The World Wars

Alcohol and the World Wars

Canada was actively involved in both world wars of the 20th century. And though far from the major battlefields, Canadian residents and businesses had to live with the consequences of total war. The concept of total war meant that the federal government controlled all resources needed to achieve victory. Under the War Measures Act, the government suspended civil liberties and commanded special powers, since the country was in a state of emergency. All sectors of the economy were affected, including breweries and distilleries. World War I, or The Great War, (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) had significant implications for consumers and producers of alcohol. Nationwide prohibition was introduced in Canada during World War I, but brewers and consumers in Quebec felt the impact of the ban only briefly.

Great War, Great Concerns

On August 4, 1914, the Dominion of Canada, as part of the British Empire, entered the war against Germany. On August 22, the federal government passed the War Measures Act, which granted it extraordinary emergency powers, including the right to appropriate all property deemed useful to defeating the enemy. Businesses apt to contribute to the war effort were requisitioned and often converted to military industries. Distilleries were no exception, because alcohol was a necessary component in the manufacture of various war materials. For example, one distillery was turned into a factory for making acetone, used in explosives.

After decades of failed calls for a national ban, prohibition was finally imposed during World War I. The traditional temperance movement arguments were bolstered by a war effort inspired by Britain’s King George V (1865-1936), who, in 1915, pledged to abstain from alcohol for the duration of the conflict. In March 1918, the Canadian government introduced prohibition, outlawing the production and import of intoxicating beverages while the country was at war. The government justified this measure as a patriotic duty and sacrifice aimed at bringing the enemy to its knees. Besides being a valuable resource in the manufacture of military supplies, alcohol was decried by prohibitionists as detrimental to the welfare of soldiers and wartime factory workers. As for beer, some prohibitionists associated it with Germany, where hops-based drinks were widely consumed, and even went so far as to claim that beer turned men into beasts, like the “Krauts” caricatured in propaganda images. Prohibition activists also argued that cereal grains should not be wasted on making beer and that military factories should employ sober, productive workers.

Feminism, War and Prohibition

The women’s movement was no stranger to prohibition. In the 19th century, the pioneering women’s organizations focused on bettering the living conditions of women and families. Together with advocates of the hygienist movement, which called for measures to improve urban living conditions, many early feminists were in the vanguard of the temperance movement. These activists linked alcohol to poverty, domestic violence and other social problems.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, founded in the United States in 1874, soon spread to Canada and managed to establish a few chapters in Quebec, attracting Protestant women for the most part. These groups banded with other temperance societies to pressure governments to adopt prohibition. The more moderate Montreal Local Council of Women, created in 1893, and Fédération nationale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, formed in 1907 by French-speaking feminists, demanded measures such as limiting the number of drinking establishments. The mainly Protestant Ligue pour la tempérance, whose members were mostly women, was active around the same time.  

The other major feminist demand was women’s suffrage. In this sense, World War I was a high point in the history of women’s movements, since Canada both adopted prohibition and gave women the right to vote in federal elections in 1918.

In Quebec, women’s right to vote at the provincial level also came in wartime, in 1940, following the election of Liberal Premier Adélard Godbout (1892-1956) and pressure brought to bear by Quebec feminists.

Patriotic Beer

After World War I, all of the provinces experimented with prohibition, with the notable exception of Quebec. Opposing a ban, Norman Dawes, of National Breweries Limited (NBL), argued that if the province were to impose prohibition, the economy would suffer and the government would lack the means to bring the troops home.

The “total war” aspect of World War I extended even to terminology. During the conflict, the Triple Entente countries (Russia, Britain and France) nervously shied away from references to the German Empire. Britain’s royal family changed its Germanic surname, Hanover, to the far more English and less awkward Windsor. This was decided by George V, the first British monarch in 200 years to speak English without a German accent. In Canada, the Ontario city of Berlin, home to a large community of German descent, rechristened itself Kitchener in 1916, taking the name of Britain’s minister of war. Beer did not escape the trend. Königsbier, a German-style lager produced by NBL, became Kingsbeer in September 1914. With the German emperor’s brew now that of the English king, “made by Canadians for Canadians,” drinkers could enjoy it as loyal subjects of the British Empire. Despite this new display of patriotism, the production of Kingsbeer was later interrupted, during World War II, when its ingredients were rationed.

Second World War, Second Attempt at Prohibition

Canada declared war on Germany for a second time on September 10, 1939. The War Measures Act was again invoked, entailing consequences for inhabitants and industries similar to those experienced during World War I. To maximize the available resources, the federal government rationed consumer products such as alcohol. Luxury products like French and Italian wines were no longer available, except to those willing to pay black market prices. Each provincial government was responsible for enforcing these restrictions. In Quebec, for example, adults over the age of 20 were allowed to purchase up to 40 ounces of wine, beer or spirits every two weeks. Whiskey was watered down in order to save grain, resulting in what was commonly called “Mackenzie King whiskey,” after Canada’s wartime prime minister. Nevertheless, it appears that drinkers were not going thirsty. A survey conducted in 1943 asked Canadians which rationed products they missed most. Only 3% indicated spirits and beer. Was this out of shame, or because those products were in part available through legal and illegal channels?

Some die-hard temperance activists felt that rationing was not enough and called for a return to prohibition as a wartime measure. However, a 1943 survey showed that only 37% of Canadians agreed with the proposal. And so the prohibitionists dusted off the arguments that had won the day during the previous war: the cereals and workers required to produce beer would be better used elsewhere; the alcohol would be more helpful to the war effort in gun shell powder, synthetic rubber and plastic, aircraft de-icing fluid and disinfectant for soldiers’ wounds; liquor adversely affects the productivity of military industry workers; the money spent on intoxicating beverages would be better put toward Victory Bonds sold by the Canadian government. But this time their arguments were no match for the interests of the brewing industry, hotel operators and the drinking public. The breweries responded with publicity campaigns defending their industry. They contended that the country had no shortage of beer-making ingredients. In addition to the economic arguments, the government of William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874-1950) was sympathetic to those of the Royal Canadian Legion, whose veteran members were not averse to raising a glass at their meetings. King also recognized the arguments advanced by blue-collar consumers of beer, dubbed “the working man’s drink” because it was affordable. Workers claimed that beer’s low alcohol content was not intoxicating and that a little drink with friends after work enhanced their productivity, since it relaxed them and put them in a good mood. They also pointed to Great Britain, where the pubs remained open as havens for the country’s working class.

While Canadian breweries operated with few concerns, the same was not true of distilleries, which consumed vast amounts of sugar. After sugar rationing was introduced, in 1942, King suggested to his Cabinet that restrictions be placed on alcohol. The Liberal Cabinet was divided, with the dissenting members from Quebec pointing out that the province’s newspapers earned substantial advertising revenue from liquor manufacturers and that media reaction should be considered. Despite this opposition, the Prime Minister had to concede that sugar was in short supply, and the 128 Canadian distilleries were converted to military production.

Following the distillery conversion, restrictions – albeit less stringent – were imposed on the breweries. In 1943, the Wartime Prices and Trade Board limited the supply of malt to breweries to the amount used in the preceding year. In 1944, beer production was capped at 90% of the 1942 level. Still, the large breweries made it through the war without difficulty and with little adverse effect on their profits.

In 1943 the government also banned advertising for alcoholic products, but it allowed companies to “keep their names before the public by publicizing their wartime activities.”[1] Concretely, this meant that breweries and distilleries could not advertise their products directly but could promote their contribution to the war effort. For example, NBL highlighted its shipments of beer to thirsty troops stationed in arid regions.

During the conflict, the federal government raised taxes to finance the war effort, and liquor was not spared. Between 1939 and 1942, tax revenue from the sale of alcoholic beverages tripled!

In the final months of hostilities, with victory on the horizon, the government relaxed its restrictive measures by allowing the distilleries to return to civilian production and lifting the limits on breweries. On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped its first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, marking the end of the war. The next day, the Canadian government ended the now needless rationing of alcohol.

Clearly, the two world wars transformed all aspects of Quebec and Canadian societies. In respect to the consumption and production of alcohol, the prohibition adopted in World War I was no doubt the most important factor. Throughout the global conflicts, brewers like Dawes had to comply with the dictates of a federal government determined to use all of the country’s resources, including alcohol, to defeat the enemy. Yet the breweries managed to overcome the imposed restrictions with relative ease, faring at least far better than their European counterparts devastated by war.

David Milot,

2013 09 30



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[1] Jeffrey Keshen, Saints, Salauds et Soldats : le Canada et la Deuxième Guerre mondiale (Outremont: Athéna, 2009 [2004]), 164. (“Histoire militaire” series). Originally published in English as Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers: Canada’s Second World War.