When Winnipeg went dry

Prohibition-era political climate looks an awful lot like 2018

Imagine living in a tense and highly mobilized political climate.

Organizations from across the spectrum, from far-right to far-left, from church groups to labour coalitions, are raising their voices. Popular feminist movements are taking to the streets. Factions within the media are at war with each other, while the public vents their frustration with corporate lobbying and advertisements.

This may sound like a description of the current cultural atmosphere, but it’s actually a description of Winnipeg in 1916. More than a century ago, these disparate political elements all converged around a seemingly unlikely nexus point: the prohibition of alcohol.

In the early 20th century, the temperance movement, which argued against alcohol consumption, gained enormous new political traction. While the movement had previously been a cultural one, it soon set its sights on arguing for a legal ban on the commercial sale of alcohol. Manitoba banned sales of alcohol following a referendum on March 13, 1916.

Dr. Michael Ellery, a clinical psychologist focusing on issues of addiction, says that widespread public support for prohibition was rooted in misguided cultural ideas about alcoholism and mental illness.

“Alcohol problems were thought of as moral problems,” Ellery says. “If you drank too much, it was because you were a bad person … In the early 20th century, if you didn’t see (alcoholism) as a problem with someone’s character, the main alternative worldview saw it as an incurable problem with someone’s brain.”

Support for prohibition was intricately tied to both local churches and political movements. The Winnipeg Labour Council and the local branch of the Socialist Women’s League were among the campaigners.

Methodist minister James Shaver Woodsworth, a prominent progressive activist, was an ardent supporter of prohibition, as was Presbyterian reverend Charles William Gordon, an imperialist who aided in Canadian expansion into the western provinces.

Both men also harboured nativist or anti-immigrant attitudes that were an influential undercurrent in prohibition campaigning.

Dr. Janis Thiessen, an associate professor of history at the University of Winnipeg (U of W) who has written about labour history in Winnipeg, says that Manitoba liquor legislation had a strong element of class, ethnic and gender discrimination before, during and after prohibition.

“If you were a white male, you almost always had greater legal freedom to purchase alcohol (in Manitoba) than if you were a woman or if you were an Indigenous
person,” Thiessen says. “If you were a wealthy white male, you had considerably more freedom.”

Thiessen says that liquor regulation has historically been an effort by those in power to control the behaviour of the working class.

“If you had the means to purchase wine by the case for use at home, you could consume it as you pleased,” Thiessen says. “But if you could only afford a glass of beer at a time, provincial law made this as uncomfortable as possible: no standing while drinking, no dancing, no drinking in the same room as someone of a different gender, no music, no playing cards.”

The most prominent voice in favour of prohibition came from the women’s suffrage movement. In 1916, the suffragist Political Equity League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) were essentially the same organization.

Dr. Jane Barter, an associate professor in the religion and culture department at the U of W, researches feminist theory and theological thought throughout history. She says that temperance played an important part in laying the groundwork for other women’s movements.

“The temperance movement gave women the opportunity to organize,” Barter says. “It was affiliated with the church, and it gave them the opportunity to do a sort of social justice ministry that was unprecedented for them. They’re meeting together, but they’re also raising funds, they’re campaigning, they’re lobbying. They’re essentially doing political work.

“That gave them the opportunity to ask, ‘If women are able to come together and be relatively successful in things like the WCTU … why should women not have the vote?’”

Barter says that the temperance movement also gave women an opportunity to address gender inequality that they couldn’t yet tackle in the political arena.

“It wasn’t polite to talk about things like how your husband drank away all his money and left you with nothing, or you may have experienced something like marital rape or violence in your marriage … but on the other hand, you could talk about the scourge of alcoholism, because that was a good Christian theme that could be talked about in polite society.”

However, Barter says that the WCTU’s theology also connects it to the nativist ideas that permeated popular support for prohibition.

“These were mostly white, Protestant women,” Barter says. “They believed in creating a Christian society, which would be a gentler, kinder society, especially in what they considered to be the rough outlands that they were living in. That meant they fought for things like temperance, for white women to have the vote. Christianizing the social order gave rise to some negative things, especially residential schools, and a lot of racist attitudes towards those who were not white, Protestant, British and so on.”

Popular support for prohibition gave rise to local antagonism toward the alcohol manufacturing industry. The Winnipeg media landscape leading up to the March 1916 referendum depicts an attitude of hostility and paranoia.

The Winnipeg Tribune and the Free Press, the city’s two primary newspapers, engaged in a war of words over their respective coverage of the campaign. The Tribune publicly announced their support for prohibition, denounced the “wets” (opponents of prohibition, in contrast to its “dry” supporters) as nefarious propagandists. In a Dec. 24, 1915 editorial, they announced they would no longer carry advertisements for alcohol, a move the Free Press decried as “pietistic” and “vain-glorious.”

On Jan. 26, 1916 the Tribune devoted an entire page to sparring with the Free Press, calling the response a “page of denunciation and misrepresentation of The Tribune, which actually had the audacity - the audacity, mind you - to declare itself in favour of Prohibition…”

They added, “It would be well if circumstances and ownership did not make it impossible for The Free Press to be clean, fair and patriotic as The Tribune.”

Prohibition in Manitoba came to an unceremonious end in 1921, and by 1923, government-regulated sales were introduced. But like the Liquor Commission, the social forces that led to prohibition in Manitoba can still be glimpsed in Winnipeg culture. With the legalization of cannabis on the horizon, it’s clear that history is still in the business of repeating itself.

Published in Volume 72, Number 24 of The Uniter (April 5, 2018)

We love comments and appreciate the time that our readers take to share ideas and give feedback. The Uniter reserves the right to remove any comments from the site. Please leave comments that are repectful and useful.

You Might Also Want To Read