16 September 1916
It was foreshadowed by a flickering of the overhead lights. And then, at precisely 7pm on Saturday, 16 September 1916, bars across Ottawa, indeed throughout Ontario, went dark. Prohibition had arrived. That last day, Ottawa’s hotels were chock-a-block full. Retail liquor stores also did a roaring trade. Their deliverymen worked flat out stocking cellars in private homes—the only place where liquor could henceforth be stored in Ontario. Although they faced a bleak future, purveyors of alcohol could take some small solace from the fact that the day’s takings were the best ever as patrons drained their remaining stocks of liquor and beer.
The coming of Prohibition was largely taken in good humour in Ottawa. While the crowds in some places were described as a bit boisterous, nothing got out of hand. Men sang choruses of The Stein Song and How Dry Am I? The latter, which was adapted by Irving Berlin in 1919 and called The Near Future, was later to become a Prohibition favourite in America. As the clock struck the hour, men filed quietly out of the bars. Ottawa’s licence inspector was satisfied that all hotel bars had closed promptly. Some, including the Windsor Hotel, had in fact closed a bit early to ensure that they stayed on the right side of the law. Starting the following Monday, licensed hotels were limited to selling non-intoxicating “temperance beer,” a watery facsimile of real beer containing no more than 1.43% alcohol by volume, or “2 ½ per cent. of proof spirits [British measure]” as described in The Ontario Temperance Act of 1916.
For Ottawa drinkers, a “dry” Ontario was more of an inconvenience than a serious problem. With Quebec still “wet,” the bars and taverns of Hull were amply stocked with their favourite tipple. However, for Ontario residents who lived farther from the border, prohibition was more onerous. The Ottawa Evening Journal joked that the “joyful refrain of the bibulistic tourist on reaching Ottawa” was “Just one more river to cross.”
The coming into force of the Act was welcomed by local churches, especially evangelical Protestant denominations such as the Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists who had been central to the fight to make Ontario “dry.” The Journal reported Rev. P.W. Anderson of Mackay Presbyterian Church saying that prohibition “gave wives and children, as well as drinking husbands,… a fair chance to start things anew.” Rev. Robert Eadie of the Bethany Presbyterian Church thundered that “every Ottawa liquor store dealer who had gone outside [i.e. Hull] to continue his trade should be blacklisted.” It was notable that in the Journal’s coverage of the clerical reaction to the arrival of Prohibition, no Anglican or Roman Catholic priest was quoted. Both traditional denominations had a more nuanced view on alcohol, generally favouring moderation over prohibition.
Ottawa’s hotel owners were the big losers with the coming of Prohibition. While the majority of them applied for licences to become “standard hotels,” which empowered them to sell “temperance beer,” soft drinks and cigars, their bar revenues dropped sharply. Lost sales were estimated at more than $1,500 per day. The City of Ottawa was a loser too. In 1915, the City’s take of the already reduced number of hotel and liquor store licences amounted to $36,525. It also stood to lose a similar amount through reduced business taxes and other imposts.
The closure of Ontario’s bars and liquor stores was the culmination of the efforts of thousands of earnest and pious individuals who sought to eradicate what they believed was a great evil in society. The temperance movement was rooted in a worldwide Protestant Christian revival that started during the early nineteenth century. The movement was particularly strong in North America, but was also important in the Nordic countries, New Zealand, and to a less extent Australia. Britain too had its temperance movement centred in the non-conformist churches though it was never strong enough to push through a legal prohibition against alcohol.
In the United States and Canada, the temperance movement’s most fervent supporter was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Founded in 1874 in Ohio, it quickly went international. Canada got its first branch (or “union”) that same year. In 1883, the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WWCTU) was established. Members, mostly drawn from the middle class, pledged to abstain from all distilled liquors, wines and beer, and to discourage the use and traffic of alcohol. This early feminist organization based its values on the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophon who advocated moderation in all things healthful; total abstinence from all things harmful. In keeping with this motto, the organization did not limit its opposition to just alcohol, but also lobbied against the use of tobacco, white slavery (a.k.a. prostitution), child abuse, as well as other evils that particularly affected women and children. The WCTU’s world-wide membership peaked during the 1920s and 1930s at roughly 750,000, with roughly half that number in the United States. In 1914, Canadian membership stood at about 17,000. (The WCTU’s worldwide membership stands at about 5,000 today.)
In Canada, a broad anti-alcohol coalition called the Dominion Alliance for the Total Suppression of the Liquor Traffic was formed in 1877. Active across the country, its membership included the WCTU and other organizations such as the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). The strong evangelical protestant nature of such organizations sometimes turned anti-Catholic, reducing its effectiveness in Quebec though there were parallel Catholic temperance groups.
The anti-alcohol fervour of these organizations was not without merit. The excess consumption of liquor and beer was a major social problem during the nineteenth century in Canada, though Canadians on average consumed far less booze than their British or American cousins. In 1851, little Bytown with a population of only 7,000 boasted seventy licensed taverns in addition to an unknown number of illicit “grog” houses. Drunken brawling was commonplace. With husbands running up large tabs at bars, wives and children suffered. This is not to say women didn’t also imbibe or own taverns. Mother McGuinty’s tavern in Corktown (a shantytown located roughly where Ottawa University is located today) was famous. Taverns were also key centres of political activity and sometimes hosted magistrates’ courts.
The prominent role played by alcohol in society during the nineteenth century may in part have reflected a dearth of alternate recreational activities. Other than Church on Sundays, there really wasn’t much for people to do on their very limited free time. Recognizing this fact, wealthy philanthropists, Church organizations, and women’s groups headed the public library movement in the second half of the nineteenth century in an effort to provide the working man an edifying alternative to the bar or brothel. It also mattered that industrialists wanted a sober work force.
The first legislative victory for the prohibitionists was the 1864 Canada Temperance Act, also known as the Dunkin Act after its sponsor Christopher Dunkin. Under this legislation any municipality or county in the Province of Canada could prohibit alcohol following a majority vote in a referendum. This act was extended to all of the Dominion of Canada in the 1878 Canada Temperance Act (the Scott Act). This latter Act was sponsored by Ottawa’s own, tea-totalling Sir Richard William Scott, who had been mayor of Bytown, member of Ontario’s Legislative Assembly for Ottawa from 1867 to 1873, and a Senator, and sometime federal Cabinet Minister, from 1874-1913. The first province to go “dry” was Prince Edward Island in 1901.
In Ontario, plebiscites on province-wide prohibition were held in 1894 and in 1902. Although the anti-alcohol forces won both, prohibition in Ontario had to wait as the government chose to ignore the results of the first, non-binding referendum, while the second failed to attract a required fifty per cent of the votes cast in the 1898 election owing to a low voter turnout. In the meantime, however, the federal Scott Act (known as the “local option”) remained in force. Many communities, especially in rural areas, banned alcohol.
Like most major cities, Ottawa remained “wet.” But the noose was tightening around the throats of local drinkers. Stand-alone taverns lost their licences as provincial restrictions limited drinking to establishments that provided accommodations. Successive Ottawa plebiscites sharply reduced the number of hotel and liquor store licences from 80 and 33, respectively, in 1898 to 20 and 10, respectively, by early 1916. Bar operating hours were also curtailed, with closing time moving from 11pm to 8pm during World War I.
The bigger, more up-market hotels in Ottawa supported the reduction in the number of liquor stores as it reduced competition. The manager of the Grand Union Hotel called liquor stores “the curse of the trade.” Even the reduction in hotel licences didn’t faze the big hotels. They expected to keep their licences, and increase their business. Those losing out would be the smaller hotels that catered to “a cheaper class of consumer,” as one big hotel manager sniffed. One thing did fuss them, however. They worried about the impartiality of the licence commissioners who were viewed as “the five little gods,” with “too much power” and without “a liberal-minded man in the whole bunch.”
The start of the Great War was the tipping point in the fight against alcohol. Grain supplies were now needed for the war effort. To give up drinking became patriotic. Even King George V had reportedly renounced alcohol for the duration. By the time Ontario went dry in September 1916 all provinces, except Quebec, had banned or announced bans on the retail sale of liquor.
Ontario had, however, a strange kind of prohibition. Booze continued to be made for the export market. The courts had also ruled that the shipment of liquor and beer across provincial boundaries was a federal matter. Consequently, provinces could not restrict the importation of alcoholic products. Ontario residents could order alcohol from Quebec-based middle men and have it delivered to their homes, or have it readied for pick-up at the brewery or distillery. What was key was to have an out-of-province invoice. Ontario-made wines using Ontario grapes were also exempt from the Ontario Temperance Act though wine drinkers had to buy directly from the wineries in wholesale amounts of five gallons or more—the idea being to make it too expensive for somebody to purchase a single bottle at a time. In addition to exemptions for sacramental purposes, doctors could prescribe alcohol to patients in six-ounce amounts. Hundreds of thousands of prescriptions were written by doctors at $2 per prescription, and filled at neighbourhood drug stores. Ontario residents could also buy so-called “nerve tonics” that had a high-alcohol content from pharmacies.
Nation-wide, the prohibition hammer came down on Christmas Eve 1917 when the federal government by Order-In-Council under the War Measure Act banned the importation of intoxicating beverages as well as the transportation of such beverages into “dry” areas. The government argued that it was “essential and indeed vital for the efficient conduct of the war that wasteful or unnecessary expenditure be prohibited and that all articles capable of being utilised as food should be conserved.” This order was to be in effect until one year after the end of the war.
For Ottawa hotels, the new regulations were greeted with a yawn. The manager of the Château Laurier Hotel remarked that they had been out of the liquor business for a year and that they weren’t even using alcohol in the kitchen. The big losers were Hull liquor stores who had been filling cross-border liquor orders.
The Prohibition tide began to ebb with the end of the war and the lifting of federal restrictions against the importation and transportation of alcoholic beverages. With the war over, the appeals of prohibitionists to patriotism were no longer effective. In contrast, the appeals of anti-prohibition activists to “liberty” were finding traction. Returning soldiers swelled the “wet” constituency. It was also becoming increasingly apparent that Prohibition was not working. People drank more rather than less in illegal speakeasies called “blind pigs.” Bootlegging and criminality was on the rise, and there was a growing disregard for the law. Imbibers were also dying or being severely injured through drinking bad whisky or rubbing alcohol. As well, labour unions that had once been major temperance supporters turned against prohibition, upset by laws that denied the working man his glass of beer but allowed the wealthy industrialist to stock his cellar with whisky.
Despite another referendum on alcohol in 1924 that was narrowly won by the “dry” forces, the first crack in Ontario’s prohibition laws occurred in 1925 when the Conservative Government of Howard Ferguson permitted 4.4 proof (British measure) beer, i.e. beer with an alcohol content of 2.51% by volume. This beer became known as “Fergie Foam.” In 1927, Ferguson’s government replaced the Ontario Temperance Act with the Liquor Control Act that permitted people to buy alcohol in government-owned stores for consumption in homes. Prohibition in Ontario was officially over. However, it wasn’t until 1934 that drinking in public bars was allowed.
Blocker, J., Fahey, D. & Tyrrell, I., eds. 2003. Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History, An International Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO: Santa Barbara, Denver, Oxford.
Coutts, Ian, 2010. Brew North, How Canadians Made Beer and Beer Made Canada, Greystone Books, D & M Publishers, Inc.: Vancouver, Toronto, Berkeley.
Heron, Craig, 2003. Booze, A Distilled History, Between The Lines: Toronto.
Lee, David, 2006. Lumber Kings and Shantymen, Logging, Lumber and Timber in the Ottawa Valley, Toronto: James Lorimer & Company.
Mallack, Dan, 2012. Try To Control Yourself, The Regulation of Public Drinking in Post-Prohibition Ontario, 1927-44, UBC Press: Vancouver.
McRuer, J. C., 1922. 1923 Ontario Liquor Traffic Acts being The Ontario Temperance Act with amendments-1922, https://ia902700.us.archive.org/5/items/ontarioliquorlaw00mcruuoft/ontarioliquorlaw00mcruuoft.pdf.
National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 2017, https://www.wctu.org/.
Ottawa, City of, 1916. “By-Laws 4120 and 4121,” Limiting the Number of Tavern and Shop Licenses”
Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1916, “Local Hotelmen Not Dissatisfied By People’s Vote Lopping Licenses,” 4 January.
————————————-, 1916. “A Great Majority In Vote To Reduce Liquor Licenses; Opposition Fail,” 4 January.
————————————-, 1916. “Notable Scenes In Last Closing Hour, Crowds Merry But Well Behaved,” 18 September.
————————————-, 1916. “New Act Welcomed In Local Churches, Pastors Promised A Better Ontario, 18 September.
————————————-, 1916. “Local Bars Trade In A Third Less,” 19 September.
————————————-, 1916. “Canada Under Prohibition,” 20 September.
————————————-, 1916, “Ottawa’s Fine Strategic Position,” 22 September.
————————————, 1917. “Another Big Step To Prohibition In Canada Is Taken,” 24 December.
————————————-, 1919. “Senate Takes Steps To Nullify Government Bill In Respect To Intoxicating Liquor,” 19 June.
————————————, 1927. “Control Bill To Be Effective First Week In May,” 10 March.
Wamsley, Kevin and Kossuth, Robert, 2000, Fighting It Out in Nineteenth-Century Upper Canada/Canada West: Masculinities and Physical Challenges in the Tavern, University of Western Ontario, http://library.la84.org/SportsLibrary/JSH/JSH2000/JSH2703/JSH2703d.pdf.