Socialist MLA J.H. Hawthornwaite challenged the audience to show him where “one vice or crime in which there was profit had ever been abolished by law”.
As we saw last week, Archibald Tiderington of Lake Cowichan, was charged with bootlegging when British Columbia was locked in the cold embrace of Prohibition. For four years, 1917-1921, temperance prevailed throughout the province.
Originally passed as part of the War Measures Act, the ban on the selling of alcohol sparked heated debate. Particularly so as the ban on alcohol came up for confirmation in a referendum.
In April 1920, 300 citizens crowded into the Duncan Opera House to hear the case for ‘Moderation’ vs. Prohibition in the use of wines, beers and spirits. The audience, which was equally divided between men and women, favoured the view that the outright ban on the sale of alcohol, as prescribed in the Prohibition Act, was excessive. Billed as the three key speakers were J.H. Hawthornwaite, Socialist MLA; Col. Collard, CB; G.A. Cheeke of Cobble Hill and C.T. Cross of Victoria.
Cherry Point’s Capt. Arthur Lane, well known to enjoy a tipple, opened the meeting by defining ‘moderation’ as a revised Act whereby the provincial government would “control the sale of spirituous or malt liquors in sealed packages”. In other words, moderation, so-called, had nothing to do with personal consumption. Lane said he hoped that the Moderation movement would, like St. George, slay the dragon of Prohibition.
George Cheeke, saying he came to the discussion from a sense of duty, believed that “the future of the province depended on the way the people voted on the coming issue”. It was time to “put away feelings of what might be politic for oneself and come out into the open”. He was saddened by the fact that many honest, law-abiding citizens had broken the law in their quest for liquor; he thought it was a reflection on social life generally and that it would have a sad effect on general morality: “Law-abiding people [are] denying themselves for the sake of the law instituted for the sake of those people who [are] no better than they were before. For the last four years the community [has] been living one large and deplorable lie.”
That argument, that the availability and consumption of liquor led to ruined families, was specious, he said; the controlled sale of liquor would not lead to drunkenness and ruination. Why, even the Prohibitionists had admitted that the policy was a failure because it was difficult to legislate to protect the individual from himself. Cheeke cited previous failed attempts at enforced temperance in the Old Country and in the U.S. Hence Moderation should be given a fair trial and ‘Moderates’ had better wake up and vote down further Prohibition or the province would go on being bone-dry.
Addressing himself to the ladies, Col. Collard warned against the sentimentality of “pussyfoot”. There was no denying that “in the old days” women “had had the hard side of drink”. But that was in the era of saloons and other public drinking places. “I stand tonight on what amounts to an anti-prohibition platform. Any man who stands up against an attack on his home and his personal liberty has no need to be ashamed to stand here. If the issue stood between the return of bars and total prohibition I would be standing tonight on a pro-prohibition platform.”
Social drinking by adults in their own homes was a matter to be settled between husband and wife, not by legislation, he concluded.
MLA Hawthornwaite pointed out that when Prohibition was passed in the provincial legislature, only he and two other MLAs had had the “courage or honesty” to vote against the bill. Women, he said, now had the vote and for their children’s sake they intended to destroy the danger — the saloons. But prohibition “involved so many questions” that he despaired of “educating” women before the coming referendum. He didn’t think a plebiscite was necessary; it was up to the members of the legislature to re-examine a law they knew to be resented by a majority of the electorate.
The old days of privately-owned saloons were over and Prohibition was a failure and a positive disgrace. Wherever it had been tried in the world it had failed and been followed by “greater curses than drunkenness and drinking”. He was referring to “the drug habit” and claimed that Vancouver’s chief of police calculated that that city’s addict population had soared by 2,000 since the advent of Prohibition. Worse, in Montreal, “women and children hawked liquid morphine to men coming home from work” and the majority of inmates in Canadian asylums were women addicts(!)
He challenged the audience, as he had a Methodist congregation in Victoria, to show him where “one vice or crime in which there was profit had ever been abolished by law”. Should a 51 per cent majority have the right to “dictate what men or women do inside their own homes”? Were attacks on smoking to follow?
The answer was to eliminate profit by “letting the government take over the [liquor] business and administrate it”.
There was more but you get the drift. And so did the provincial government which, the next year, rescinded Prohibition and established its own liquor distribution system.