoods. They organized large anti-prohibition protests in response to the ban.

One half mile of barmen along Yonge Street during anti-prohibition parade in Toronto (March 8, 1916) [Source: LAC]

As the patriotic fervor of WWI faded away with the passage of time, more Canadians grew unhappy with prohibition and sought way to get around the law. I will discuss the prohibition era and the consequences of the ban in the next blog post.


Belshaw, John Douglas. “7.7 Temperance and Prohibition,” Canadian HIstory: Post-Confederation. BC Open Textbooks. Accessed from:

Blocker, Jack, Fahey, David, and Tyrrell, Ian. Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia, Volume 1. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. Pg 243. (2003).

Chouinard, Annie. “Drinking: a vital and social necessity,” McCord Museum. Accessed from:

Dupré, Ruth, and Venca Tachellum, Désiré, “Canadians and Prohibition: An Analysis of the 1898 Referendum,” HEC Montreal. Accessed from:

Hallowell, Gerald. “Prohibition In Canada”. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Toronto: Historica Canada, 2013. Accessed from:





4 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of Prohibition in Canada (Part One)

  1. Matthew says:

    Curious that the cartoon lists ambition as a social evil??

    Looking forward to the fall part, can i expect a certain US gangster to make an appearance?


    • cadeauca says:

      I guess prohibitionists wanted people to be happy with their lots in life? “Never aspire to be anything greater!” 😉

      If you’re referring to Al Capone, I’m debating whether to include him or give him a separate post. Thanks for reading!


  2. LTerech says:

    Random question, but does the ‘Rate of Participation’ in the above chart count all eligible voters or is it representative of the population? The numbers in favour of prohibition in Nova Scotia are crazy!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • cadeauca says:

      The rate of participation just counts all eligible voters. Prohibition was really popular in the Maritimes! Thanks for reading!


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