The history of prohibition across Central Alberta

This year marks the centennial of one of the biggest and most controversial attempts at legislated social change in North American history.

On Wednesday, July 21st, 1915, Albertans voted 61% in favour of imposing the prohibition of the general sale of liquor in the province.

The margin in Red Deer was even higher.

The City voted ‘dry’ by a margin of more than 80%.

The plebiscite on the sale of alcohol was the culmination of many years of debate and various ‘temperance’” measures taken by the federal and provincial governments. Some of the very first were taken by the federal government in the 1870s to end the activities of the infamous ‘whiskey traders’ in Southern Alberta.

Those early control measures were eased in 1892, when the North West Territories passed the Liquor License Ordinance that allowed hotels to sell alcohol, provided that it was consumed on the premises.

Hence, as the fledgling town of Red Deer developed, all the local hotels, except for the Great West Hotel on 51 Avenue South, had bars.

In 1906, the new province of Alberta passed a Liquor License Act, which extended the ability of hotels and other businesses to sell alcohol on a wholesale and retail level.

Shortly thereafter, a brick liquor warehouse was built to the west of the old Windsor Hotel.

Temperance and prohibition organizations, however, continued to push for strict controls on the sale of alcohol, or its outright prohibition.

Two of the strongest anti-alcohol organizations in Red Deer were the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.) and the Temperance and Moral Reform League.

A mistake that is commonly made is that these groups were opposed to alcohol purely on moral grounds.

In the days before social welfare, if the breadwinner in a household developed an alcohol problem, his wife and children were often left destitute.

Moreover, there were no public treatment programs for alcoholics.

Hence, many of those suffering from the disease developed horrible health problems, or else died of overconsumption.

The push for the total abolition of the sale of beer and liquor finally culminated with the outbreak of the First World War.

In addition to the usual arguments against alcohol, many people felt that the general public should make a major personal sacrifice as part of a of the War effort. The drinking of alcohol was a ‘luxury’ that would have to go.

Hence, the issue was put to public plebiscite in July 1915 and approved overwhelmingly across the province.

However, there were major loopholes in the new law. Alcohol could still be prescribed “for medicinal purposes.”

Moreover, while the sale of alcohol was prohibited in Alberta, people could still legally purchase it if it was manufactured in other jurisdictions, such as Saskatchewan.

Hence, Samuel Bronfman was able to launch a great distilling empire in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and later Montreal.

There were many problems with Prohibition from the start.

New regulations were soon implemented to curb the sales of medicinal alcohol. Nevertheless, illicit stills and bootlegging operations quickly sprang up, although never on the scale depicted in the Hollywood movies.

Eventually, the provincial government began to bend to the growing backlash against Prohibition.

The returned soldiers were often in the forefront of the protest against the legal sale of beer and liquor. Hence, the Great War Veterans Association was soon allowed to sell low alcohol beer in their clubrooms on the grounds that they were not ‘public’ places.

Finally, in November 1923, another province-wide plebiscite was held.

The vote brought Prohibition to an end by allowing the sale of low-alcohol beer in hotels again and the sale of beer wine and liquor in government liquor outlets. There were still very strict rules. At first, women were not allowed into bars and later, only into segregated parts of bars if they had an escort.

Nevertheless, the great Prohibition social experiment had failed. Restrictions on the consumption and sale of alcohol have been slowly eased in Alberta ever since.

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