The 1915 Alberta liquor plebiscite was a plebiscite held on July 21, 1915 to ask Alberta voters whether the Government of Alberta should ratify the proposed Liquor Act. Once ratified, the Liquor Act enforced prohibition in Alberta.
The vote was the first province wide referendum held under the Direct Plebiscite Act. The 1915 plebiscite was the first of three province wide plebiscites related to liquor in Alberta.
Prohibition was not a new concept for Albertans, prior to the creation of the province prohibition had been law in the North-West Territories from 1873–1891. Prohibition at this time was a federal policy intended to prevent the Territories' Indigenous population from purchasing liquor from American whiskey traders, and white settlers were permitted to import liquor with easily available approval from the Lieutenant Governor. In 1891, prohibition was repealed in the North-West Territories with the Liquor License Ordinance which was administered by the Board of License Commissioners, rather than the local government,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. The Liquor License 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, and each additional 500 persons increased the maximum number of licensed establishments by one. Licensed hotels were also required to provide food and lodging. 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 person excessively drank.
Prohibition remained a significant national issue, and during the 1896 Canadian federal election Wilfrid Laurier promised 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 Saskatchewan and parts of Manitoba, prohibition had a clear majority of 68.8 per cent of voters. Despite the slim majority, Laurier's government chose not to introduce a federal bill on prohibition.
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, and promoted by the Conservative Party, in March 1912, and finally came to fruition with the Direct Legislation Act in 1913. 
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. The Liberal government was less willing to commit to prohibition, recognizing the revenue generated through licensing. The Liberals instead advocated for incremental changes through reform to improve conditions related to liquor.
The temperance movement quickly responded to the new tool of direct legislation, providing a petition signed by 23,656 persons for a "Prohibitory Liquor Act" to Premier Arthur Sifton, who under the law had to either pass such a law or hold a referendum on the issue.
The premier tabled the petition in the Legislature on October 13, 1914. Sifton created a special committee to study the petition consisting of Members Messrs, George P. Smith, John M. Glendenning, and Albert Ewing. A week later on October 19, the special committee declared the petition to conform with the requirements of the Direct Legislation Act, and the Legislature moved that the Liquor Act be submitted to a vote of the electors.
The referendum date was set for July 21, 1915.
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. 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 electoral district. The president of the TMRL during the leadup to the plebiscite was T. H. Miller. Both the WCTM and the TMRL sought to ensure temperance MLAs were elected irrespective of party, and 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. Additional arguments for prohibition were printed in William McCartney Davidson's Calgary Albertan.
Louise McKinney was named President of the Alberta-Saskatchewan Union of the WTCM in 1908 and led the organization through the liquor plebiscite. Two years later in 1917, McKinney was elected as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, becoming the first woman legislator in the British Empire.
Arguments made for prohibition came from preachers and newspapers, drawing a comparison to the struggle of soldiers in the First World War fighting against "evil" and the temperance campaign's battle against the evil of liquor. One major surprise was Bob Edwards public support for the yes vote in his newspaper the Calgary Eye-Opener, despite his reputation as an alcoholic. The prohibition arguments were strong, noting the better use of grains for the war effort, rather than alcohol; and showing alcoholics as wasteful with money and neglectful of family obligations. The TMRL released a statement estimating that liquor sales in Alberta cost the public $12,292,215 per year, and prepared a $30,000 budget to campaign on the issue. The TMRL brought speakers in from across Canada and the United States to discuss the issue, including the leader of the Ontario Liberal Party Newton Rowell.
Arguments against prohibition were made primarily by Ukrainian voters, French Canadians and a portion of the soldier vote. These groups often brought in American speakers to discuss the failures of prohibition, and were subsequently branded as unpatriotic as the United States had yet to enter the First World War. Opposition by men aged 18 to 40 was limited as many were shipped overseas for the war effort. Other arguments included that the Liquor Act was ineffective at closing liquor channels, government vendors were a potential source for corruption, drug stores would become liquor stores and physicians would become salesmen, and liquor would still be accessible by the rich while the workers would not have the same access. Arguments against prohibition included that many American States had repealed their prohibition laws. The anti-prohibition groups brought in speaker A. C. Windle who vividly described the issues that would arise from prohibition, including lost economic activity and jobs for bartenders, hotels, trucks and others.
Two major newspapers, the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal argued against prohibition, instead favoring the idea of temperance without legal consequences.
The province voted by a large majority in favor of the new Liquor Act which enforced prohibition on the province effective July 1, 1916, eleven months after the vote. The results of the plebiscite were binding.
The aftermath for hotels and clubs was challenging, many closed down or sold out prior to the Liquor Act coming into force. A large number flocked to the hotels and bars on June 30, 1916 on the last day of liquor service, however liquor supplies were difficult to estimate for bar owners who did not want surplus inventory. Red Deer bars ran dry on June 29, and Calgary bars ran out of beer by noon of June 30. Reporters in Edmonton observed patrons lining up to purchase liquor to take home, rather than consume the alcohol in the bar. Overall the last day before prohibition was a celebration across Alberta, with minimal disruption or arrests by prepared police officers.
Prohibition proved to be difficult for the government to administer, with the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) refusing to enforce the law, which proved to be resource intensive. Prohibition, combined with manpower pressure from the war, and additional wartime responsibilities resulted in an agreement to withdraw the NWMP and form the Alberta Provincial Police in March 1917. Furthermore, Albertans found numerous ways around the law, including drinking spirts under 2.5 per cent alcohol, private importation (which were barred under federal law during WWI and then again after 1920), and medicinal purposes. The law also did not prohibit the manufacturing of liquor in Alberta.
The financial consequence of the prohibition vote to the Government of Alberta 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 reduced by at least $1 million annually. The Government of Alberta had previously reported an income from liquor licenses in 2014 of $251,575.
In the 1920 Canadian liquor plebiscite, Albertans voted in favour of continuing prohibition and in favour of banning importation of liquor across provincial borders (a resumption of the federal WWI prohibition law), but by a decidedly smaller margin, with 60.55 per cent in favour.
Another referendum was held in 1923. This time the electorate overwhelming approved government controlled liquor sales, ending prohibition in Alberta seven years after it had begun.
|Province wide returns|
|Rejected, spoiled and declined||1,649|
|Returns by district|
|Lac Ste. Anne||402||39.37%||619||60.63%||1,021||No|
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.