The positive impacts of Prohibition in Central Alberta

On Wednesday, July 21st, 1915, the province of Alberta voted overwhelmingly to bring in the prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages. Support in Red Deer was even more massive than in the province as a whole.

While more than two-thirds of voters supported prohibition across Alberta, the ‘dry’ vote in Red Deer exceeded 80%.

Prohibition had been the goal of temperance and social reform groups for a generation.

However, one of the factors which finally prompted a successful public vote was the First World War.

With young men sacrificing so much to serve King and Country overseas, people felt that they should make sacrifices at home as well, by such things as refraining from the consumption of alcohol.

With such a major and far-reaching move as the prohibition of alcohol, the actual implementation date was set for a year later, on July 1st, 1916.

However, despite this long delay in implementing the law, and the many decades of lobbying for such a law to be passed, there were large numbers of technical details about which the government had not given much thought.

One of the biggest loopholes involved the inter-provincial transportation of liquor.

While the Canadian House of Commons passed a bill prohibiting the shipment of alcohol into provinces that had passed Prohibition legislation, the Senate defeated the measure.

Hence, there was a period to time when it was perfectly legal to sell liquor so long as the sale was completed in another province.

Eventually a second plebiscite was held on Oct. 25th, 1920.

However, the new measure only covered inter-provincial sales. The ban did not include sales to the United States which had passed its own Prohibition legislation.

Smart businessmen such as Harry Bronfman of Saskatchewan quickly took advantage of the loopholes. He initially made a small fortune shipping whisky and other alcohol to provinces other than Saskatchewan.

After October 1920, he concentrated on sales to the burgeoning market in the U.S. Hence the foundation for the enormous Seagram’s empire was laid.

With these loopholes, cross-border shipping networks took off. Whenever legal measures were taken to stop the traffic, it quickly resumed as ‘rum-running.’

While not the case in Alberta, the great organized crime networks in the United States, and in Canadian border communities, became well-established with the lucrative cross-border liquor trade.

Meanwhile, in communities such as Red Deer, the initial effect of the implementation of Prohibition was the complete opposite.

Criminal activity dropped to almost insignificant levels.

In 1917, Red Deer’s Chief of Police reported to City council that only two people were held in the City cells in the entire year.

Most police activity was devoted to dealing with bylaw infractions and health code violations. With cars becoming very popular in the community, the issuance of traffic tickets and investigations of automobile accidents also became the major concern for the police.

Nevertheless, criminal activity, particularly crimes involving violence, became rare. Instances of family violence dropped dramatically.

Even cases of theft and fraud became infrequent.

Breadwinners hung onto more of their paycheques, instead of spending a good portion of their earnings in the bar. Families had more to spend on entertainments – such as going to the local theatre to watch a movie or attending a community dance.

Amateur theatrical performances did extremely well.

The annual Red Deer Fair had some of the best attendance ever recorded. Also highly successful was the Chautauqua, an annual travelling show that offered dramatic productions, musical entertainments and educational lectures on the City Square (current site of City Hall Park).

As time went on, new problems such as the illegal manufacture of alcohol, also known as ‘moonshining’ became a growing problem.

However, despite the misconceptions of today, at least initially, the implementation of Prohibition was of far greater benefit to the community than any problems it may have caused.