In 1916, the Wets and the Drys drew the line in the sand over the issue of Prohibition.
The word Prohibition is not part of today’s vocabulary.
When I was young, Prohibition, though dead more than 20 years, was still a familiar topic of conversation amongst the adults I was around.
There were still vestiges of this era when I was growing up in Alberta, where there were separate entrances to all licensed premises for “gentlemen,” and “ladies and escorts,” and they closed the beer parlours from 6 till 7 each evening so that those adults with children could go home to prepare dinner.
I’ll try to distil the essence of the controversy of 1916 for you.
The storm surrounding alcohol had been brewing since the turn of the century.
The gold rush, of course was an unusual episode in Canadian history when, for a few years, everything was wide open in the Yukon. Gambling, drinking and prostitution were woven into the fabric of the event.
Dawson City, more than Whitehorse, had a reputation as an intoxicating place of wild excesses and dissipation, all under the watchful eye of the Mounties. At the peak, there were 80 saloons selling liquor day and night.
As the wave of stampeders receded and the population declined, Dawson City took on the veneer of civilization, yet it remained a demographic oddity, with a high proportion of highly mobile single men. By 1902, saloon licences were reduced to 10.
Two decades after the gold rush, Dawson City still had a ratio of bars and saloons per capita 10 to 15 times the national average.
By 1911, the population was perhaps 2,000 to 3,000, but the town had 18 licensed hotels, six saloons (one of them now a national historic site) and two wholesale liquor dealers, and that doesn’t include the liquor being served in the numerous roadhouses in the gold fields.
The last two saloons in Dawson City were closed when their licences ran out July 14, 1916.
By 1917, The Yukon was the only jurisdiction in Canada outside of Quebec that hadn’t banned the sale of booze.
One of the influential books against alcohol was John Barleycorn, a classic work written in 1913 by a former Klondike stampeder: Jack London.
It accelerated the discontent with booze that was fermenting in society at that time, but the Prohibition movement did not emerge as a major influence until the First World War when it became a patriotic duty of Canadians to curb liquor to advance the war effort.
Prohibition became a major issue in the Yukon in 1916. The amount of ink in the newspapers dedicated to the subject is proof of this fact.
Prohibition had been championed by the Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian churches and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which strove to combat the effects of alcohol on the family.
During the war, The British Empire Club, a patriotic organization formed to support the war effort of Mother England, advocated Prohibition as a patriotic act.
Then there was the People’s Prohibition Movement, or PPM, whose 120 Dawson members, some of them the most prominent citizens in the community, voted almost unanimously in favour of the banning of alcohol.
They filled the newspaper with articles condemning alcohol, and filled with statistics and arguments against the evil liquid.
Alcohol was ruinous to life and morality they claimed. Drink wasted manhood, they proclaimed. If alcohol were banned, people would then spend their money on other things.
The economic arguments of the opposing view were a red herring designed to distract the reader from the main issue — the ruinous effect of booze on society.
Not everyone was a champion of the ban on booze. With Dawson City’s unusual demographic make-up, the hotel owners and liquor vendors saw financial disaster coming, so they acted to combat the Prohibitionists.
First, there was the Licensed Victualers’ Association, or LVA, which stood to lose a lot of money if the “Prohi’s” campaign succeeded.
The hotel business was a major part of the local economy. But it was broader than that, so another organization was formed to combat the anti-booze league. It was called the Association of Business Men, or ABM.
The association launched its own campaign to counteract that of the anti-booze movement. One business that did well out of this debate was the Dawson Daily News, which was filled with paid advertising, both pro and con.
The association argued that Prohibition would ruin the economy of the territory.
Fettered by federal control, the territory had few options for revenue generation.
Some years, liquor revenues represented almost 25 per cent of the income for the territory. To lose that revenue would be disastrous, said the Association of Business Men.
Besides, it pointed out, if a man wants liquor, legal or not, he would find ways to get it.
Further, they characterized the Prohibitionists as being socialists. Women were behind the movement, they suggested, and they didn’t contribute to the economy like men did. Banning alcohol would ruin the economy of the territory, stated the advertisements.
Banning booze would take away man’s right to drink. Real men, they argued, face temptation and battle it; take away the choice and you take away their manhood. Only a vocal minority, they argued, wanted Prohibition.
For every argument put forth against booze, the association had its own arguments, supported by its own statistics.
Pressured by both the PPM and the ABM, the territorial council resolved to put it to a plebiscite on August 30, 1916, and let the sober citizens of the territory have the final say. “Banish the Bar on August 30” became one of the slogans for the Drys.
The vote at the end of August was hardly decisive; the Wets won the day by a mere three votes — 874 to 871. Ninety per cent of eligible electors had turned out to cast their ballot on the matter. The potential loss of liquor revenue was probably the deciding, though not decisive, factor.
Two years later, it became a moot issue in any case when the federal government placed a wartime ban on the manufacture, transportation and sale of liquor.
Liquor licences in the territory were terminated. Ottawa offset the devastating loss of revenue with an additional subsidy.
At the conclusion of the war, the ban on liquor was lifted, but two years later, in 1920, another plebiscite on the issue went in favour of the Drys. Prohibition lasted less than a year though; when Ottawa reduced the subsidies to the territory, the electors in the territory quickly voted to reinstate the sale of alcohol to save the Yukon’s public budget.
This time, the sale of liquor took place through government outlets. Saloons were gone, and hotels were permitted only the sale of beer. This ultimately gave rise to the infamous “snake rooms in the hotels of the 1920s to 1940s. But that’s another story…
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse