Canada Dry: The History of Canadian Prohibition

August 9, 2017 - By 

Although it didn’t last more than several years, Canadian Prohibition has had long term effects that we still feel today. With roots in the 19th century, the movement to outlaw alcohol grew from smaller bans on a local level and culminated in a nationwide embargo on almost all things booze. Sure, the bans were lifted, but the wheels set in motion over one hundred years ago still turn to this day and dictate how we buy and sell wine, spirits, and beer in 2017. So pour yourself a glass of wine, gather round, and listen to the tale of how Canada went dry.

Trouble’s Brewing: The 19th Century Origins

Since man’s lips first touched liquor, alcohol was prescribed as a medicine to help soothe various hurts, banish colds, aid digestion, and help lubricate social events and celebrations. By the dawn of the 19th century, the winds of change were a-blowin’. Like all such movements, it started off small – a few vocal individuals who campaigned hard against the excesses of too much drink. To be fair, in certain ways they had a point. We now know that overindulging in alcohol is bad for our health but on the other side of the coin, moderate consumption has its benefits. Back in the 1800s, what began as advocacy for drinking less soon evolved into an all out war against booze that swept across several nations.

Canada was no exception to the growing influence of the Temperance cause. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Canada and Dominion Alliance for the Total Suppression of Liquor Traffic were major leaders in the movement to prevent the production and sale of alcohol. Many of these organizations grew up out of various Protestant churches who also advocated for banning liquor in all its forms. Alcohol was viewed as a societal evil by these groups, a vice that led to broken homes, battered wives, joblessness – the demon drink that led down the rocky road to ruin.

In Canada, Prohibition progressed in stages. The first legislation occurred in 1864 with the Canada Temperance Act (also called the Dunkin Act) which stated that counties could ban the sale of alcohol if the majority voted in favor of it. A second Canada Temperance Act (aka the Scott Act) passed in 1878 allowing individual municipalities to do the same. There were loopholes in the law that allowed for sacramental and medicinal alcohol to be bought and sold – a prelude of what was to come.

Provincial Bans

At the end of the 19th century, Canada held a referendum which saw pro-Prohibitioners outweigh those against the banning of booze in almost every province, Quebec being the lone exception. But nothing ever came of it on the federal level; low voter turnout and a fairly close margin meant that rather than adopting widespread Prohibition, the federal government turned the decision over to the provinces. The Northwest Territories led the charge, banning alcohol in 1874 until 1891.

Prince Edward Island was the first to enact Prohibition in the beginning of the 1900s. From there, most of the other provinces followed, with many adopting teetotaling legislation around 1916-1917. In British Columbia, some were beginning to plant vines and produce wine when Prohibition came along and put a damper on the early roots of viticulture in the province. Nationwide Prohibition took effect in 1918 as part of the War Measures Act to conserve resources during World War I. Perhaps because it coincided with the Great War, on the whole, crime went down within Canadian borders. Of course, some folks opted to make their own home-brewed booze and the dry years weren’t completely dry; if you really wanted to get your hands on a drink there were plenty of bootleggers and speakeasies where you could wet your whistle. A doctor’s note could still get you a medicinal dram of something spirituous.

Ontario allowed more exceptions than the other provinces; wineries weren’t forced to shutter their doors and various distilleries and brewers could remain in business as long as their products were explicitly for export purposes. Ultimately, Canada never really took to Prohibition. Throughout the ’20s repeals rolled across the country, just as the US began to dabble in their own Noble Experiment.

With Prohibition given the boot up north, opportunities flowed to make a quick buck rum-running. As there wasn’t much overlap with American Prohibition, Canadian rye made it over the border by the barrel load to slake the thirst of booze starved Yankees and give a boost to the Canadian economy. The irony of Prohibition is that for something that was meant to cure so many of society’s

ills, at least in the US, it led to an explosion of crime the likes of which hadn’t been seen before.

Modern Day Repercussions

Despite the fact that Prohibition was a failure, it did have one notably positive outcome. The driving force behind the Temperance movement was women and it opened the door for women’s suffrage, helping them earn the right to vote and hold office although it took until the middle of the 20th century for Asian and Indigenous women to be extended the same rights. From a wine standpoint, Prohibition and its lingering effects have been nothing short of a real headache.

One of the major setbacks caused by Prohibition was that issuing winery licenses became few and far between. In British Columbia, a few intrepid would-be winemakers began planting vines, but progress was slow. Post-Prohibition, many hybrid and Vitis labrusca vines (i.e. the ‘foxy’ Concord grape) were planted in vineyards, varieties which are none too well-regarded for fine wines. This lasted until the mid-’70s when in 1974, the government finally had the sense to lift the moratorium. People began experimenting with planting vineyards with fine grape varieties and Okanagan Valley was quickly recognized as a top site for viticulture.

By 1988, a new free trade agreement with the States forced Canadian winemakers to reevaluate their vineyards. A major vine pulling scheme was put into play and it was out with the labrusca and in with the vinifera. Most importantly, the Vintners Quality Alliance was formed which further created opportunity for quality winemaking thanks to its various rules and regulations modeling in part on those of France, Italy, and Spain. Since then, the Canadian wine industry has made leaps and bounds in the world of fine wine, particularly in the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario. 

But for as much as Canadian wine is being recognized as a real up and comer in the wine world, to this day, outdated interprovincial trading laws make it a real nightmare to sell across provincial borders. It’s a large stumbling block for smaller wineries in particular. A relic from that dalliance with teetotaling, shipping from one province to another was actually illegal up until 2012. This Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act is still live, but the law was revised to allow people to buy wine from other provinces for personal use. It was further amended in 2014 to include beer and spirits. Thank goodness. However, the fact remains that the laws are pretty darn prohibitive and as of this year, the government is still trying to figure out how to sort out all these provincial restrictions.

At least progress is being made and it can’t come soon enough. Canada’s wine industry, particularly in the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario, is blossoming. From sweeping up awards to gaining renown worldwide, wine lovers everywhere are discovering how wonderful our wines are. It’s an exciting time for Canadian fine wine and one thing is for certain: things will only continue to get better from here.

Camille Berry

Camille is a California born and bred writer and sommelier. Dedicated to the lifelong pursuit of wine knowledge, she can usually be found with her nose in a book or pouring over maps.
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