When Pro­hi­bi­tion ended in On­tario, only bu­reau­crats en­joyed the party

End­less lines, in­nu­mer­able forms and the oc­ca­sional dis­or­derly con­duct marked the re­turn of le­gal liquor 90 years ago

Toronto Star - - INSIGHT - KATIE DAUBS FEA­TURE WRITER

When Pro­hi­bi­tion ended, On­tario did not drown in whisky, gin and wine. The prov­ince drowned in the bu­reau­cracy.

The first week of gov­ern­ment-con­trolled liquor was marked by queues. There was a line to get in. There was a line to get a per­mit, which you needed to buy any­thing in the shop. A line to fill out an or­der form. A line to pay. A line to pick up your pur­chases at a counter, wrapped in brown pa­per. Any­one who emerged from the “mael­strom” of the LCBO was a bea­con of hope to those wait­ing out­side. At least with the boot­leg­gers, one man cracked, you got fast ser­vice.

On Oct. 17, cannabis will be le­gal across Canada, and the On­tario gov­ern­ment has a web­site to de­scribe what that means for pur­chasers in this prov­ince. Back in 1927, when the gov­ern­ment tran­si­tioned to le­gal al­co­hol, the clear­ing house for all con­cerns and ques­tions was essen­tially one man.

The first chief com­mis­sioner of the LCBO was D.B. Hanna, 69, an old rail­way ex­ec­u­tive. He was a loom­ing Scot with a gen­tle de­meanour, a warm hand­shake and a good sense of hu­mour, ac­cord­ing to the press. He came out of his re­tire­ment to be the gov­ern­ment’s “strong man” in the liquor game, and told the Star he only agreed to be On­tario’s “chief bar­tender” be­cause he liked the chal-

lenge of a new in­dus­try.

“The peo­ple of On­tario ev­i­dently want some kind of liquor busi­ness to be es­tab­lished,” he said in the win­ter of 1927. “Per­haps it will be a pub­lic ser­vice to con­struct it for them on sound busi­ness prin­ci­ples.”

The count­down to open­ing day had been marked by worry. How would the gov­ern­ment weed out “sus­pi­cious” char­ac­ters? Would peo­ple who ap­plied for liquor per­mits have to file af­fi­davits? “What good would that do?” Hanna asked. The of­fi­cial stance was that all 21-year-old On­tario res­i­dents were el­i­gi­ble. The gov­ern­ment wasn’t as­sum­ing ev­ery­body was a crook, he said.

On June 1, 1927, at 10 a.m., the prov­ince planned to open the first 18 LCBO shops in Ot­tawa, Kingston, Hamil­ton, Lon­don, Brockville, Kitch­ener, Fort Wil­liam, Wind­sor and Toronto. Hanna wanted to avoid “any­thing that would look like a wild cel­e­bra­tion,” the Star noted.

In in­ter­views with the press, he had asked peo­ple to dive back into al­co­hol with “leisurely dig­nity.” On the eve of open­ing day, he was still con­vinced there would be no wild rush. But he was wrong.

Across On­tario, the stores were be­sieged. It was a “crush” in Lon­don, a “splen­did busi­ness” in Kitch­ener, and in Wind­sor, they were so over­whelmed they had to shut down early.

“Long line­ups at all liquor dis­pen­saries,” read the Star’s front-page head­line about Toronto’s six stores.

“No cat­tle car was ever more crowded,” the cov­er­age con­tin­ued. “It was a strug­gle for a strong man to fight his way through the sar­dine tin to the counter at the rear where li­cences were sold. One had to be a con­tor­tion­ist to get an arm free to write out a slip.”

Hanna didn’t have much sym­pa­thy. He blamed the peo­ple who failed to get their per­mits in ad­vance for caus­ing the con­ges­tion. They had a whole week. They had been warned. What did they ex­pect? He re­luc­tantly re­opened the per­mit of­fice at 74 King St. E., to take the pres­sure of the liquor shops.

He also took is­sue with the Star’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the day as an “open­ing of the sluice gates.” What an in­sult to the fair name of the prov­ince!

There had al­ways been a pow­er­ful tem­per­ance lobby in Canada, and Pro­hi­bi­tion had been en­acted in On­tario in 1916. It was dif­fi­cult to en­force, be­cause un­like the U.S., On­tario hadn’t out­lawed the man­u­fac­ture of al­co­hol for ex­port, said Dan Mal­leck, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of health sciences at Brock Uni­ver­sity and au­thor of Try to Con­trol Your­self: The Reg­u­la­tion of Pub­lic Drink­ing in post-Pro­hi­bi­tion On­tario, 1927-44.

In Toronto, there were speakeasies where you could ease your dusty throat with boot­legged al­co­hol and home brews. Winer­ies were still le­gal be­cause the prov­ince wanted to nur­ture the home­grown in­dus­try, Mal­leck noted. Al­co­hol could still be pur­chased for medic­i­nal, in­dus­trial and re­li­gious rea­sons — and the sale was reg­u­lated by the Board of Liquor Com­mis­sion­ers, pre­cur­sor to the LCBO.

Pro­hi­bi­tion started to of­fi­cially weaken in 1923, when Premier Howard Fer­gu­son’s gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced the sale of low-al­co­hol beer in res­tau­rants and bev­er­age rooms, but the qual­ity of the beer was widely crit­i­cized, Mal­leck said.

There were also the veter­ans. “Some peo­ple ar­gued that as soon as the soldiers came back, they’re com­ing back to this dry coun­try and they’re say­ing, ‘What the hell? We just put our lives on the line and, we get what­now?’ ” By1927, it wasn’t re­ally sur­pris­ing that On­tario de­cided to fol­low other prov­inces into gov­ern­ment liquor con­trol.

The bu­reau­cratic process was by de­sign. The LCBO was based on a Scan­di­na­vian sys­tem of “dis­in­ter­ested man­age­ment,” where sales were not en­cour­aged, but mod­er­a­tion and re­stric­tion were, Mal­leck said.

“I think what they were try­ing to do was ap­pease both sides by mak­ing it avail­able, but not mak­ing it so avail­able that there would be so much dis­or­der that the tem­per­ance move­ment would try to re­assert it­self,” he said.

In the line­ups, com­plaints abounded. “Ab­so­lutely the worst sys­tem I have ever seen,” said one man who was not a fan of the dis­in­ter­ested man­age­ment style.

As the week pro­gressed, the chaos sub­sided, but the lines were still long enough for re­porters to rec­og­nize re­peat cus­tomers from ear­lier in the week. “I had a party last night,” one man ex­plained. One woman said she was so con­fused on the first day that she or­dered beer when she meant to or­der whisky. “She ad­mit­ted how­ever, that the beer had been pretty good and or­dered an­other case to­day as well.”

The women in line were some­what of a nov­elty, car­ry­ing away their whisky and gin “with as much sang froid” as the men, the Globe noted.

With con­ges­tion still bad at the end of the first week, Hanna in­tro­duced a tem­po­rary mea­sure of one al­co­hol pur­chase a week per per­mit. It had not been an “aus­pi­cious” start, the Globe noted, crit­i­ciz­ing the “dis­grace­ful street scenes.” Peo­ple wrote let­ters to the ed­i­tor de­cry­ing the drunken dis­plays and the risks to the fam­ily. By Septem­ber, Hanna warned that liquor per­mits could be can­celled per­ma­nently for drunk­en­ness. By the end of 1927, the LCBO had opened 86 stores, three mail-or­der de­part­ments and four ware­houses. Five months af­ter open­ing day, a source at Queen’s Park told the Star sales were be­tween $11 mil­lion and $12 mil­lion, far higher than they imag­ined, and it would help give the gov­ern­ment its first sur­plus since 1919.

The next day D.B. Hanna called those num­bers “ab­so­lutely fool­ish” but a few months later con­firmed that sales had ac­tu­ally been $17 mil­lion. He was con­vinced that just as much al­co­hol had been con­sumed un­der pro­hi­bi­tion law and just a few years ago, “the prof­its were pour­ing into the hands of the low­est el­e­ment of the peo­ple in the prov­ince” in­stead of the tax­payer.

In its first re­port, the LCBO said there was a marked de­cline in the “boot­leg­ging evil,” and dan­ger­ous home brews and a “less­en­ing of youth­ful temp­ta­tions to break pro­hibitory laws.”

They praised the peo­ple of On­tario for their mod­er­a­tion, es­pe­cially dur­ing the hol­i­days, which had been en­joyed with­out “ex­ces­sive in­tem­per­ance.” Per­fec­tion had not been achieved, they noted, but it was a safe and sane sys­tem. In the bu­reau­cratic lan­guage of the LCBO of the day, the praise didn’t get much higher than that.

Liquor’s le­gal­iza­tion dom­i­nated head­lines in the Daily Star.

CITY OF TORONTO AR­CHIVES

One of the gov­ern­ment's early liquor stores, seen here in March 1930, was lo­cated at 424 Spad­ina Ave. On­tario opened the first 18 stores on June 1, 1927, at 10 a.m.

David Blythe Hanna, a former rail­way ex­ec­u­tive, came out of re­tire­ment to lead On­tario's ef­fort to reg­u­late al­co­hol sales in 1927.

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