Alberta liquor plebiscite
July 21, 1915 (1915-07-21)

Do you approve of the proposed act, THE LIQUOR ACT?
LocationAlberta
Results
Response Votes %
Yes 58,295 60.85%
No 37,509 39.15%
Valid votes 95,804 100.26%
Invalid or blank votes 1,649 1.73%
Total votes 95,554 100.00%

The 1915 Alberta liquor plebiscite was the first plebiscite to ask voters in Alberta whether the province should implement prohibition by ratifying the proposed Liquor Act. The plebiscite was the culmination of years of lobbying by the province's temperance movements and agricultural groups, and was proposed through the recently implemented form of direct democracy, the Direct Legislation Act. Alberta voters overwhelming approved the plebiscite on prohibition, which was implemented eleven months after the vote. The June 21, 1915 plebiscite was the first of three province-wide plebiscites held in a seven year period related to liquor in Alberta.

Background

Prohibition in the North-West Territories

Prohibition was not a new concept for Albertans since prior to the creation of the Province of Alberta in 1905, prohibition had been law in the North-West Territories from 1873 to 1891.[1][2] Prohibition time was then a federal policy intended to prevent the Territories' Indigenous population from purchasing liquor from American whiskey traders, but white settlers were permitted to import liquor with easily-available approval from the Lieutenant Governor.[3] In 1891, prohibition was repealed in the North-West Territories with the Liquor License Ordinance, which was administered by the Board of License Commissioners, rather than the local government, following the model already in place in Ontario and Manitoba.[4] The ordinance allowed a hotels in communities to be issued a license to serve liquor. A community with less than 500 people was limited to two licensed establishments, with each additional 500 persons being allowed the maximum number of licensed establishments in the community increase by one.[5] The ordinance also required licensed hotels to provide food and lodging.[6] Liquor laws were enforced by liquor inspectors, and an order by two concurring justices of the peace could prevent a person from buying liquor for one year if the individual was known to drink excessively.[7]

Prohibition remained a significant national issue in the late-19th century, and during the 1896 Canadian federal election, Wilfrid Laurier promised that a Liberal government would provide Canadians with the opportunity to register their opinion on the sale of liquor. In the non-binding 1898 Canadian prohibition plebiscite a slim majority of the country approved prohibition, with 51.26 per cent in favour with 44 per cent of the electorate participating. In the North-West Territories, which included present-day Alberta, Saskatchewan, and parts of Manitoba, prohibition was approved by a clear majority with 68.8 per cent of voters. Despite the slim national majority, Laurier's government chose not to introduce a federal bill on prohibition.

Direct legislation

Following confederation of Alberta in 1905, the movement for direct legislation took form. The Grain Growers Guide published articles about the benefits of direct legislation, and the growing United Farmers of Alberta pressured the Liberal government starting in 1909. It was promoted by the Conservative Party, in March 1912 and finally came to fruition with the Direct Legislation Act in 1913.[8][9][10]

The minority Conservative Party also sought to capitalize on the prohibition issue prior to the 1913 election, with the party convention in March 1912 committing to holding a plebiscite on prohibition.[11] The Liberal government was less willing to commit to prohibition since it recognized the revenue generated through licensing.[9] The Liberals instead advocated for incremental changes through reform to improve conditions related to liquor.[9]

The temperance movement quickly responded to the new tool of direct legislation by providing a petition signed by 23,656 persons for a "Prohibitory Liquor Act" to Premier Arthur Sifton. Under the law, he had to pass such a law or hold a referendum on the issue.

The premier tabled the petition in the 3rd Alberta Legislature on October 13, 1914.[12] Sifton created a special committee to study the petition consisting of Members George P. Smith, John M. Glendenning, and Albert Ewing.[13] A week later on October 19, the special committee declared the petition conformed with the requirements of the Direct Legislation Act, and the Legislature moved for the Liquor Act to be submitted to a vote of the electors.[14]

The referendum date was set for July 21, 1915.

Arguments on prohibition

Louise McKinney, President of the Alberta-Saskatchewan Union of the Women's Christian Temperance Movement
Louise McKinney, President of the Alberta-Saskatchewan Union of the Women's Christian Temperance Movement

Prohibition was pushed forward primarily by two temperance groups, the Women's Christian Temperance Movement (WCTM) and the Temperance and Moral Reform League (TMRL), as well as the United Farmers of Alberta.[15] The TMRL shared many of the same ideals as the WCTM but was structured to mirror a political party, with a central executive and local organizations in each of Alberta's electoral districts.[15] The president of the TMRL during the runup to the plebiscite was T. H. Miller.[16] Both the WCTM and the TMRL sought to ensure that temperance MLAs were elected, irrespective of party,[17][18] and that strong representation existed politically in Alberta with temperance values being shared by Lieutenant Governor George H. V. Bulyea, Premier Alexander Cameron Rutherford, Crown Minister William Henry Cushing, and Conservative leader R. B. Bennett.[18] Additional arguments for prohibition were printed in William McCartney Davidson's Calgary Albertan.[19] The WTCM named Louise McKinney President of the Alberta-Saskatchewan Union of the organization in 1908, and McKinney led the WTCM through the prohibition plebiscite.[20] Two years after the plebiscite, McKinney was elected as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta in the 1917 general election and became the first woman legislator in the British Empire.[21]

The public proponents of prohibition were primarily preachers and newspapers and effectively drew comparisons between the struggle of soldiers in the First World War fight against the "evil" Central Powers and the temperance campaign's battle against the "evil" of liquor.[22] Other strong arguments made by proponents of prohibition included the better use of valuable grains for the war effort, rather than alcohol, and showing alcoholics as wasteful with money and neglectful of their family obligations.[22][23] The TMRL released a statement estimating that liquor sales in Alberta cost the public $12,292,215 per year (equivalent to CAD$276,071,058 in 2020) and prepared a $30,000 budget to campaign on the issue.[16] The TMRL campaign included bringing speakers in from across Canada and the United States to discuss the benefits of prohibition, including the leader of the Ontario Liberal Party Newton Rowell.[16] One major surprise for proponents of prohibition was Bob Edwards's public support in his newspaper the Calgary Eye-Opener, despite his reputation as an alcoholic.[22]

A Calgary Sunday school promoting the prohibition vote
A Calgary Sunday school promoting the prohibition vote

Arguments against prohibition were made primarily by [[Ukrainian Canadians ]], French Canadians, and some of the soldiera. The groups often brought in American speakers to discuss the failures of prohibition, and their efforts were subsequently branded as unpatriotic by proponents of prohibition, as the United States had yet to enter the First World War.[22] Opposition by men aged 18 to 40 was limited, as many were shipped overseas for the war effort.[23] Other arguments included that the Liquor Act was ineffective at closing liquor channels, government liquor vendors were a potential source for corruption, drug stores would become liquor stores and physicians would become liquor salesmen, and liquor would still be accessible by the rich while the working class would not have the same access to liquor.[16] Furthermore, those against prohibition noted that many US states had repealed their prohibition laws.[16] The anti-prohibition groups brought in the speaker A. C. Windle, who vividly described the issues that would arise from prohibition, including a loss of economic activity and jobs for bartenders, hotels employees, truck drivers, and others.[24]

The two major Alberta newspapers, the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal, argued against prohibition and instead favored the idea of temperance without legal consequences.[19]

Aftermath

The province voted by a large majority in favour of the new Liquor Act, which enforced prohibition on the province effective July 1, 1916, eleven months after the vote.[25] The results of the plebiscite were binding.

The aftermath for hotels and clubs was challenging, and many closed down or sold out prior to the Liquor Act coming into force.[26] A large number flocked to the hotels and bars on June 30, 1916 on the last day of liquor service, but bar operators found it difficult to estimate necessary liquor supplies adequately, as they did not want surplus inventory.[26] Red Deer bars ran dry on June 29, and Calgary bars were reported to have run out of beer by noon of June 30.[26] Reporters in Edmonton observed patrons lining up to purchase liquor to take home, rather than consume the alcohol in the bar.[26] The historian Hugh Dempsey noted that the last day before prohibition was a celebration across Alberta, with minimal disruption or arrests by prepared police officers.[27]

Prohibition proved to be difficult for the government to administer, with the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) refusing to enforce the resource intensive law. Prohibition, the reduced manpower from the First World War, and additional domestic wartime responsibilities resulted in the Alberta government agreeing to withdraw the NWMP and form the Alberta Provincial Police in March 1917. Albertans found numerous ways around prohibition, including drinking spirits under 2.5 per cent alcohol [28] and private importation, which were barred under federal law during First World War and then again after 1920, [29] and alcohol for medicinal purposes.[30] Alberta's Liquor Act did not prohibit the manufacturing of liquor in Alberta.[28]

The financial consequence of prohibition to the Alberta government was significant. Revenue from government-controlled liquor sales dropped to nearly zero in 1916 and did not start to recover until 1919, when doctors began writing wholesale prescriptions in the wake of the Spanish flu. It was estimated that the population rejecting the plebiscite would have resulted in the government deficit being reduced by at least $1 million annually.[31] The government had reported an income from liquor licenses in 1914 of $251,575.[32]

In the 1920 Canadian liquor plebiscite, Albertans once again voted in favour of continuing prohibition and banning the importation of liquor across provincial borders, a resumption of the federal First World War prohibition law, but by a decidedly smaller margin, with 60.55 per cent in favour.[33]

The Alberta government held another plebiscite in 1923. This time, the electorate overwhelmingly approved government controlled liquor sales and ending prohibition in Alberta seven years after it had begun.[33]

Tabulation of results

Province wide returns
Option Votes[34] %
Yes 58,295 60.85%
No 37,509 39.15%
Total 95,804 100%
Rejected, spoiled and declined 1,649
Returns by district[35]
District Yes % No % Total Yes/no
Acadia 1,660 81.02% 389 18.98% 2,249 Yes
Alexandra 811 70.10% 346 29.90% 1,157 Yes
Athabasca 397 43.67% 512 56.33% 909 No
Beaver River 280 27.37% 743 72.63% 1,023 No
Bow Valley 265 47.49% 293 52.51% 558 No
Centre Calgary 1,442 55.59% 1,152 44.41% 2,594 Yes
North Calgary 2,189 61.70% 1,359 38.30% 3,548 Yes
South Calgary 3,994 63.78% 2,268 36.22% 6,262 Yes
Camrose 1,933 72.45% 735 27.55% 2,668 Yes
Cardston 761 79.35% 198 20.65% 959 Yes
Claresholm 664 71.09% 270 28.91% 934 Yes
Clearwater 57 63.33% 33 36.67% 90 Yes
Cochrane 614 71.73% 242 28.27% 856 Yes
Coronation 1,475 70.31% 623 29.69% 2,098 Yes
Didsbury 1,535 78.76% 414 21.24% 1,949 Yes
Edmonton 5,700 62.73% 3,386 37.27% 9,086 Yes
Edmonton South 2,258 66.55% 1,135 33.45% 3,393 Yes
Edson 511 46.29% 593 53.71% 1,104 No
Gleichen 818 61.69% 508 38.31% 1,326 Yes
Grouard 168 26.05% 477 73.95% 645 No
Hand Hills 1,730 70.33% 730 29.67% 2,460 Yes
High River 815 72.06% 316 27.94% 1,131 Yes
Innisfail 784 71.79% 308 28.21% 1,092 Yes
Lac Ste. Anne 402 39.37% 619 60.63% 1,021 No
Lacombe 1,471 78.41% 405 21.59% 1,876 Yes
Leduc 694 58.81% 486 41.19% 1,180 Yes
Lethbridge City 989 34.58% 1,871 65.42% 2,860 No
Little Bow 1,029 69.25% 457 30.75% 1,486 Yes
Macleod 450 52.39% 409 47.61% 859 Yes
Medicine Hat 2,600 58.52% 1,843 41.48% 4,443 Yes
Nanton 689 74.17% 240 25.83% 929 Yes
Okotoks 512 57.66% 376 42.34% 888 Yes
Olds 958 69.37% 423 30.63% 1,381 Yes
Peace River 720 61.22% 456 38.78% 1,176 Yes
Pembina 598 58.74% 420 41.26% 1,018 Yes
Pincher Creek 384 45.99% 451 54.01% 835 No
Ponoka 701 64.55% 385 35.45% 1,086 Yes
Red Deer 1,221 71.49% 487 28.51% 1,708 Yes
Redcliff 771 48.13% 831 51.87% 1,602 No
Ribstone 1,118 69.88% 482 30.13% 1,600 Yes
Rocky Mountain 881 38.76% 1,392 61.24% 2,273 No
Sedgewick 1,447 72.17% 558 27.83% 2,005 Yes
St. Albert 315 29.83% 741 70.17% 1,056 No
Stettler 1,478 68.65% 675 31.35% 2,153 Yes
St. Paul 239 26.85% 651 73.15% 890 No
Stony Plain 42 6.70% 585 93.30% 627 No
Sturgeon 851 49.74% 860 50.26% 1,711 No
Taber 1,602 66.64% 802 33.36% 2,404 Yes
Vegreville 1,164 62.88% 687 37.12% 1,851 Yes
Vermilion 1,164 62.88% 687 37.12% 1,851 Yes
Victoria 790 56.55% 607 43.45% 1,397 No
Wainwright 903 62.49% 542 37.51% 1,445 Yes
Warner 414 56.17% 323 43.83% 737 Yes
Wetaskiwin 943 65.71% 492 34.29% 1,435 Yes
Whitford 415 40.81% 602 59.19% 1,017 No

Turnout

The Government of Alberta did not provide an official turnout for the 1915 Alberta liquor plebiscite, however the estimated turnout would have been around 70 per cent of eligible voters. A total of 95,804 people voted in the plebiscite, while the population of the province in 1911 was 374,000, with a voting population of approximately 107,487, which is estimated to have increased to between 136,000 to 140,000 by 1915.[36][24]

References

  1. ^ Hamill 2014, p. 34.
  2. ^ "Majority For Liquor Act In Neighborhood of 20,000". The Calgary Daily Herald. July 22, 1915. p. 1. Retrieved January 14, 2021.
  3. ^ Hamill 2014, p. 37–38.
  4. ^ Hamill 2014, p. 44.
  5. ^ Hamill 2014, p. 45.
  6. ^ Hamill 2014, p. 46.
  7. ^ Hamill 2014, p. 47.
  8. ^ Hamill 2014, p. 54.
  9. ^ a b c Thomas 1959, p. 139.
  10. ^ Edmonton Bulletin, March 26, 1913
  11. ^ Thomas 1959, p. 138.
  12. ^ Alberta. Legislative Assembly 1914, p. 23.
  13. ^ Alberta. Legislative Assembly 1914, p. 26.
  14. ^ Alberta. Legislative Assembly 1914, p. 58.
  15. ^ a b Hamill 2014, pp. 55–56.
  16. ^ a b c d e Hopkins 1916, p. 695.
  17. ^ Hamill 2014, p. 56.
  18. ^ a b Sheehan 1980, p. 130.
  19. ^ a b Dempsey 2010, p. 10.
  20. ^ Sheehan 1980, p. 120.
  21. ^ Sheehan 1980, p. 121.
  22. ^ a b c d Crerar 2006, p. 391–392.
  23. ^ a b Sheehan 1980, p. 132.
  24. ^ a b Dempsey 2010, p. 11.
  25. ^ Dempsey 2010, p. 12.
  26. ^ a b c d Dempsey 2010, p. 13.
  27. ^ Dempsey 2010, p. 15.
  28. ^ a b Hamill 2014, p. 67.
  29. ^ Hamill 2014, p. 68.
  30. ^ Hamill 2014, p. 69.
  31. ^ Hanson 2003, p. 81.
  32. ^ Hopkins 1916, p. 698.
  33. ^ a b Sheehan 1980, p. 133.
  34. ^ Alberta. Legislative Assembly 1915, pp. 609–610.
  35. ^ "Full Results of Plebiscite Vote". Wetaskiwin Times. August 26, 1915. p. 2. Retrieved July 20, 2021.
  36. ^ Hamill 2014, p. 77.
Works cited
Primary Sources

Further reading