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Bootleggers and Borders: The Paradox of Prohibition on a Canada-US Borderland

By Stephen T. Moore

Review By Daniel Francis

June 25, 2015

BC Studies no. 189 Spring 2016  | p. 173-74

Given how contentious relations between Canada and the US became during the American Prohibition era (1917-1933), it is surprising how little scholarly work has been done on the subject. There are many popular books about the swashbuckling exploits of the rum-runners, but very little has been written specifically about how the border was a zone of conflict, and cooperation, during the period. Which is to say that this new book by Stephen Moore, a professor of history at Central Washington University, is a welcome addition to a small bookshelf.

Moore begins his account in September 1921 with a crowd gathering south of Vancouver to dedicate the Peace Arch, a newly-constructed monument straddling the Canada-US boundary. Built to commemorate one hundred years of amicable relations, the Arch is a dazzling white gate over twenty metres in height. The monument, in its location and its message, is a testament to the special relationship existing between the two countries. Odd, therefore, that it was built at the beginning of American prohibition, when that friendship would be tested more than at any time since the War of 1812. This is just one “paradox of prohibition” that Moore mentions in his title.

British Columbia had its own version of prohibition, of course, lasting from 1917 to 1921, and Moore is subtle in his explanations of why the province abandoned the experiment so much earlier than the Americans. The reasons were partly demographic: BC’s population had a large proportion of single, male wageworkers, who were unsympathetic to the dry crusade, and a large proportion of Anglicans and Roman Catholics who did not endorse the zealotry of the more evangelical Methodists and Baptists. British Columbians were also intolerant of the corruption and hypocrisy associated with the enforcement of the liquor ban. But underlying other explanations, Moore argues, was a fundamental difference of opinion about the role that government should play in enforcing moral standards. “Canadian political culture has been much less utopian than its American counterpart,” writes Moore, “and without any expectation that its politicians would legislate the millennium”(40).

One of the most interesting chapters in the book deals with the Vancouver hearings of the Royal Commission on Customs and Excise. Smuggling led to a federal customs scandal that almost toppled the Mackenzie King government in 1923. To keep himself in power King had to create a commission, and Moore provides a good account of its West Coast hearings which were, he argues, a “turning point” in local attitudes to smuggling. Appalled at what the commission revealed about the extent of the corruption, the BC public, which formerly had tolerated rum-running as harmless hijinks, now condemned it.

In Moore’s view, while prohibition revealed “fundamentally different outlooks and beliefs” (169) on the two sides of the border, it also revealed the durability of the special relationship. British Columbians, he argues, with their long history of cooperation with their American neighbours, were more concerned about maintaining friendly relations and concluded much earlier than other Canadians that a lawless border was harmful to this objective.

Bootleggers and Borders is a very readable study of prohibition in the BC-US borderlands, combining discussions of political culture and ideology with accounts of the clandestine activities of the liquor smugglers. It will appeal to anyone with an interest in Jazz Age British Columbia and/or Canadian-American relations.

Bootleggers and Borders: The Paradox of Prohibition on a Canada-US Borderland
Stephen T. Moore
Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2014. 239 pp. $40 US. Cloth