Prohibition conjures up images of pin-striped American gangsters, bootleggers and moonshine brewed in a garden shed. British Columbia’s largely forgotten experiment in prohibition took place first and its story is no less colourful.
Between 1917 and 1921, the province banned the production, distribution and consumption of alcohol in public. Drinking in “private dwellings” and obtaining liquor for “medicinal purposes” were exceptions largely open to creative interpretation. This largely forgotten era is when the bar taps went dry; at least in theory.
Fueled by a religious current and the belief that the “demon drink” was responsible for society’s ills, the temperance forces reached a turning point during the First World War when patriotism and prohibition gained public support. Following a national trend, British Columbia’s Prohibition Act was passed in 1916 and in a referendum 56 per cent of British Columbians voted to go dry.
The law came into effect in 1917 and proponents claimed early victory as public brawling and drunkenness seemed to disappear from city streets. Victoria’s hotels and saloons were forced to serve soft drinks and non-alcoholic beer. These beverages, called “near-beers” were limited to 1.5 per cent alcohol content and were rejected by almost everyone who took a sip. Victoria’s drinkers were forced underground, and a secret network of speakeasies and an opportunistic bootlegging industry sprang up overnight. Alcohol was shipped into the province for illicit sale; a sudden rise in orders of “do-it-yourself embalming fluid” and oversized barrels of amber coloured “ink” from Montreal aroused police suspicion.
Possession of alcohol outside the home resulted in a fine of up to $100 or up to 65 days in jail. For those who sold alcohol, the law was harsh: up to 12 months of hard labour and two years in jail. Police were given special powers to raid at will without a warrant.
The medical exemption turned into farce. In 1919, doctors filled 315,000 prescriptions for medicinal alcohol in a province of only 450,000 people. An epidemic of ailments hit around Christmas, as thousands of people lined up to get their “prescriptions” filled. Some enterprising doctors were signing thousands of prescriptions a month, charging $2 each time.
Police enforcement was inconsistent. British Columbians started to disregard the law and after war ended, public attitudes shifted. A turning point occurred in December 1918. W.C. Findlay, British Columbia’s hard-nosed Prohibition Commissioner pleaded guilty to smuggling hundreds of cases of whisky. After his arrest, the price of black market whisky on the streets of Victoria skyrocketed. Public disillusionment with prohibition grew, returning soldiers petitioned for the right to drink beer and the province, saddled by war debt, sought new revenue sources. Another referendum was held and the choice was between the status quo or a new system of government control of booze. In 1920, nearly two-thirds of voters supported the latter which led to the establishments of BC’s system of government liquor stores. On June 15, 1921, alcohol could once again be sold and consumed in public. Many British Columbians celebrated together with a legal toast – to God, King, country and reason.
Prohibition cast a long shadow. It wasn’t until the 1950s that cocktail lounges were permitted in BC. Today, Victoria’s vibrant microbrewery industry, featuring a varied selection of quality local brews provides a popular choice for what was once an illicit tipple.
– IVAN WATSON