Prohibition and Temperance

Saskatchewan Provincial Police seize alcohol in Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, September 7, 1920.
South-Western Saskatchewan Oldtimers' Association Museum and Archives

In 1915, Premier Walter Scott and the Liberal government halted the sale of liquor in Saskatchewan. In April 1915 all bars had to close by 7:00 pm, and the following July Scott decreed that all bar and club licenses were to be abolished; a public prosecutor was appointed to follow up and charge individuals and businesses for non-compliance. At the same time, the Saskatchewan government took over the wholesale aspects of the liquor industry. Saskatchewan thus became the first province in Canada to ban private sector sale of alcohol; by 1917 all the other provinces except for Quebec joined the prohibition movement.

With the country steeped in the Social Gospel message of morality, Saskatchewan prohibitionists demonized those who manufactured, sold, and consumed alcohol. Alcohol was seen as a threat to world peace during World War I; it was blamed for violence in families and for high crime rates in the province. During the prohibition era the crime rates and arrests for drunkenness dropped. At the same time, fewer police were needed to patrol in urban centres, and rates of Monday morning absenteeism in the work force fell sharply. The Women's Christian Temperance Union and other proponents of an alcohol-free society likened the success of prohibition to a social revolution.

Bar and hotel owners and employees demanded some form of compensation for the loss of revenues and income, at least until they could generate alternative jobs or business ventures; but the government refused to compensate those involved in the sale of alcohol, arguing that the monies could not come from the provincial coffers given that public opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of prohibition. According to Scott, the citizens of Saskatchewan felt that alcohol was unpatriotic and more dangerous than German submarines. On April 1, 1918, the federal government prohibited the manufacture, importation, and transportation of beverages containing more than 2.5% alcohol. Provincial governments regulated the sale of alcohol within the province, while the federal government regulated trade in alcohol between provinces. Canada became a “dry” country, the only exceptions being the alcohol needed for medicinal and religious purposes.

Scott and the Liberal government promised the Saskatchewan people ongoing referenda regarding prohibition. The Canada Temperance Act of 1919 replaced prohibition as public opinion was shifting toward greater tolerance of alcohol consumption. The Saskatchewan government abandoned the prohibition and temperance movement in 1925, but continued to control wholesale outlets for selling and distributing alcohol.

Elizabeth Mooney

Further Reading

Finkel, A. and M. Conrad. 2001. History of the Canadian Peoples: 1867 to the Present. Toronto: Addison Wesley Longman; Heron, C. 2003. Booze: A Distilled History. Toronto: Between the Lines.