Prohibition in Canada was short, but laws were in effect in the US for many years. The plan was disastrous. Instead, Canadian bootleggers, rumrunners and then mobsters made fortunes
Rumblings of Prohibition were heard for decades in Canada and the United States in the 1800s. Early attempts to “dry out” both countries failed, but by the time World War One erupted in 1914, citizens took a different view of prohibition. Temperance groups, farmers, churches and women armed with new-found voting rights rallied together to fight for a ban on alcohol. Their campaigns, protests, parades and lobbying, plus the call to close “all distilleries and breweries as a non-essential industry for the war effort”, noted Art Jahns in WalkervilleTimes.com, lead to bans on the importation, manufacture and transportation of liquor. The Canadian and provincial governments (except Quebec) enacted the new policies in 1918. The Volstead Act of 1919 in the United States enacted similar laws. The general public agreed.
Canadian Prohibition law reversed
Canadian law was reversed soon after, with a repeal of the wartime measures act in 1919. Distilleries and breweries reopened; Canadians were free to manufacture and sell liquor across the provinces and to countries without prohibition in force. As for the American laws, still in place:
“Prohibition in fact backfired. Instead of eradicating the manufacture and sale of liquor, it sustained and boosted it to the point that its use in both the United States and Canada was even greater and more widespread,” said C.H. Gervais, author of The Rumrunners, a Prohibition Scrapbook.
Bootleggers and smugglers made fortunes
The business of booze exploded. Liquor bought from distilleries in Canada was smuggled across the border. In Detroit, Michigan, across the river from Walkerville, Ontario, illegal liquor sales were second only to the booming automobile industry. Bootlegging flourished. People bought alcohol under the guise of obtaining it for their own supplies (or for shipping it to another destination – Cuba was often listed on a B-13 Clearance Form issued by Canada Customs) then they evaded authorities, lugging liquor across the US border “with skaters on sunny afternoons, tourists crossing on the ferry boats… strapped to underclothing, inside brassieres, in stockings, in boots, up coatsleeves, in tires in cars.” The booze was delivered to covert Speakeasies and saloons, and sold to quench their thirsty customers.
Fortunes were created during Prohibition, millions of dollars changed hands illegally. Before long, mobsters such as Al Capone caught wind of the money being made, and organized large shipments from distilleries across Canada into the United States on airplanes, in larger boats and through railway cars, marked as other goods. Capone was said to have made $100 million a year from beer bootlegging. The Windsor/Detroit corridor was one of the busiest areas, rum-running in the Maritimes and Quebec also made history. The Canadian Encyclopedia quoted one fisherman, “I could make more money running one load of booze than I could in a year on the fishing boats.”
Prohibition enforcement was difficult
Government and police were not idle as the liquor flowed, but enforcement of Prohibition was difficult. Patrol boats cruised the rivers to catch smugglers, speakeasies were raided regularly and homes were searched for illicit stills and home-brewed moonshine. But, the money to be made was so large and tempting that policemen, politicians and government officials themselves occasionally succumbed. In one example, most members of theYankee Border Patrol were caught taking bribes to let the liquor flow freely past their posts.
Violence, family discord, unruliness and public drunkenness, everything that advocates of Prohibition thought it was supposed to prevent, dramatically increased by going “dry” in the 1920s. The United States reversed their Prohibition laws in 1933, allowing their own breweries and distilleries to produce and sell liquor. The Roaring Twenties became a fascinating era in North American history.
The Rumrunners: a prohibition scrapbook, by C. H. Gervais, published by Firefly Books, Canada, 1980
This article first appeared on Suite101.com in 2007. Copyright Susanna McLeod