B.C. liquor laws have always been a contentious subject

"Inebriates should be dealt with in the same manner as lunatics." -T.R.E. McInnes (a future lieutenant-governor).

Proposed changes to B.C.’s liquor laws reminded me that Nanaimo once had more saloons than any other community in the province. The Hub City has more or less sobered up since then with the help of government legislation, evangelists, populist politicians and various other do-gooders.

Temperance was in vogue in 1894 as was apparent during a July all-candidates meeting which drew a large audience and garnered lots of press. Actually, the meeting started out with a sparse crowd but when attention turned to demon drink people began to drift in.

Moderator George Campbell noted that Nanaimo citizens were "anxious to bring about a stricter enforcement of the laws, now in existence, dealing with the restrictions of the liquor traffic, and they [were] desirous of obtaining more progressive legislation along this line". They were there that summer evening to set aside party loyalties and to "combine their forces into one harmonious whole, actuated with the sole object of securing proper legislation along this line".

The pro-temperance sponsors of the meeting had, after polling the candidates and parties for their views on the issue, resolved to support incumbent MLA Thomas Keith’s candidature. Richard Booth, who’d headed the interview committee, said that, as a Christian, he looked upon liquor as the greatest curse this or any other country had to deal with. He urged those present to unite, whatever their individual, religious or personal views, to bring about the desired end. He assured them that the temperance movement had no hidden political agenda – or "political dodge," as he put it – they simply wanted to reform liquor legislation. Booth concluded by declaring that all temperance advocates and those sympathetic to their cause were duty-bound to return Keith, their anointed candidate, with an overwhelming majority. If they didn’t do everything in their power to further this end, they "might as well give up their prayers for the removal of the evils" attending the liquor traffic, for it would prove their insincerity.

Next up was T.R.E. McInnes (a future lieutenant-governor) who promised to limit himself to the "practical political aspect" of the liquor question. He outlined existing legislation concerning licensing, the prohibition of Sunday liquor sales and the limitation of hours of sale by commercial establishments.

He termed the Liquor License Regulations Act of 1890, brought in by the Theodore Davie government, as being "practically a farcical measure, inoperative, and intended to be so". Strict enforcement would require "a system of espionage and the maintenance of a perfect army of police". The act was simply brought in "as a sop to the temperance party and never meant to prejudice the interests of the government’s staunch supporters, the saloon men". Much could have been done, simply and efficaciously, had the government really so desired.

Making it a misdemeanour, punishable by fine, to operate liquor premises on the Sabbath was a joke, he said, and legislation dealing with the sale of liquor to inebriates and to minors was also faulty and open to improvement. A third temperance reform that should be implemented was the "erection and maintenance of inebriate asylums…inebriates should be dealt with in the same manner as lunatics"[!] He asked the audience if they truly believed that the Davie administration would "ever do anything in the cause of temperance". No, he argued, they must vote for men like Mr. Keith who pledged to work to this end in the Legislature.

When it was Keith’s turn to speak, he was warmly received, his lengthy address frequently applauded. He expressed his regret that more ladies weren’t present as he wished to address female suffrage "with a reference especially to its bearing on the liquor traffic question". It was an injustice to women, who composed so large a proportion of the community, that they should have no say in the laws of the country. Not only were they not the weaker sex, but, he believed, they likely had the greatest indirect influence upon society through their menfolk. And, did not women usually suffer the greatest when their spouses were the worse for drink? It was wrong that they should have no say in legislation so vital to their happiness.

Stricter liquor legislation was a major plank in his party’s platform, he concluded, and those laws already on the books should be strictly enforced. If reelected, he’d work "heart and soul" with the temperance movement to deal with the evils arising from the sale of intoxicants instead of treating the liquor trade as more of a revenue maker than a social problem.

Two days later, Nanaimo electors had their say. Three MLAs were elected for the Nanaimo area but Tom Keith wasn’t one of them. Maybe it was something he said.

www.twpaterson.com

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