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Closing Time: Prohibition, Rum-Runners, and Border Wars

By Daniel Francis

Review By Wayne Norton

January 9, 2015

BC Studies no. 188 Winter 2015-2016  | p. 130-31

The prohibition era has attracted much interest for generations. The American story — undoubtedly because of the violence, criminal involvement, and Hollywood exposure — has always overshadowed the somewhat milder, more complicated, and less linear history of temperance and prohibition in Canada. Because the Canadian experience with both temperance and prohibition varied chronologically from province to province (and also vis-à-vis the United States), an always changing array of law and regulation presents a challenge to anyone attempting to create a coherent narrative. With Closing Time, Daniel Francis meets that challenge by mixing a well-rounded basic storyline with an attractive selection of supporting vignette and illustration.

Combining introductory information with a sketch of the career of Toronto Star reporter Roy Greenaway, the narrative begins rather oddly but hits its stride in Chapter Two with an account of the origins and development of the anti-alcohol movement in pre-Confederation Canada. Francis notes that while few things united the BNA colonies, “a love of strong drink was one of them.” Consequently, powerful temperance movements emerged in each colony, and New Brunswick — following the lead of its American neighbour, the state of Maine — went controversially dry in 1853, experienced three years of flip-flops, and finally decided to stay wet. Francis demonstrates how federal and provincial governments of all political stripes then managed to avoid substantially responding to prohibitionist pressures for decades to follow.

Of course, the First World War changed the outlook of electorates and governments. Closing Time shows how public opinion followed patriotism into prohibition and how breweries did the same — first with patriotic brews and then with “near beer” products. All provinces in the Dominion receive comparable attention from Francis, who also places regional variations within the context of the national story. Specifically West Coast details include Matthew Begbie’s curious argument that an inability or refusal to drink proves racial inferiority and that the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver was built from profits made by George Reifel in rum-running.

The book makes no claim to original scholarship and mounts no challenge to Craig Heron’s Booze: A Distilled History (2003) as the definitive history of temperance and prohibition in Canada. But as the annotated bibliography indicates, the author’s research was broad and thorough, and from that research he has skilfully assembled an entertaining compendium of narrative, anecdote, and illustration. Although a few of the images are too small to be effective, the text is splendidly supported by a generous selection of contemporary photographs. Particularly impressive are the dozens of colour reproductions of beer labels from the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto.

Perhaps the strongest impact of Closing Time is its timely reminder of the problems faced, then and now, by law enforcement when substantial numbers of people hold existing laws in contempt. Indeed, Francis allows a common theme to emerge from the sources: rum-runners right across the country insisted they were doing nothing wrong and saw themselves as folk heroes providing a public service. Francis concludes that current arguments surrounding recreational drugs are essentially the same as those concerning alcohol in decades past. But coming as it does after such an effective survey of the mayhem created in Canada by patchwork laws and the avoidance of them, Francis’s conclusion seems more of a warning than simply an observation. Attitudes to alcohol are still evolving, as the current surge in craft beer sales and proposed changes to provincial regulation in British Columbia indicate. But as the moral, economic, and health-related arguments that once swirled around alcohol rage around marijuana today, Francis notes that prohibition may “yet again become a ballot-box issue” (176). The focus of the debate has changed, but the debate remains the same.

Closing Time: Prohibition, Rum-Runners, and Border Wars
Daniel Francis
Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntye, 2014. 192 pp. $32.95 cloth