Drinking and the Law

Temperance: Synonym of abstinence; temperance refers to a personal attitude and a determination to abstain from consuming alcohol.

Prohibition: Synonym of ban; prohibition is broader in scope than temperance, which implies individual choice. Prohibition refers to statutes that forbid the import, export and/or sale of alcohol in a given territory. Unlike temperance, prohibition is imposed by government legislation. Historically, the term has referred chiefly to the period of alcohol prohibition in the United States, from 1920 to 1933. However, it is used in regard to any banned product, such as the various drugs that are prohibited today.

Partial prohibition can be imposed by exempting products with low alcohol content. This is the approach that Quebec took during the heyday of prohibition in Canada and the United States.

Dry area: In Canada, this term refers to the municipalities and counties which, under the 1864 Dunkin Act passed by the Union government, opted by referendum to ban the sale of liquor in their territories. Dry area prohibition was thus local, as opposed to the scope of laws enacted by a province or a country.

Alcohol Consumption and the Law

As a drug, alcohol is closely overseen by the authorities in respect to its manufacture, distribution and consumption. In Quebec, as elsewhere, countless regulations and laws have been adopted with a view to reducing the negative impacts of intoxicating beverages. Quebec even flirted with a total ban for a while, until the difficulty of enforcing prohibition in that corner of the continent became clear. From the days of New France to the present, liquor – an elixir to some, the devil’s drink to others – has been central to a host of social issues.

The Why of Dry

One constant has stood out since the beginnings of the colony: attempts by groups and institutions to reduce or forbid the consumption of alcohol. Their varied and often complementary arguments can be grouped in three categories.


  • During the world wars, prohibition was seen as necessary to the war effort, because it reserved the available resources for the manufacture of products more useful than intoxicating beverages in wartime.
  • Swilling beer like the German enemy was considered debasing, since beer could turn men into beasts.

Religious, Moral and Public Order

  • Religious groups appointed themselves guardians of public morality. Men who spent more time at the tavern than at home were deemed the cause of economic problems (absenteeism and poor performance at work, spending on alcohol instead of family necessities) and domestic violence.
  • Parishioners were urged to keep a clear head at all times so as to maintain a dignified attitude in society, especially on the Sabbath.
  • Alcohol was often equated with brawls and violence of all sorts, notably on election days.

Public Health

  • In the days of New France, religious and civil authorities were concerned by the ravages of alcohol abuse in the population, particularly among First Nations peoples.
  • Some doctors claimed that alcohol was conducive to disabilities, that it aggravated minor illnesses, nullified the beneficial effect of remedies and caused nervous disorders such as delirium tremens.

Drunkenness and alcoholism were public health issues. During the 19th-century Industrial Revolution, bourgeois reformers generally targeted the working class with their campaigns to improve urban living conditions, viewing it as inclined to abusive behaviour.

New France, New Product

Once the French put down permanent roots in the St. Lawrence Valley, establishing settlements in the early 17th century, the indigenous population came to know a product that induced a daydream feeling. The religious and civil authorities quickly recognized the harm that alcohol was wreaking and made repeated attempts to reduce or ban its consumption, but with little success. The historian Catherine Ferland has identified no fewer than 78 alcohol-related regulations, laws and edicts issued between 1663 and 1760, nearly half of which concern the consumption of alcohol by First Nations peoples. Such attempts actually date to early colonial times, as in 1633, when Samuel de Champlain (about 1574-1635), then Governor of New France, banned the sale of hard liquor to Indians. Beer and cider were permitted, though, as they were considered a lesser evil.

This plethora of legislation illustrates the struggle to enforce prohibition from the outset of colonization. It also points to the fine line that governments had to walk to satisfy both the clergy and the merchants and drinkers; prohibition and commerce were not easily reconciled.

“Canayens” (people of French origin born in New France) were also the target of official attempts to curb drunkenness, but, despite the Catholic Church’s reminders that drinking to excess is a mortal sin, the results were no more conclusive. The inhabitants of European descent were no more obedient that those of indigenous heritage when it came to consuming the “forbidden fruit.” The laws pertaining to alcohol affected practices in cabarets and inns as well as taxation and the regulation of liquor prices. With drinking establishments proliferating in New France, the authorities soon began regulating their opening hours, drink prices and operating practices. Anyone wanting to do business as an innkeeper or cabaret operator had to obtain the intendant’s authorization, subject to submitting a certificate of good conduct. These businesses were obligated not to serve alcohol during mass and not to allow gambling on their premises. Extreme drunkenness and blasphemy were also prohibited. Furthermore, they were forbidden to extend credit or to accept payment in kind.

If the civil authorities were often resistant to prohibition, it was because the colony derived huge revenues from the liquor trade. The government controlled the pricing of alcohol imported into New France. This was largely a strategic issue since, when military conflicts arose – and there were many – taxes rose, and the new money was used to further fortify the territory.

The colonial government also intervened directly in the production of beer. In 1669, Intendant Jean Talon (1625-1694) founded the Brasserie du Roi, in Quebec City’s lower town, and the Conseil souverain de la Nouvelle-France granted him a monopoly on the brewing business – a sort of forerunner to the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ). But it was not until the British Conquest, in 1760, that beer became an everyday consumer product in Quebec.

Between Temperance and Intemperance

In 1762, the first British governor of the new Province of Quebec, James Murray (1721-1794), lauded the sobriety of the Canayens, but his words were not fitting for long. Rum from the Caribbean and gin from the Netherlands were becoming increasingly popular with the inhabitants, so much so that in 1807 Le Canadien newspaper reported that the habit of drinking spirits “has become widespread in this country.”[1] In short order, the public and religious authorities decided to tackle the problems stemming from alcohol consumption.

Under the 1774 Quebec Act, it was the governor of the colony who issued liquor permits, and all drinking establishments had to be licensed. This was required allegedly as a means to maintain public order, but the law, of course, enabled the government to refill its coffers. In 1805, the sale of alcoholic beverages on Sunday was outlawed, except for the sick and travellers. Then, in 1823, the government imposed even stricter regulations on alcohol vendors, capping the number of permits per parish and dictating closing hours.

In the 19th century, inspired by activism in English-speaking Canada, temperance societies sprang up in Lower Canada (Quebec). They conducted campaigns and ultimately called on the governments to prohibit the “devil’s drink.” In Quebec, the “superstar” of the temperance movement was a charismatic, colourful priest named Charles Chiniquy (1809-1899), from Beauport. The son of an alcoholic, Chiniquy worked as the chaplain of the Marine and Immigrant Hospital, in Quebec City, where taking a glass of brandy earned him a lecture by the chief surgeon, James Douglas, who forbade drinking on the premises. Shaken, Chiniquy went on to establish a temperance society in Beauport, in 1840. At the outset, the Apostle of Temperance, as he was called, preached moderation (three glasses a day), but seeing his flock interpret this limit as a daily obligation, he soon switched to a message of total abstinence. The temperance society strategy was to get parishioners to pledge to abstain from alcohol, and the movement was highly successful. In 1850, according to Montréal diocese records, 400,000 of the 900,000 Catholics in Canada East (formerly Lower Canada, now Quebec) were committed to staying dry. Temperance leagues such as the Cercles Lacordaire continued to operate until the Quiet Revolution, but the glory days of the movement had been in the mid-19th century.

Although the temperance movement at first directed its efforts to individual “sinners,” its success soon forced the government of the United Province of Canada to address the matter. In 1849, a special parliamentary committee was assigned to examine the issues of intemperance. Two years later, a law was adopted, setting out the licensing conditions as well as the hours and conditions for the sale of alcohol in Canada East.

A Distinct Society

At the end of World War I, the prohibition movement was at its peak in North America. Quebec narrowly escaped the trend, making it a distinct society in this regard.

A variety of laws and attempted measures had paved the way for the imposition of total prohibition in Canada in 1918. The 1864 Dunkin Act allowed Canadian municipalities and counties to prohibit the sale of alcohol in their territories, contingent upon a majority vote referendum. This spurred parish priests to put pressure on local elected officials, with the result that by 1919, under the law, nearly 90% of the 1,300 Quebec municipalities were dry, among them Trois-Rivières, Lévis and Lachine since 1915 and Quebec City since 1917. The notable exception was Montréal, the province’s metropolis and vice capital.

In 1874, the federal government enacted the Dominion Elections Act , which, among other things, instituted secret balloting and decreed that drinking establishments be closed on election days for purposes of public order. By 1880, the “drys” had gained access to political circles and were pressing elected officials to introduce more stringent laws, even demanding total prohibition. In response, the government established the Royal Commission on the Liquor Traffic in Canada, whose mandate, from 1892 to 1895, was to assess the advisability of a national law restricting the sale of alcohol. In its report, the Commission stated that the prohibition trend was firmly rooted in English Canada but that French-speaking Canadians strongly opposed it. In an effort to cut this Gordian knot, the government of Wilfrid Laurier (1841-1919) held a plebiscite on prohibition on September 29, 1898, the first in Canadian history. The question read as follows: “Are you in favour of the passing of an Act prohibiting the import, manufacture or sale of spirits, wine, ale, beer, cider and all other alcoholic liquors for use as beverages?“[2] Voter turnout was just 44%, but in Quebec the answer was a resounding 81% No. Nationwide, the Yes vote scored a narrow win, with 51% in favour. Ultimately, the Liberal Prime Minister discounted the result, arguing that the 13,687-vote majority was not sufficient to change the law and that Quebec had voiced an overwhelming No (at the time, la belle province was the federal Liberal Party’s electoral stronghold). Prohibition would have to wait.

In 1911, bowing to pressure from the Dominion Alliance and the Anti-Alcoholic League, the Quebec government of Premier Lomer Gouin (1861-1929) amended the Liquor License Act to include early closing provisions. The following year, Gouin set up a commission of inquiry to examine the alcohol trade in the province. In his 1913 report, the commission chairman, Henry George Carroll (1865-1939), concluded that it was not feasible to impose prohibition in Quebec. However, he recommended the adoption of regulations designed to discourage drinking in taverns by making them inhospitable:

  • Tavern interiors could not be visible from outside
  • Customers could not be served at the bar
  • Drinks could be served only in small glasses
  • Music was not allowed

The Quebec law passed in 1915 incorporated these recommendations. Two years later, the minimum age for admission to taverns was raised from 18 to 21.

Near the end of World War I, in 1918, Canada introduced prohibition, outlawing the manufacture and import of intoxicating beverages but allowing breweries to sell so-called temperance beer, containing no more than 2.5% alcohol. This federal law was repealed when the war ended. By then, though, 90% of Quebec municipalities had gone dry as a result of local legislation. That left Montréal, the province’s largest city and staunch prohibition holdout, in the temperance movement’s sights.

In Quebec City, the Gouin government followed the federal lead by passing its own prohibition legislation in 1918, but scheduled it to take effect only the following year. This left ample time for the Quebec Brewers Association to organize efforts to derail the law. The Association created a moderation committee to promote the use of low-alcohol beverages, banking on moderate temperance to block prohibition from taking force. Norman Dawes, of National Breweries Limited, was in charge of the public opinion campaign. The committee extolled the virtues of beer for workers and soldiers. Dawes also brandished the economic threat posed by prohibition: “To close the breweries, causing enormous material losses and destroying hundreds of jobs, would be a blow to the credit of the province and an obstacle to repatriating the troops.”[3] In addition, the brewers played on nationalist sentiments by asserting that Quebec could stand alone in Canada and should not allow the federal government to encroach on provincial jurisdictions. Vox populi, vox Dei: pressured by the brewing lobby and the general public, the Gouin government, like Ottawa, handed over the decision to voters by holding a referendum on prohibition on April 10, 1919, a first for Quebec. This was the question: “Should the sale of light beer, cider and wines, as defined by law, be allowed?”[4] The day before the vote, Quebec cabinet member Napoléon Séguin (1865-1940) declared that prohibition was actually a conspiracy against the Catholic Church by English-speaking Methodists out to destroy Holy Communion by eliminating wine. While the Church was divided on the referendum issue, the voters were less so, responding Yes by a clear 79% majority. Out of the 82 electoral districts, only seven English-speaking, rural ridings said No. In light of this decisive outcome, the provincial prohibition law was amended to permit the sale of light beverages. And with that, Quebec became the only place north of the Rio Grande, apart from the French-controlled islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, not to have a total ban on alcohol.

The ban on hard liquor was never really applied, and in 1921 it was revoked after passage of the Alcoholic Liquor Act, which created the Quebec Liquor Commission, the ancestor of the SAQ. This public corporation, the first of its kind in North America, put the province at the leading edge of the alcoholic beverage trade. The Quebec government now controlled the sale of wine and spirits, as well as the licensing of hotels and restaurants serving alcohol. The Liquor Commission was also tasked with ensuring the quality of the products sold. Premier Louis-Alexandre Taschereau (1867-1952) explained that the purpose of the legislated quality control was to avoid having consumers sickened by adulterated alcohol, which was common where prohibition prevailed. The new law permitted people aged 18 and older to drink. It also provided for prohibiting drinking by anyone with a serious alcohol problem, such as someone convicted of drunkenness, or an alcoholic denounced by a family member. The rules for taverns under the new system were consistent with the 1915 law:

  • Sale of hard liquor forbidden
  • Service at tables only
  • No singing, dancing or gambling
  • 10 p.m. closing time

In 1922, the Liquor Commission opened its own bottling plant, but consumers were allowed to buy only one bottle of spirits at a time at the Commission’s stores. This limit was lifted in 1941.

Although women frequented taverns during the 1920s and 1930s, they felt less and less welcome there. This was due to the proliferation of illegal drinking establishments called speakeasies or blind pigs, which were associated with brothels. A woman in a tavern, even a legal one, was seen as a prostitute. In 1937, the government of Maurice Duplessis (1890-1959) reacted by barring women from taverns in the name of public morality.

By controlling the sale of alcohol, the provincial government also replenished its coffers. The Liquor Commission did a booming business during prohibition in North America, as did the Quebec brewers and distillers that supplied thirsty Americans through a smuggling network. Today, the SAQ is still a gold mine for the government, having generated a record billion-dollar profit in fiscal 2012-2013.

A Quiet Revolution

The Liquor Commission was not exempt from change during the Quiet Revolution. In 1961, it was replaced by the Quebec Liquor Board. The Board innovated by allowing consumers to see the products in its stores, a practice previously prohibited. Then, in 1970, customers were permitted to handle the products. A small revolution in itself!

In 1968, while still considering its options, the government mandated the Thinel Commission to assess the alcoholic beverage trade. Acting on the Commission’s recommendations, it replaced the old Liquor Board with the Société des alcools du Québec and the Commission de contrôle des permis d’alcool in 1971. Then, in 1978, grocery stores won the right to sell wine. Three years later, pubs (brasseries) were authorized to sell wine and cider on tap, along with the usual beer.

Between 1970 and 1986, the legislation regulating the sale of alcohol was relaxed. In 1971, the legal drinking age was lowered from 21 to 18. The men-only taverns underwent a revolution that was not so quiet, at least not for their barfly regulars. Pubs open to women were legalized in 1970. In 1978, the Bossé Report on the Act Respecting Liquor Permits recommended that all new taverns be open to women. The following year, Bill 55 grandfathered the right of existing taverns to exclude “the fair sex.” It was then that the famous “Ladies Welcome” signs began appearing outside non-segregated establishments. But it was not until 1986 that gender discrimination was eliminated, and even then many establishments remained barfly haunts, where few women dared to go. While access to taverns for women was not at the top of the list of Quebec feminists’ demands in 1986, denying women access to any place in a supposedly modern Quebec was an obvious anachronism to be corrected.

Since the 1990s, principally in Montréal, many taverns have changed hands and been revamped to suit today’s tastes, becoming trendy bars popular with young men and women. The barflies have been ousted along with the video poker machines from these now fashionable watering holes.

Alcohol has long been a contentious issue and thorn in the side for governments, which have passed numerous laws aimed at reducing problems related to its consumption. Since the mid-19th century, public authorities have left the decision to the people through a multitude of local, provincial and Canada-wide plebiscites. Today, alcohol is still closely overseen and its advertising is strictly regulated, but prohibition has given way to public education campaigns designed to curtail the harm caused by alcoholism, drinking and driving, and alcohol abuse.

David Milot,


2013 09 30 



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[1] Quoted in André Lemelin, “Régime sec,” Québec science 48, no. 4 (Dec. 2009-Jan. 2010): 42. [Trans.]

[2] Instruments of direct democracy in Canada and Québec, 3rd ed. (Sainte Foy: Directeur général des élections du Québec, 2001), 14.

[3] Quoted in Sylvain Daignault, Histoire de la bière au Québec (Saint-Constant: Broquet, 2006), 60. [Trans.]

[4] Quoted in Michel Lévesque and Martin Pelletier, Les référendums au Québec : bibliographie (Quebec City: Bibliothèque de l’Assemblée nationale du Québec, 2005), 10. [Trans.]