Prohibition in Canada

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The prohibition of alcohol in Canada arose in various stages, from the possibility of local municipal bans in the late 19th century, to provincial bans in the early 20th century, to national prohibition (a temporary wartime measure) from 1918 to 1920. Most provinces repealed their bans in the 1920s, though alcohol was illegal in Prince Edward Island until 1948.

As legislation prohibiting consumption of alcohol was repealed, it was typically replaced with regulation imposing restrictions on the sale of alcohol to minors and excise taxes on alcoholic products.


Temperance movement

Prohibition was mostly spurred on by the efforts of people of the temperance movement to close all drinking establishments, which they viewed as the source of societal ills and misery. The main temperance organizations at the time were the Dominion Alliance for the Total Suppression of the Liquor Traffic[1] and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Canada.[2] They believed that poverty, crime, disease and domestic abuse would stop if alcohol were removed from mankind. Baptist, Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists all strongly believed in prohibition as well and campaigned for it in the beginning of the 19th century, continuing throughout the rest of the century.

The women's temperance movement established itself through much of Canada and the United States during an early period of the temperance movement and is known as one of the largest contributing factors to this movement.[citation needed] One of the core values behind the temperance movement was the complete abolition of alcohol and it attempted to spread this message in every manner, shape and form.[3] Finally in 1882 Nova Scotia was one of the first provinces to act. It was obvious that there was growing interest in the role of the school in the fight for a temperate society.[4] As temperance ideologies began to be taught in schools, leaders from the Woman's Temperance movement believed progress was finally taking place.

This was not true in all of Canada though as education was a provincial matter, and therefore a great deal of work was still required in many other regions. One such example is in the prairies where the movement not only attempted to influence people toward its movement through educational reform but also through informal educational arrangements in order to accomplish their goals.[5] Although many provinces and territories did adopt certain parts of temperance, not many showed the same results as Nova Scotia.

Unlike the Nova Scotia Government, governments in other areas did not implement or enforce proper training or implementation of the temperance programs the WCTU had envisioned for education.[6] Because of this the movement started to work with churches and organizations in order to gain popularity. These programs heavily pushed the ideas and knowledge of temperance on a national level.

One such program that raised a great deal of attention was World Temperance Sunday where in 1927 40,000 leaflets were distributed in a community in Alberta.[6] This demonstration allowed the movement to tell people what was occurring within Sunday schools. This was one of many tools the WCTU used as they also started a program called Little White Ribboners.[7] This concept attempted to indoctrinate children to the idea of temperance at the young age of 7. This attempt by the women's temperance movement was not as successful though, as many children who were part of the program had parents who actively supported the temperance movement.

The Dominion Alliance submitted a memorial, or a written statement of principles, to the nineteenth session of the Huron Diocese's Anglican Synod in 1876. In it they stated:

"The Council of the Alliance has agreed to the following principles as a basis to which they most respectfully but earnestly call your attention:


"1. That it is neither right nor politic for the Government to afford legal protection and sanction to any traffic or system that tends to increase crime, to waste the resources of the Dominion, to corrupt the social habits, and to destroy the healths and lives of the people.

"2. That the traffic in intoxicating liquors as common beverages is inimical to the true interests of individuals, and destructive of the order and welfare of society, and ought therefore to be prohibited.

"3. That the history and results of all legislation in regard to the liquor traffic abundantly prove, that it is impossible satisfactorily to limit or regulate a system so essentially mischievous in its tendencies.

"4. That no consideration of private gain or public revenue can justify the upholding of a traffic so thoroughly wrong in principle, so suicidal in policy, and disastrous in its results, as the traffic in intoxicating liquors.

"5. That the Legislative Prohibition of the liquor traffic is perfectly compatible with national liberty, and with the claims of justice and legitimate commerce.

"6. That the Legislative Prohibition of the liquor traffic would be highly conducive to the development of progressive civilization.

"7. That rising above sectarian and party considerations, all good citizens should combine to procure an enactment prohibiting the manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages, as affording the most efficient aid in removing the appalling evils of intemperance."

"There may be differences of opinion in regard to the foregoing particulars, but the Council assures the Christian Body it has now the honor to approach, that the utmost diligence has been exercised in the examination of evidence on all the subjects embraced therein.

"Deeply convinced of the value of the aid of Christian Ministers and Churches, as such, we solicit your co-operation in the efforts now being made to concentrate the moral and religious energies of the Dominion against the liquor traffic.

"Your memorialists most earnestly hope that your counsels may be wisely directed, and that you will take such action in the premises as may strengthen the hands and encourage the hearts of those who have the direction of the Prohibitory Liquor Law movement." [8]


Local option

Some legislative steps toward prohibition were taken in the 19th century. The passage of the Canada Temperance Act (1864), also called the Dunkin Act, in the Canadas, allowed any county to forbid the sale of liquor by majority vote. Due to some loopholes in the legislation, the sale of alcohol for "sacramental" or "medicinal" usage was legal, and doctors prescribed "medicinal pints", while Catholics and Jews used alcohol for ritual use.

Failed referendum

A few years after Confederation, the Canada Temperance Act was enacted by the Parliament of Canada in 1878, providing an option for municipalities to opt in by plebiscite to a prohibitionist scheme. It was often known as the Scott Act for its sponsor Sir Richard William Scott.

An official, but non-binding, federal referendum on prohibition was held in 1898, with 51.3% voting for prohibition and 48.7% against, on a voter turnout of 44%. Prohibition had a majority in all provinces except Quebec, where a strong 81.2% voted against it. Despite this national electoral majority, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier's government chose not to introduce a federal bill on prohibition, mindful of not only the strong antipathy in Quebec but that the majority in favour of Prohibition was so slight and turn-out so low that the government did not think it right to adopt the measure. As a result, Canadian prohibition was instead enacted through laws passed by the provinces during the first twenty years of the 20th century.

Provincial and Federal prohibition

Northwest Territories under the Temporary North-West Council was the first jurisdiction to bring in prohibition in response to the Cypress Hills massacre. The North-West Mounted Police was created to enforce the prohibition, and customs agents were posted at the Manitoba border to prevent importation. The driving force for this move was to protect aboriginals from whisky traders and the belief that they couldn't handle alcohol and were better off without it. Prohibition ended around 1891. Some isolated communities in the territories also remain dry to the present day.

Prince Edward Island brought in prohibition in 1901. Alberta and Ontario passed prohibition laws in 1916. Quebec implemented prohibition in 1919 but it was quickly repealed after intense public pressure. In the 1903 provincial election in Manitoba, four candidates ran as prohibitionists; none was successful, although one came within twenty votes of winning. No candidates ran as prohibitionists in the province after 1903.[citation needed]

The drinking of alcohol within Canada in the early 20th century was widespread. The prohibition movement blanketed the public media in the early 20th century with the majority of those who drank alcohol doing so in saloons.[9] Prohibition affected a wide variety of people. Alcohol was used by workers, travellers, nursing mothers, and children who believed it could keep them strong, keep the cold and heat away, and serve as medicine and tonic.

The push for the dry movement was done primarily by Protestant churches but was never as simple as a Protestant-Catholic issue. The only province that was under prohibition before 1914 was Prince Edward Island but some municipalities across Canada had gone dry under provincial local option. World War One became the driving force behind the “banning of the bar,” but similar in influence were the crusading spirit of the Social Gospel and the effective arguments of progressivism. In late 1917 the federal Union government prohibited importation of alcohol of more than 2.5 percent into Canada as well as the shipping of alcohol into a province under prohibition, and announced a ban on production. National prohibition was the first and last attempt to impose national standards on the production, distribution, and consumption of alcohol.[10]

Prohibition was able to reach success as a result of World War One because it was seen as necessary and natural for the benefits of the soldiers that the country they returned to was a better place. The argument was also raised that prohibition would benefit the war effort, since it would prevent waste and potential inefficiency. As former opponents of prohibition became silenced, provinces began to implement the concept of prohibition.

Following the election of 1917 the federal government introduced national prohibition by Order-in-Council on April 1, 1918.[11] Due to an idea for wartime domestic reform and preservation of grain resources, prohibition became part of the War Measures Act in 1918.

Constitutionally, provincial governments had no responsibilities for Aboriginal peoples, but they used the prohibition movement, primarily the liquor laws, as a way to define Aboriginals. Rules for the retail selling of alcohol were primarily a provincial responsibility. This came to be following the adoption of government control after Canada’s experience with prohibition during the First World War.[12]

Alcohol production in Ontario

Despite having laws until 1927 against the consumption of alcohol in Ontario, the government allowed numerous exceptions. Wineries were exempted from closure, and various breweries and distilleries remained open for the export market.[13] In London, Ontario, Harry Low and his group of rum-runners bought the Carling Brewery, while the Labatt family left the operations to the manager Edmund Burke. The fact that the "export" might be by small boat from Windsor across the river to Detroit only helped the province's economy (see also Canadian Rum Running). Rum-running was alive and well in other provinces.


The dates for the repeal of prohibition are often debated. At what point can one consider "prohibition" to be ended; do laws softening its scope mean it's been repealed? Take Ontario, for example. Throughout the prohibition period, Ontario-made wines remained legal, so some could argue Ontario never had prohibition. But people living through it would disagree. The government allowed the sale of light beer, considered to be non-intoxicating (and generally reviled by drinkers) in 1923, but it did not repeal the legislation creating prohibition until 1927, replacing it with the Liquor Control Act and creating the Liquor Control Board of Ontario to manage the Act's operations. [14] So although some might argue the light beer amendment of 1923 ended prohibition, there is a general consensus among recent historians that 1927 is the date of repeal. [15] Similar debates can be made across the country. For example, Alberta voters chose repeal in late 1923 but that was instituted in 1924). So this table should not be taken as definitive, but rather one interpretation of prohibition's end points.

Province/Territory Provincial Prohibition Enacted Repealed
British Columbia 1917 1921
Alberta 1916 1923
Saskatchewan 1917 1925
Manitoba 1916 1921
Ontario 1916 1927
Quebec 1919 1919
New Brunswick 1856 1856
1917 1927
Northwest Territories 1874 1891
Nova Scotia 1921 1930
Prince Edward Island 1901 1948
Yukon 1918 1920
Newfoundland (not part of Canada until 1949) 1917 1924

The provinces repealed their prohibition laws, mostly during the 1920s. After the 1924 Ontario prohibition referendum narrowly defeated the repeal of the Ontario Temperance Act, the Ontario government of Howard Ferguson permitted the sale of low-alcohol beer and, following its re-election on the platform of repealing the OTA, ended prohibition in 1927 and created the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, permitting the sale of liquor in the province though under heavy regulation.

Between the years of 1920-1925 five provinces voted to repeal prohibition. The elimination of alcoholic beverages had made a demonstrable difference in society; the jails were becoming emptied in most places, since alcohol-related offences had contributed to them becoming quite full. The Ontario Alliance for the Total Suppression of the Liquor Trade stated that in 1922 that the number of convictions for offences associated with drink had declined from 17,413 in 1914 to 5,413 in 1921, and drunkenness cases had dropped from 16,590 in 1915 to 6,766 in 1921.[16]

Since each province had its own laws, any attempt to generalize liquor control legislation distorts the situation. Quebec repealed prohibition in 1919; British columbia in 1921, and this rolled across the country roughly west to east. Quebec legalized the sale of light beer, cider, and wine in hotels, taverns, cafes, clubs and corner stores, a far more liberal system than existed anywhere in North America at the time. Two years later, faced with extensive smuggling of hard liquors, the province legalized the sale of spirits in government run stores. Quebec, a convenient train ride from the eastern seaboard of the United States, became a mecca for thirsty Americans, even inspiring the song "Hello Montreal." [17]

BC's law initially covered only public sale. Public drinking remained illegal until 1925 when "beer by the glass" legislation permitted beer parlours to open in hotels.[18]

In Ontario, the Liquor Control Act of 1927 allowed the sale of alcoholic beverages for individual purchase, but public drinking of full strength alcohol (in pubs, taverns, restaurants, beverage rooms) remained illegal. In 1934, the new Liquor Control Act permitted public drinking, but only in hotel beverage rooms and dining rooms, and only beer in the former and beer and wine with meals in the latter. The Liquor Control Act created the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, whose local inspectors to apply regulations based upon the community's standards of propriety. Within Ontario the act was also passed in an effort to encourage people to eschew the illegal drinking places and drink legally.[19]

After World War I, opponents of the Liquor Control Act claimed that too many people were going to ignore the law and drink illegally, and that prohibition contributed to the expansion of organized crime and violence. The new slogans were ‘Moderation’ and ‘Government Regulation.’ Moreover, the denominations of Presbyterianism, Methodism, and Congregationalism voted to merge to create a stronger liberal voice. The possibility of new revenue led several provinces to introduce government control on the sale of alcohol and by the mid-1920s prohibition was fighting a losing battle.[20]

Alberta repealed Prohibition in 1924, along with Saskatchewan, upon realizing that the laws were unenforceable. Prince Edward Island was last to repeal in 1948.

Despite the lifting of Prohibition, it still remained illegal for most types of liquor to be shipped across provincial borders under the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act, into the 21st century. In response, Okanagan MP Dan Albas tabled Bill C-311, which would repeal this restriction and allow the interprovincial distribution of wine (but not beer or spirits). With the promise of potential for increased investment in Canada's wine industry if the restrictions were lifted (owing to wineries finally being able to distribute their product nationally), the bill passed the House with a vote of 287-0 in June 2012. However, the exemption created by the amendment is subject to the laws of the province into which the wine is being shipped. So far, the provinces have responded inconsistently. For example, Ontario and British Columbia have permitted the interprovincial transport of wine on the person (up to one case), but have made no law or policy that allows interprovincial shipment of wine.[21]

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union overview

Although the WCTU might not have achieved all that they had set out to do on their mission of temperance, they did eventually achieve what they wanted throughout all of Canada. This came about with the Wartime Prohibition act of 1916. However, prohibition acts did start to take place prior to this in many counties and provinces throughout Canada. In 1878, the Temperance Act or Scott Act had been put in place and allowed for open legislation by parliamentary constituencies. Although many regions were affected by new legislation of liquor, it was not applied everywhere. With the implementation of various measures to enforce prohibition the movement did gain ground and was popular enough even to gain some success.

Dry communities in Canada

Municipalities in Canada that have prohibited or restricted sale of alcohol within their borders:



  • Natuashish voted to ban alcohol in 2008, and a vote to repeal the ban in 2010 was not successful.[22]




  • Orillia ended prohibition in 1955.[24]
  • The city of Owen Sound continued to outlaw liquor well into the 1970s.
  • Parts of west Toronto did not permit liquor sales until 2000 due largely to the efforts of William Horace Temple.
  • James Bay Cree communities in Ontario remain dry as of 2015 (Moose Factory, Fort Albany, Kashechewan, Attawapiskat), in that there is no government store selling alcoholic products. The transport of alcohol in to the communities is not generally enforced, and consumption is still common. Liquor sales are available in Moosonee, which is accessible from all communities by ice road in the winter.


  • James Bay Cree communities in Quebec, with the exception of Whapmagoostui, are still dry as of 2013 (Waskaganish, Eastmain, Wemindji, Chisasibi, Waswanipi, Mistissini, Ouje-Bougoumou and Nemaska). Chisasibi is unique in that it has a checkpoint for enforcing the ban on bringing alcohol into the village, although this is skirted by snowmobiles avoiding the main road.
  • Verdun ended a 45-year ban on bars and taverns in the community in December 2010.[25] This[clarification needed] was mainly due to its Irish heritage during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.[clarification needed]



See also


  1. See The Journal of the Synod of the Church of England in the Diocese of Huron, Nineteenth Session, June 20-22, 1876. pp. 38, 45, 51, 142, 165. The Dominion Alliance formed just prior to the 1876 session
  2. Coombs, Adam James (2011). "Liberty and Community:The Political Ideas of Nineteenth-Century Canadian Temperance Movements". The Graduate History Review. 3 (1).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Nancy M. Sheehan, National Pressure Groups and Provincial curriculum policy: Temperance in Nova Scotia schools in 1880-1930, p.80
  4. Nancy M. Sheehan, National Pressure Groups and Provincial curriculum policy: Temperance in Nova Scotia schools in 1880-1930, p.78
  5. Nancy M. Sheehan, The WCTU and Educational strategies on the Canadian Prairie, History of education Quarterly, vol.24. No.1, Spring 1984, p.101-119
  6. 6.0 6.1 Nancy M. Sheehan, The WCTU and Educational strategies on the Canadian Prairie, History of education Quarterly, vol.24. No.1, Spring 1984, p.106
  7. Nancy M. Sheehan, The WCTU and Educational strategies on the Canadian Prairie, History of education Quarterly, vol.24. No.1, Spring 1984, p.109
  8. The Journal of the Synod of the Church of England in the Diocese of Huron, Nineteenth Session, June 20-22, 1876. p. 165, 166
  9. Craig Herron, "The Boys and Their Booze: Masculinities and Public Drinking in Working-class Hamilton, 1890-1946." The Canadian Historical Review, vol. 86, 3, September 2005, 412, 413, 421, 429.
  10. Greg Maquis, “Brewers and Distillers Paradise: American Views of Canadian Alcohol Policies.” Canadian Review of American Studies, vol. 34, 2, 2004, 136, 139.
  11. J.M. Bumsted, “The Peoples of Canada: A Post-Confederation History, Third Edition,” Oxford: University Press, 2008, 218, 219.
  12. Robert Campbell, “Making Sober Citizens: The Legacy of Indigenous Alcohol Regulation in Canada, 1777-1985.” Journal of Canadian Studies, vol. 42, 1, Winter 2008, 109.
  13. Prohibition's Hangover -- Ontario's Black Market in Alcohol
  14. Malleck "Niagara wine and the regulatory environment: 1850s-1944" in The World of Niagara Wine, ed. Michael Ripmeester, Phillip Gordon Mackintosh, and Christopher Fullerton (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013).
  15. Craig Heron, Booze: A Distilled History (Toronto: Between the Lines Press, 2003); Malleck Try to Control Yourself: The regulation of public drinking in post-prohibition Ontario, 1927-1944 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2012). The year 1923 is the date set by Gerald Hallowell, in Prohibition in Ontario, 1919-1923 (Toronto: Ontario Historical Society, 1972)
  16. J.M. Bumsted, “The Peoples of Canada: A Post-Confederation History, Third Edition, 260
  17. Craig Heron, Booze: A distilled history p 272. On "Hello Montreal," just google it. Really.
  18. Robert Campbell, Demon Rum or Easy Money (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1991), 50-55; On the creation and management of public drinking in Vancouver, see, Robert Campbell, Sit Down and Drink your Beer: Regulating Vancouver's Beer Parlours, 1925-54 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001)
  19. Dan Malleck, “An Innovation from Across the Line: The American Drinker and Liquor Regulation in Two Ontario Border Communities, 1927-1944.” Journal of Canadian Studies, vol. 41, 1, Winter 2007, 153, 154, 157. Malleck, Try to Control Yourself: The regulation of public drinking in post-prohibition Ontario 1927-1944 (Vancouver and Toronto: UBC Press, 2012)
  20. J.M. Bumsted, “The Peoples of Canada: A Post-Confederation History, Third Edition,” 260.
  21. "MPs vote to allow transport of wine across provinces". Postmedia News Service. Retrieved 10 June 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. "Sheshatsiu votes 'no' to alcohol ban". Retrieved 2014-02-01.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. "Century-old Atherley Arms goes up for sale | Local | News". Barrie Examiner. Retrieved 2013-06-11.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. Coutié, Maxime (9 December 2010). "Feu vert à l'ouverture de bars et tavernes". CBC News (in French). Retrieved 28 December 2011.CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>