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Review

Sit Down and Drink Your Beer: Regulating Vancouver’s Beer Parlours, 1925-1954

At Odds: Gambling and Canadians 1919-1969

By Suzanne Morton

November 4, 2013

Review By John McLaren

To A YOUNG LAW TEACHER recently arrived from England in Saskatoon in the mid-sixties, the Canadian law relating to both the consumption of alcohol and gambling was odd. Why were bars shielded from the public gaze? Why did beer parlours serve only beer? Why could one not stand and drink? Who on earth were “Ladies and Escorts” and why did it matter? Why in a liquor board store was it necessary to fill out a form to secure one’s purchases? How was it that these stores employed people who distinguished sherries as either “sweet or sour”? Why was off-course betting illegal, while on-course betting was perfectly within the law? Why were buying a ticket for the Irish hospital sweepstakes and bingo beyond the legal pale? These and other questions have continued to puzzle me. 

Robert Campbell and Suzanne Morton provide answers to the questions posed as well as skilfully drawing the general contours and some of the detail of the history of these two problematic areas of social activity. The scope of the two books differs. Campbell’s is a micro-history of the regulation of public consumption of alcohol, as it played out in beer parlours in British Columbia between 1925 and 1954. Morton for her part seeks to treat gambling as a national issue, exposing the regional and cultural nuances of its incidence and the law’s treatment of it in several parts of the country using the period from 1919 to 1969 as her time frame. Both perspectives are important and valid, although by virtue of its comparative approach, the book on gambling allows for a richer analysis and critique of how geography and culture affected both political and popular attitudes towards it. If there is a dimension lacking in Campbell’s work, it is that we have few references to how the system in British Columbia compared and contrasted with other parts of Canada. In my opinion, good local history can benefit from that broader pattern of contextualization. 

The common starting date for the analysis of the two social practices is well chosen. Nineteen twenty-five represents the end of the hiatus after the repeal of Prohibition in British Columbia in 1919, and the substitution of state regulation of liquor, its sale, and locations of consumption for other than individual and familial private purposes. With gambling, the starting date is less a watershed than what Morton describes as a date which represents the beginning of a transformation in social attitudes on gambling from “a stigmatized minor form of vice” (often laid at the feet of Chinese immigrants) to “an acceptable activity regarded as appropriate and perhaps necessary to help fund the Canadian welfare state.”This was a gradual process covering a period of forty years. 

Suzanne Morton describes Canadian policy and law towards gambling as reflecting a profound ambivalence about gambling within Canadian society. Campbell’s study indicates that the same ambivalence afflicted British Columbians in how to deal with the consumption of alcohol. In each case the authors quite correcdy emphasize moral regulation or proscription as the central impulses of the legal regimes developed to control or suppress these activities – stimuli which were progressively challenged by representatives of other community interests, and in the case of public consumption of alcohol, from within the regulatory system itself. 

Both books articulate carefully the conflicting attitudes and discourses that fed into social and legal policy on public drinking and gambling. In both instances class difference explains much about how social policy and law were constructed. Campbell’s book is testimony to the extent to which politicians supported by many of their middle-class constituents sought to reconstruct public drinking for the working class by substituting the craved “decency” of the new, sterile beer parlour where peace and moderation would reign supreme for the disorder and misrule of the pre-Prohibition unlicensed saloon. My only complaint with Campbell’s analysis is that it fails to comment on the extent to which licensed clubs, especially those servicing veterans, also catered to a working class clientele. In other words, are we seeing the full story about working-class drinking by focusing exclusively on its public face in beer parlours? Was there in fact overlap between the license provided for private drinking for middle-class and working-class imbibers? As the clubs allowed people to bring their own liquor and store it, and liquor sold at enhanced rates in liquor board stores that compared unfavourably in cost with beer in the glass, it may well be that class discrimination was preserved in terms of space by differential pricing. The actual situation is not made clear in Campbells analysis. What I am suggesting here is comparative reference, not a different book. 

The class dimension was also central to the way in which social and legal policy shook down with gambling. Among the many inconsistencies in the application of Canadian policy and law on gambling after 1919 is the fact that while a whole range of its forms were illegal, including off-track betting, lotteries, gaming clubs, and even bingo, on-track betting through what became pari-mutuels, from which the state took its cut, was quite legal. This situation reflected a concession to a traditional form of gambling related to the “sport of kings” that served the rich and others who had the time and resources to attend race courses during daytime hours. Although by no means immune from criticism from the moral and social reformers, race track betting survived because of its historic, elitist and institutional connections. Other forms of gambling were prohibited by law, primarily because they were open to the working class, and therefore subversive of the values of moral integrity, thrift, and commitment to family, community, and country that lay at the root of what reformers and their political soul mates saw as the mark of the virtuous Canadian citizen. 

The authors also make clear that the ways in which social policy and law impacted on both forms of activity reflect beliefs and stereotypes about gender and race. The convoluted attempts by the British Columbia Liquor Control Board to ensure that access by unattached women (invariably suspected of being “loose” or, worse still, prostitutes) was limited, and that those who did get in did not consort with unattached men by requiring ever higher partitions, provides a mildly comic, although real, example of patriarchal discrimination based on gender sexuality at work. Racial anxieties were evident in policies and legal constraints designed to exclude from beer parlours Asian and First Nations drinkers respectively, and the expulsion of mixed race couples, where, but typically only where, the female partner was white. With gambling, many genres of which were typically associated with masculinity and male players, gender became a significant moral and social issue over bingo, which was largely played by women, persons whom it was felt should have been at home ministering to their families and not wasting the family’s money on idle and unproductive pursuits. Race and ethnicity concerns were voiced both at a general level in the rhetoric of gambling, reflecting its supposedly non-Anglo-Saxon roots, and more particularly at certain communities, such as the Chinese and Jews, who were believed to be addicted to or at the centre of the business. A further dimension of difference is religious and cultural. This difference is ostensibly more obvious in the case of gambling where the Roman Catholic rank and file, although not necessarily the ecclesiastical hierarchy, were much more likely to condone and participate in forms of gambling such as lotteries and bingo, especially those which had charitable objectives, than their Protestant counterparts. Parochial support for gambling was, not surprisingly, strongest in Quebec. The same cultural differences almost certainly existed with public consumption of alcohol. In Quebec, unlike British Columbia, licensed bars and restaurants operated after the province’s short dalliance with Prohibition. In Francophone Roman Catholic communities in particular, alcohol consumption did not generate the profound anxieties that it did in Anglophone Protestant Canada. 

A further common theme investigated by Campbell and Morton is the less than impressive operation of the law, the regulatory regime governing the operation of beer parlours and the criminal law proscription of gambling. In the case of British Columbian beer parlours, the regime had limited financial support, which meant that the Liquor Control Board had to rely in many instances on self-regulation by operators and their employees. As the priorities of these two groups did not necessarily jibe with those of the regulator, enforcement was variable, contested, and sometimes nonexistent. When customers are added to the equation, various forms of resistance, subtle and otherwise, occurred, which it was sometimes beyond the capacity of the system to control or which in-house regulators felt they had to accommodate. The attempts by unattached male and female customers to circumvent the partitions and threats designed to keep them apart is a case in point. The LCB itself could itself become frustrated by other institutional players intent on interfering with its work or ordering it about. This was particularly the case during the Second World War when the medical officer of health for Vancouver sought to throw his weight around in the cause of more vigorous enforcement during a venereal disease panic. 

It was only in the 1950s, when criticisms of the regulatory system’s inefficiencies came more readily to light and challenges developed from segments of the middle class chafing at the bit about the lack of access to alcohol in other public places that the reconstruction of the system and the discourse underlying it began. As Campbell suggests, it was middle-class “wet” discourse that was to introduce new knowledge into the debate about drinking in public and steer it way from the moral pathologies of the past. Reform was, however, to take time as the Social Credit government’s reforms of 1954 were grudging. While loosening up the law relating to drinking in cocktail bars and restaurants to salve middle-class concerns, they sought somewhat ineffectively to turn beer parlours into working-class bars, places still hedged round with rules of “decency” that betrayed class prejudice. 

With gambling, significant segments of the population ignored the moral strictures of the Protestant churches and in some cases those of Roman Catholic bishops and broke the law – the law that embraced everything from the operation of illicit gambling enterprises to the ordinary citizen playing bingo and purchasing a lottery or sweepstake ticket or parishes and charities seeking to raise funds in these ways. Enforcement varied significantly depending on the form of gambling in question and on the city or region in which the action occurred. Compared with Toronto, for instance, which Hked to give the impression that the police had things under control and were ready to enforce the law vigorously, Montreal and Vancouver appeared open for business and, except when political sensitivities required it, relatively free from police attention. Morton adroitly describes the story as one of overlapping moral and economic concern that led to the maintenance of unenforceable laws and the absence of a political consensus to bring the troublesome law in line with behaviour. It was only with the growth of consumerism, a revised view of speculation and risk-taking, and the recognition that economic security was not assured that reformist politicians were able to break loose in the late 1960s from the moral discourse of the past and amend the criminal law to remove many of the former proscriptions and shift gambling to provincial regulation. 

And what lessons do we learn from all of this? Campbells interpretation I find less satisfactory than that of Morton. I take his point that it is the theory of moral regulation that is most helpful in explaining the story of beer parlour regulation. He is also astute in demonstrating the importance of the construction of space in the application of moral regulation. Moreover, I like his use of the metaphor of the net to describe the system of regulation – at one and the same time encompassing and allowing much to get through the holes. However, I find one element of his attempt to implicate the state as “the manager of the marginal” forced. He is correct to suggest that the state was in many ways the prime mover in conceptualizing and carrying through this regulatory experiment. What puzzles me is his assertion that the state’s role in all of this was conducive to capitalism. That seems to be counterintuitive given the constraints placed on the sale of hard liquor in public places, and the limited number of outlets licensed for the supply of beer by the glass. Having asserted that “[s]tate regulation seeks to attenuate class conflict, facilitate accumulation, and enhance legitimacy – of the state and capitalism,” the author concedes that “capitalism in Canada did not rest on the success, failure or even existence of Vancouver’s beer parlours.” But he contents himself with the oblique conclusion that if the regulatory state did not exist, capital would have to invent it. The hidden argument maybe that as the regulatory constraints enhanced the price of what could be sold, it helped a small number of breweries monopolize beer manufacture and distribution. If that is what was meant, then a clearer articulation of it would have been helpful. 

Morton suggests that moral ambivalence surrounding gambling provided a means for Canadian society to accommodate the tensions and contradictions associated with this form of conduct. Gambling in the twentieth century was, she suggests, “a cognitive contradiction”: the act of buying a lottery ticket was testimony to the persistence of a belief in luck in what was supposed to be a rational, technocratic society. This contradiction she explains by pointing to the gulf between moral supposition and people’s actual behaviour and the difficulty in constructing watertight polarities between work and play, labour and speculation. Until the power of moral argument was squeezed or drowned out, it was possible for the system to accommodate strongly opposed interests. As the record shows, once cultural and economic arguments for accepting or tolerating gambling grew in strength and permeated the consciousness of the political system, the moral discourse was finally ditched. Morton concludes by raising the interesting and provocative suggestion that while we cannot nor should we turn the clock back to the moral precepts and discourse of the past, there are still moral arguments to be made in relation to gambling which she thinks warrant airing in public debate. I agree. 

Both these works go far in filling a number of the gaps that exist in the social and legal histories of “vice” and how it was dealt with in this country, in particular after 1919. They expose the social tensions to which both regulation and proscriptive law gave rise, the relative roles of control and resistance in mediating social and legal relations, and the inconsistencies built into the regulatory and legal structures and their enforcement. 

They are essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the translation of Canada from a society in which moral interdict was a force to be reckoned with, to the largely secular, liberal, and consumptive (some would add hedonistic) society that we are today.