Academic journal article Alberta History

The Day Alberta Went Dry

Academic journal article Alberta History

The Day Alberta Went Dry

Article excerpt

Calgary went dry Friday night.

Dry as the burning sands of Arabia.

Dry as the bones in the valley described by the Prophet Ezekiel.

Dry as the seventh proposition of Euclid

With the above words, the Calgary Albertan (1) welcomed prohibition to Calgary and, for that matter, to the rest of Alberta. July 1, 1916 marked the beginning of a seven-year period where no liquor could be legally bought in the province. Overnight, 281 bars, 253 hotel outlets, thirteen clubs, and 55 wholesale liquor distributors were out of business.

The movement towards a dry Alberta started in earnest in 1907, two years after the province was formed. In that year, the Alberta Temperance and Moral Reform League was established at a meeting in Red Deer with the purpose of "ultimately abolishing the liquor traffic." (2) Joined by the Women's Christian Temperance Union and Methodist and Presbyterian churches, they organized petitions and sent six deputations to Edmonton. These, however, brought about only a few minor changes. The Liberal party, in power at that time was cognizant of the fact that revenue from liquor sales were a significant part of their budget and were cool to the idea of any major changes, and certainly not of complete prohibition.

As the prohibition forces gained strength, the Moral Reform League flexed its muscles in 1914 when it passed a resolution promising "to vote for such candidates for parliament as will pledge their efforts and vote for such prohibitory laws." (3) The Calgary Albertan, under the editorship of W. M. Davidson, threw its support behind the prohibitionists, carrying articles and speeches supporting the anti-liquor movement. Farm groups such as the United Grain Growers and the United Farmers of Alberta, added their support.

In 1913, the Alberta government passed the Direct Legislation Act which directed that if 20 per cent of the electorate signed a petition favouring certain legislation, then the government was obliged to introduce a referendum on the subject. To gain public support, the Moral Reform League set out to raise $100,000 to finance its campaign. With leaflets and banners imported from Ontario and Illinois, and using the slogan "Ban the Bar," scores of supporters blanketed the province, getting signatures to a petition demanding a "Prohibition Prohibitory Liquor Act." (4) By autumn of 1914 the petition had been signed by 23,656 people, hundreds more than were needed. The Alberta government had no alternative but to call for a referendum, which was set for July 21, 1915.

With the onset of World War I and the excitement of news from Europe, interest in the legislation waned over the winter of 1914-15 but sprang anew in the spring. Most newspapers supported prohibition, except for the Edmonton Journal and the Calgary Herald. Both favoured the idea of temperance but not outright prohibition. Fighting the proposal were the Licensed Victualers Association of Alberta, the Bartenders' Union, and the Alberta Federation of Labor.

Even with its war chest, the "drys" seemed to be no match for the "wets" who appeared to have unlimited funds for scores of newspaper ads and for imported speakers like A.C. Windle, who eloquently told of the catastrophes that would follow if liquor was banned. He claimed that hundreds of families relied on pay cheques from bartenders, hotel employees, truckers, and others dependant upon the industry. People were told that whiskey was important to ward off the cold weather, to use as a stimulant, and to combat any evil that plagued a person. These statements were untrue but were still proclaimed. (5) Windle drew large crowds and was praised for his eloquence.

The arguments of the "drys" were at times vociferous. In an all-embracing statement the Moral Reform League said that the liquor traffic "is the source of all political corruption, causes of war and pauperism, the lawlessness and crime, of immorality and vice, of disease and death, of ruined homes and blighted souls. …

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