Rum’s Converse: The Long History of Prohibition in Nova Scotia

In portraying the popular affection for rum in its heartland of the Maritimes as I did yesterday, it would be wrong to ignore that for about 100 years from 1825, a dedicated movement existed to establish total prohibition of alcohol.

Ernest J. Dick, university lecturer, archivist, and member of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society, wrote a masterful account in 1981 of the inexorable march of prohibition in the province. It explains well the mainsprings of the movement, which took its cue initially from first stirrings in New England. The Baptist church was an early promoter but soon other denominations joined including even Anglicans whose relationship to drinking was always more nuanced. Finally, even the Roman Catholic diocese lent its support, unusually in North America.

From a religious base, the movement transformed to a political and popular one, which legislators ignored at their peril. The idea was to re-make society bolus-bolus, re-engineer it to banish the evils associated with drink such as poverty, domestic violence, and workplace inefficiency. From settlement to about 1825 there was a kind of golden age for liquor (perhaps similar to what exists today), but after 1825 pulpit and parliament worked steadily to root out alcohol from the social fabric of the province.

It was a cause where, as Dick put it, all morality was placed on one side of the issue. (There are parallel causes and screeds today, but we talk about the social history of drink here, not politics or the culture wars). Yet, Dick uses the term schizophrenic to describe the phenomenon. For example, in Canada by the later 1800s the Scott Act (1878) gave communities the “local option”, they could permit or ban drink in their territory. But Dick says while many in the regions supported a liquor ban, they were happy to obtain their private supply from Halifax. Another instance was enforcement. It was one thing to ban liquor, another to muster the will to close the blind pigs and smuggling routes people used to fulfill an evident need.

Dick makes the point that the will to banish liquor wasn’t just “rural”, it ran across the province. Not long ago, I discussed the Halifax Riots in 1945. It is clear that the lack of licensed bars during the war contributed significantly to the rioting. Indeed, Nova Scotia had only recently emerged from a period of total prohibition (1921-1930), capstone of the 19th century anti-liquor agitation. Even after provincial liquor stores opened in 1930, old attitudes still made their effect known. Arguably, Haligonians paid the price by seeing the city centre trashed in 1945 when VE day gave soldiery and citizens no reasonable outlets to express their emotions.

The Seahorse Tavern, whose sign was shown in my last post, was the first tavern to be licensed in Halifax after the 1920s prohibition ended – in 1948. It is still going strong, at a different location.

Liquor legislation in the province, in 2017, still reflects this complex past as this current news story relates. It all looks to change soon with a planned overhaul of the Nova Scotia liquor laws. The future is more distilleries, breweries, wineries, many of small artisan scale, and more permissiveness toward a lifestyle which includes alcohol. It would be hard for it to be otherwise given the current federal government says it will legalize marijuana before the next election…

But history matters – always.

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