Positively gleeful - Macleans.ca

Positively gleeful

A new book recalls Canadians’ happy embrace of Prohibition


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Just as all the clichés about Canadian-American relations say—the mouse and elephant, the U.S. sneezes and we catch cold—Canada does not normally benefit when the Americans undergo one of their periodic upheavals. The way their current security consciousness is thickening the 49th parallel and slowing trade is a prime example. But there are exceptions to every rule, and Prohibition—perhaps the maddest of mad American dreams—did pretty well by our nation from 1920 to 1933. As American writer Daniel Okrent points out in his fine social history of the era, Last Call, the rivers of Canadian booze that flowed south enriched not only the Bronfman liquor empire, but our federal government. Canadians did make and smuggle illegal liquor, evading both Canadian taxes and American law, but we also made millions of litres of the legal, taxed stuff, the ultimate destination of which was of no concern to Ottawa. The amount of alcohol subject to excise tax—most of which went south one way or another—went from 36,000 litres in 1920 to five million 10 years later, and the excise tax on it rose to a fifth of federal revenue, twice as much as income tax.

Few in Canada had the slightest inclination to aid the American government in cracking down on alcohol use. When a U.S. Coast Guard cutter in pursuit of a Lake Erie rum-runner ran aground near Port Colborne, Ont., locals looted the vessel, then filled its engines with sand. About the only Canadians Okrent could unearth who thought the Dominion should help Uncle Sam seal his border were those making a fortune selling alcohol to American visitors. One way or another, most Canadians agreed with the smug satisfaction of CNR president Sir Henry Thornton, whose railway was growing fat off liquor tourism: “The dryer the U.S. is,” opined Sir Henry, “the better it will be for us.”

If there was an upside to what was known—at first, without a trace of irony—as “The Noble Experiment” in the U.S. itself, Okrent is hard-pressed to find it. America had always been awash in alcohol. (Johnny Appleseed’s fruit was inedible, but Americans still embraced his trees—virtually every homestead kept a barrel of hard cider by the door for visitors.) During the sodden 19th century, adult Americans downed 27 litres of pure alcohol each annually. That kind of demand wasn’t going to disappear no matter what the law said. The rich reacted to the 18th amendment banning the sale—but not the consumption—of liquor by buying up the stocks of entire liquor stores and moving them to their homes, during the year’s grace allowed between 1919 and 1920. In Arizona, Baron Goldwater had the bar of his favourite saloon installed in his basement; there his son, 10-year-old Barry, the future presidential candidate, worked making beer. Politicians had it even easier: U.S. attorney general Harry Daugherty, who had impounded liquor delivered to his Washington home, was generous with his friends.

But those without large basements and larger bank accounts needed new sources of supply. Once the alcohol—whether from Canada or illegal stills—went on the market, gangsters controlled its distribution. America’s first criminal syndicates—think Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre—grew exponentially in national influence and in violence. Not just mobsters but innocent passersby fell victim to the booze war’s Tommy guns, as the U.S. violent crime rate rose from 12 murders or assaults per 100,000 in 1920 to 16 in 1933, Prohibition’s last year, after which it fell.

Up against the gangsters were ill-paid Prohibition agents, many of whom weren’t actually on the government’s side. One New York DA noted that his officers’ $1,800-a-year salary was not a living wage in his city, yet “men clamour for the jobs” because of the mob’s generous payoffs. Daugherty’s casual corruption became entrenched in officialdom. And then there was the tax hit—Ottawa’s gain was Washington’s loss.

For all our Roaring Twenties nostalgia about flappers in speakeasies, Prohibition was a costly failure. All those deaths, all that money wasted, all that never-eradicated organized crime, began in denial of a simple fact, one that only militant idealists—as prevalent in today’s losing War on Drugs as in the 1920s’ lost Battle Against Alcohol—could ignore. People will find ways to alter their moods and their consciousnesses. As 77-year-old Sam Bronfman, bootlegger turned respectable billionaire, told two American reporters in 1966: “You people were thirsty.”