Legal Origins of the Quebec Tavern (la Taverne)

During World War I there was increased agitation in Quebec Province for prohibition. The Catholic clergy gave some support, but the main proponents were various groups in the English-speaking population.

In February 1918 the Gouin government banned all booze as a late war-time and Prohibition measure including beer, wine, and cider, with narrow exceptions eg. for religious purposes. The new rules would not take effect until May 1, 1919.

In January 1919 the breweries actually closed as part of the lead-up to the new regime. However, a plebiscite was held in April 1919 by a successor government. About 75% of the people voted to allow light beer, cider and wines.

Karen Molson’s book a few years ago on Hartland de Montarville Molson sketches the background including the role Molson Brewery played in this drama.

In 1921 liquor and full-strength beer were restored under An Act Respecting Alcoholic Liquor, and the Quebec Liquor Commission was created. Today it is known as La Société des Alcools du Québec (SAQ).



The new law was at the origins of the Quebec tavern as I knew it in the late 1960s and 1970s in Montreal. Before World War I beer could be purchased at a private club, restaurant, hotel or inn, ship or railway or in grocery stores.

Montreal had its low-down, Victorian bars; Joe Beef’s Canteen near the waterfront is the best-known example. But the tavern authorized by the 1921 law was a new creature.

First, only beer could be sold, no liquor, cider, or wine. Second, it was designed so the urban resident could enjoy a glass of beer in unpretentious surroundings. In deference to the more conservative social attitudes of the countryside, the tavern was created as an urban phenomenon.

The tavern was not required to be part of an inn or hotel, but its operating methods and ambience would be closely regulated.

Even Joe Beef’s, as far as I know, was an inn, but the exact form of 19th century taverns and bars in Quebec is a topic to revisit.

The 1921 Act was completed by a further law, which created the Quebec Liquor Commission. The government established a bottling plant as part of the new scheme except for beer.

It has been said this was the first governmental monopoly for alcohol control in North America (see historical précis of the SAQ in this page).

The law defined the tavern:



“Beer” was also regulated (later, federal law would take over this aspect):



Taverns could sell beer by glass only under permit:



The Liquor Commission would now regulate equipment and furnishings:



Before 1971 women were not admitted to taverns. In that year, a new license category was created to admit both genders. A tavern could still be licensed under the men-only rule, however.

That would only change in 1979 when all new taverns, henceforth known as brasseries, had to welcome men and women. But under a transitional rule, taverns licensed before 1979 could still ban women, and a large group still operated on that basis.

With further legal changes in the mid-80s, the brasserie format became law for all.

Despite the popular understanding that until 1971 the tavern had always excluded women, females could freely enter in the early years. The situation changed some years ahead of WW II, which I’ll discuss in a subsequent post.

Pictured below is the interior of McLean’s Pub, on Peel Street in Montreal, taken just after opening the other day. This brasserie retains many design features of its original tavern incarnation.







2 thoughts on “Legal Origins of the Quebec Tavern (la Taverne)”

  1. On trips to Quebec during the early 80’s, I enjoyed visits to taverns and brasseries. A couple of ten ounce draughts and a nice size steak for $4.00 US was great. I later learned that this was due to the licensing laws; a certain % of revenue had to be from food.

    • Thanks, quite possible about the low-priced food. It was good solid tavern food. The menus have evolved, both for prices and type of food served.


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