Does Prohibition Linger in Canada

With the aid of social media (tweets), Nina Caplan in the New Statesman (August 14, 2014) finally gets it right. Her original story states:

“Prohibition was rescinded in Quebec in 1919, about five minutes after it became law, but the hangover lingers. To this day, you can only buy wine in French Canada from the government-run outlets of the SAQ: Société des alcohols du Quebec.”

Today tweeters explain, that’s not the case. Wine of all kinds is sold in Quebec retail grocery stores but it has to have been bottled in the province. The hangover is as much one of protectionism for Quebec bottlers.

Some signs of prohibition remain in Canada and Daniel Okrent’s Last Call is one place to find them. A photograph of Sam Bronfman purchasing a distillery in the US which was about to be destroyed is an example. Bronfman built the Seagram liquor empire which in turn funded foundations. These still do good works in Canada and beyond. Profits were also made from prohibition in the US.

Liquor sales today

In Ontario, the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) remains the sole source for retail spirit sales. It also stocks some wines and beer. The latter is available in a near monopoly, the Beer Store run by the breweries. Ontario politicians of all stripes have suggested that they will dismantle the LCBO, but then pull back. They often calculate the total revenue of the stores as benefits to Ontario rather than the net revenues. As a major buyer, the LCBO undoubtedly gets good prices from suppliers, but whether these are passed on to consumers is questionable in the absence of competing retail outlets. In recent years, wine stores associated with wineries have been allowed to operate in Ontario. They are even allowed to mix foreign with Canadian grapes in the wine sold, a dilution of Canadian content (found elsewhere in Canadian cultural content).

Prices for spirits sold in the US are often much lower than in Canada, but taxes have a role in explaining these differences. Smuggling is also encouraged. Residents of Kingston Ontario (and other communities bordering Lake Ontario) have found ways to benefit from lower liquor prices in the state of New York. There is no shortage of entrepreneurs. Taxi services have always been available to deliver liquor for a price to consumers creating another level of retail distribution. And today available in Ontario and Alberta is one example of how this type of service is now respectable.


Other fading signs of US prohibition are large lakeside properties in the Rideau Lakes just north of the Canada-US border. Through this area liquor was smuggled south from Canada and the folks who made money doing this often built recreational properties there mainly for fishing. On Devil Lake, Ontario there is a Vanderbilt Island reputedly still owned by family members. I have no idea if family members were involved in the liquor business. If they were, it would have been a minuscule part of the Commodore’s commercial empires.

When my father, who had been in the gin distillery business, came to Canada in 1959, he was interested in seeing St Pierre and Miquelon (still part of France) when he sailed past these islands. During prohibition, large amounts of liquor were shipped there for trans-shipment either directly or via Canada into the US. The supply chain at the time contained storage ships anchored outside the territorial limits of the US, with speed boats used to ship liquor to the mainland.

Signs of prohibition remain in Canada but a researcher has to know where to look in different parts of the country. Each province dealt with the issue in its own way. Some have written about the Temperance Movement in the early 20th century, but I have read no Canadian equivalent to Daniel Okrent’s work on prohibition in the US.


2 Responses to “Does Prohibition Linger in Canada”

  1. Alexandre Ber Says:

    I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good.
    I don’t know who you are but definitely you are going to a famous blogger if you are not already 😉

    • cmaule Says:

      Thank you for your kind comment. I am not famous and too old to become one, but I enjoy writing about topics which interest me and engaging with interesting people.

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