What is it about prohibition that seems to have created a modern fascination with the legacy of rum-running and bootlegging? Popular television series like Boardwalk Empire and films like Lawless are social proof that our interest is still held transfixed by a relatively brief period of time, well over a century ago. While the aforementioned stories focus on prohibition in America, British Columbia has its own storied past. We suspect that prohibition still interests us today because it’s hard to conceive the reality of it. With a strong present day craft beer culture in British Columbia it is next to impossible to imagine an era in which prohibition was, at least legally, observed.
BC – Canada’s ‘wettest’ province
The first provincial liquor-control legislation was implemented in 1853 when Governor James Douglas sought to license wholesale and retail businesses on the Colony of Vancouver Island. At the time, B.C. was one of the ‘wettest’ provinces in Canada but the new regulation did little to deter peoples’ drinking habits. Incredibly, saloons were permitted to operate 24 hours a day and the British Columbian propensity to drink alcohol was roughly twice the national average. However, by the early 1900s liquor consumption had become a contentious issue in the province.
The introduction of prohibition
When the B.C. government introduced prohibition, the majority of residents voted in favour of the legislation. It came into effect on Oct. 1, 1917, and by then every province in Canada, with the exception of Quebec, had introduced prohibition.
Around this time a B.C. man named Walter Findlay had established a reputation for vehemently opposing the consumption of alcohol. He was a passionate member of the People’s Prohibition Association and sermonized the negative effects of alcoholism at length. Based on his seemingly apparent candidacy, the province appointed Findlay as Prohibition Commissioner.
Emergence of a thriving black market
Despite having been supported by voters, by and large prohibition was a huge flop. Those with the financial means stocked their liquor cabinets and bar carts before the law came into effect, and merchants were all too happy to offload inventory before it became unlawful to sell.
Further, it was only a matter of time before the economics of suppressing supply in a high demand market presented an opportunity for enterprising residents. Bootlegging became a booming trade that only intensified once the US introduced prohibition in 1920. Cross-border trade became a lucrative venture for B.C.’s rum-runners.
Moreover, in a head scratching decision, the government allowed liquor to be sold for medicinal purposes, creating a loophole that residents enthusiastically took advantage of. In 1919 over 180,000 ‘medicinal liquor’ prescriptions had been written by B.C. doctors. That was an approximate value of $1.5 million dollars.
The Walter Findlay scandal
Not only was prohibition difficult to enforce, it ultimately encouraged crime and corruption. For some, the financial gains of selling alcohol simply outweighed the risk. Despite the fact that bootlegging was no secret, B.C. residents were shocked to discover their own prohibition commissioner was guilty of it! Walter Findlay, so seemingly resolute in the fight against alcohol, was arrested for the import and sale of liquor in December 1918, less than one year into his position as commissioner. The smoking gun? A trainload of rye from Ontario, worth about one million in today’s dollars. At the time of his arrest, Walter had already been fined $1,000 for illegal import of liquor. He was ordered to appear before a Royal Commission.
During the trial Findlay refused to answer questions. The courtroom relied on the testimony of witnesses who alleged the existence of a city wide distribution network. It encompassed production facilities to warehouses, and even a delivery system to private homes. Findlay’s tight lipped demeanor meant few other details came to light but he was ultimately sentenced to two years in prison.
End of prohibition
Eventually attitudes shifted and prohibition fell from popularity. It was put to a referendum and by 1921 the B.C. government introduced legislation that gave them absolute control over liquor sales. (America’s prohibition lasted much longer – 1933.) In a true reflection of the times, some of the new regulations were exceedingly peculiar by today’s standard. For example, when bars sold liquor by the glass, it couldn’t be accompanied by music. Women had to enter drinking establishments via a separate entrance and were not allowed in male drinking areas.
Liquor & prohibition today
Despite the advocates that resolutely spoke out against alcohol, it is a revenue generating commodity the government has come to rely heavily upon. Sales from the liquor trade are worth about $1 billion a year to the B.C. government.
An editorial by Daniel Francis speculates that this is an interesting time to look back on prohibition, as many people are speaking out against the prohibition on marijuana. “Though history does not repeat itself,” he writes, “there are many analogies to be drawn.”