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

A Toronto man doesn’t give a damn as he carries a keg of beer down a street in broad daylight during the Prohibition era (Sept 16, 1916). [Source: LAC]

Whereas part one looked at the rise of the temperance movement in Canada, part two will cover the prohibition era and its downfall. Prohibition barely lasted a decade in most provinces and its existence was plagued by problems. Why? The ban on booze created a situation where organized crime thrived and access to alcohol was relatively easy. Moreover, the violence, rum-running, and smuggling continued even after the provincial bans on alcohol were repealed because prohibition was still going on south of the border. Why was prohibition such a massive failure in Canada and what were the wider, long-lasting consequences?

Terrible Legislation

“Blind Pig Raided.” Barrels of alcohol emptied into the lake at Elk Lake, Ontario during Prohibition (c. 1925). [Source]

Prohibition was a wartime measure that swept through most of the provinces between 1916-1917 and for a time (1918-1920 as part of the War Measures Act) was national as well. If it wasn’t plagued by unpopularity (Quebec’s ban lasted less than a year), prohibition was hampered by loose laws and weak enforcement. Ontario provides probably the best example of this. The Ontario Temperance Act (1916) prohibited the sale of alcohol in Ontario until 1927, however alcohol could still be manufactured within the province. Also, importing alcohol into Ontario was not illegal until 1921. Up until that point numerous Ontarians imported booze from Quebec through a mail-order business.


Mocking prohibition, ten men (and a dog) gathered outside to drink in Glen Williams, Ontario (c. 1919) [Source]

The Ontario Board of Licence Commissioners gave out many permits throughout the prohibition era; the number of wineries in the province grew to 67 by 1927. These wineries were allowed to sell up to two cases of wine on-site. Breweries are allowed to export beer as well. Furthermore, the ban on the sale of alcohol did not apply towards medicinal, religious, or scientific purposes. Doctors could prescribe alcohol to patients. Ontarians abused this to the max—by 1921 alone, doctors wrote over 588,000 prescriptions for alcohol and that number rose to 815,000 by 1924. Every year around the holiday season, prescriptions mysteriously seemed to skyrocket. (Ontario wasn’t alone in this, reportedly a Vancouver doctor wrote 4,100 liquor prescriptions in a single month!) Given the popularity of this method, some pharmacies didn’t even bother to keep up the charade and instead acted as a typical liquor store—no prescription required.

Blind Pigs and Speakeasies

If you didn’t want to bother getting a doctor’s prescription, you could always head over to an illicit establishment to get your fix. While all the bars and liquor stores were closed, speakeasies, also known as “blind pigs,” which sold alcohol were everywhere during the prohibition era. Speakeasies were usually hidden within another establishment. You could find them in hotels, the backs of stores, and restaurants, but sometimes they were even inside private residences and barns. Often one did not even need to travel to a speakeasy; the alcohol came to them via taxi rides and traveling door-to-door salesmen.


Flappers at a speakeasy. [Source]

Fun Fact: Other popular names for speakeasies include underground gin mills, grogshops, and booze cans.

Three men stand behind illegal liquor stills (used to make moonshine) taken into custody during prohibition in Vancouver (c. 1917) [Source]

Fun Fact: There were more illegal stills in Regina, Saskatchewan alone than in the rest of Canada.

Who supplied speakeasies with booze? Why bootleggers and rum-runners, of course. While “wet” provinces like Quebec produced a fair amount of the illegal imported alcohol in “dry” provinces, many rum-runners got their booze from home-based breweries. Selling moonshine was a lucrative side hustle for men and women throughout the 1920s because even after some provinces repealed their bans early, dry markets still existed elsewhere. Thanks to bootleggers and the high number of speakeasies across the country, many citizens thought it was easier to obtain alcohol during prohibition than it was before. As such, it is not really surprising that when prohibition referendums were held, like the ones in Ontario in 1919, 1921, and 1924, each time the “ban” on alcohol survived.

Organized Crime

Ontario’s “King and Queen of Bootlegging,” Rocco Perri and Bessie Starkman.

In Ontario, the self-proclaimed “King of the Bootleggers” was the Hamilton-based mafia boss Rocco Perri. Perri and his common-law wife, Bessie Starkman, ran a major smuggling alcohol and drug business. While many rum-runners smuggled booze in by using ships, Starkman, who was the head of operations, ran Perri’s business on land. She had boxes of alcohol labeled as turnips and they were shipped via train to places like New York and Chicago. Chicago mobster, Al Capone, was reportedly a customer. They also made a profit on illegally re-importing alcohol back into Ontario. Despite being watched by the RCMP, Perri used his connections and officials turned a blind eye towards their illegal business.

“[Prohibition] is an unjust law. I have a right to violate it if I can get away with it. Men do it in what you call legitimate business until they get caught. I shall do it in my business until I get caught. Am I a criminal because I violate a law that the people do not want?” – Rocco Perri in a 1924 interview with the Toronto Daily Star.

The couple did not have a happy ending. Starkman was gunned down in her own garage in 1930; Perri “disappeared” in 1944 and is believed to be at the bottom of Hamilton harbour in a cement-filled barrel.

The aforementioned rum-running by ships was the more popular way to smuggling alcohol in and out of Canada—especially out. Most of the Canadian provinces repealed prohibition before the United States did in 1933; which allowed the black market to continue to thrive. Even during the prohibition era, in places like Ontario it was perfectly legal to export alcohol and so Canadian authorities had little power to stop the flow of alcohol into the US. The American government actually contacted Parliament and asked them to help, but they didn’t have much luck. The government, under Prime Minister King, refused to clamp down on Canadian businesses and instead chose to make things more difficult for rum-runners. For example Canada Customs contacted US authorities when suspicious boats were cleared. (That being said, many ships simply evaded capture by dropping off their cargo at a secret point rather than sail through US Customs). Parliament eventually came around and passed a law in 1930 that made it illegal to transport alcohol via ship to an American destination.

Canadian Postcard by E.L. White (c. 1929-1930) [Source]

While rum-running was most profitable in Ontario (especially between Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, Michigan) thanks to the Great Lakes, this black market trade occurred on both the west and east coasts of Canada. The many Gulf and San Juan Islands along British Columbia’s coast enabled Vancouver to have a huge black market. By 1929, there were 7000 known bootleggers in the city. On the opposite side of the country, the black market blossomed in the “dry” Maritimes thanks to their proximity to the American east coast. It got so bad that Newfoundland’s provincial government under Premier Sir Richard Squires faced accusations of involvement in rum-running and accepting bribes. In-land smugglers flourished as well due to our sparsely patrolled borders.

While loose laws and minimal enforcement helped the black market prosper, accusations against government officials highlight another reason why rum-running thrived—it was seen a “high class” or “respectable” crime. While the average rum-runner may have been from a lower socioeconomic background, individuals in-charge of the illicit  operations were often from wealthy families. Women were heavily involved in rum-running too. In the Maritimes particularly, many single mothers (often war widows) turned to smuggling to support their families. If caught by police, they were not kept in jail for long and could go right back to bootlegging the moment they got  out. While bribes from rich mobsters definitely helped with the whole “blind eye” situation, Rocco Perri’s quote from earlier captures the other half of the equation. The public did not support crushing the rum-running industry, so there was a lack of incentive for the law to do so as well.

The Fall and Legacy of Prohibition


Some Like it Hot
(1959)
Note: If you haven’t seen this film, please do so, it’s hysterical. It also has a great speakeasy scene.

Despite the perception that it was a “respectable” crime, there’s still the fact that a lot of violence took place. Whether it was the result of fighting over territory, shootouts with the cops (even in towns that were tiny at the time like Waterloo, Ontario), pirates, (well, what else do you call hijacking on bodies of water?), or gangsters taking care of squealers, many people died due to the rise of organized crime in the prohibition era. When prohibition was repealed in the US, crime networks  on both sides of the border didn’t disappear. Those who stayed in the alcohol smuggling business switched to cheap booze from Scotland. Others switched to the drug trade.

One-by-one the Canadian provinces repealed prohibition. Yukon in 1920, British Columbia and Manitoba in 1921, Alberta in 1923, Saskatchewan in 1925, Ontario and New Brunswick in 1927, Nova Scotia in 1930, and finally Prince Edward Island in 1948. Newfoundland wasn’t a province yet, but they repealed their ban in 1924. The Northwest Territories had prohibition from 1874-1891 and did not reinstate the ban during the 1920s.

There’s a joke about how if there is some sort of ridiculous law surrounding alcohol, it comes from the prohibition era…and they’re right. Another lasting effect of prohibition can be seen in how alcohol is sold today in Canada. Provincially-owned liquor stores came about as a result of prohibition. For example, when prohibition was repealed in Ontario in 1927, the Liquor Control Act was passed. It authorized the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) to “control the sale, transportation and delivery” of alcohol within the province and today the LCBO enjoys a semi-monopoly on alcohol in Ontario.

In the end, prohibition failed so miserably because we’re all alcoholics support for the temperance movement vanished following World War I. The lack of government support lead to poor legislation and weak enforcement, which allowed crime to thrive. The lack of public support for the ban fueled the black market and it was socially acceptable to ignore the law. Finally, the temperance movement simply fell apart. Women had already gotten the vote, so temperance no longer had suffrage to latch onto. Activists moved onto different causes like labour reform. Alcohol was no longer public enemy number one. There is a question as to whether drinking dipped during the prohibition era. Unfortunately, there seems to be no data on Canadian alcohol consumption during the 1920s. However, even if there was a decline, any progress was erased when the Great Depression hit. Alcohol consumption in Canada steadily increased every decade until the 1980s.

I’ll let Homer Simpson wrap up this post.


Sources

Belshaw, John Douglas. “7.7 Temperance and Prohibition,” Canadian HIstory: Post-Confederation. BC Open Textbooks. Accessed from: https://opentextbc.ca/postconfederation/chapter/temperance-and-prohibition/

Blocker, Jack, Fahey, David, and Tyrrell, Ian. Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia, Volume 1. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. Pg 22. (2003).

Hallowell, Gerald. “Prohibition In Canada”. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Toronto: Historica Canada, 2013. Accessed from: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/prohibition/

Lefebvre, Andrew. Prohibition and the Smuggling of Intoxicating Liquors between the Two Saults. The Northern Mariner/Le marin du nord, XI, No. 3 (July 2001), 33-40. Accessed from: http://www.cnrs-scrn.org/northern_mariner/vol11/nm_11_3_33to40.pdf

Plummer, Kevin. Historicist: The Bootlegger’s Bravado. Torontoist. May, 23, 2009. Accessed from: http://torontoist.com/2009/05/historicist_the_bootleggers_bravado/

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2 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of Prohibition in Canada (Part Two)

  1. milliethom says:

    A fascinating post, Cadeauca. I must confess, I knew nothing at all about prohibition in Canada. Your post is very thorough and I like the bis of humour you add. 😀 It’s funny how banning something so often makes people all the more determined to have it. Interesting connection to Al Capone, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • cadeauca says:

      Thank you very much for the lovely comment! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Honestly, I didn’t know too much about prohibition in Canada either prior to writing the two articles.

      Liked by 1 person

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