The remarkable history of alcohol prohibition in Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan first instituted liquor laws in the province in 1908. Local authorities were given the authority to grant liquor licences for bars in their area. Moose Jaw originally prohibited liquor licences, but reversed this law in 1910. Meanwhile, in Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert, establishments serving alcohol were sanctioned by their respective local governments.

However, by April 1915 citizens across the prairies were voting to have prohibition enacted in 1915 and 1916. According to The Battleford News-Optimist, the ballot in Manitoba amounted to a two to one vote. Alberta became a dry province with a 60-40 per cent majority in favour of instituting prohibition. Meanwhile, the vote to bring prohibition to Saskatchewan arrived at a four to one ratio to support the new law prohibiting boozing in the province’s hotel bars, but total prohibition wouldn’t arrive until three years later.   

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Prohibition happened gradually in Saskatchewan and the rest of Canada, beginning in April 1915, when all the bars in the province were expected to close by 7 p.m. Thereafter, bar and club licences were eliminated in July and businesses were charged with noncompliance if they disobeyed the new legislation. The provincial government took over Saskatchewan’s liquor industry. Saskatchewan became the first province to ban the private retail of alcohol.  

“Irish” in the Golden Memories of the Wood River Pioneers wrote: “When the plebiscite vote was counted on July 21, 1915, prohibition won. As a wartime measure, bars were shut down.”    

Three years later, Canada’s federal government made the manufacture of intoxicating drinks illegal as part of the War Measures Act in March 1918. The so-called Order in Council became effective on April 1, 1918. The new federal law prohibited the importation of alcohol with more than 2.5 per cent of total liquor content into Canada. Also, because Quebec would only temporarily institute prohibition in 1919, the inter-provincial trade of alcohol was outlawed to prevent liquor from reaching the dry provinces.  

Some Canadians thought prohibition would create an honourable society of citizens who would be worthy of the sacrifices of their soldiers who were sent overseas to fight in Europe. Also, they believed prohibition would promote the war effort and avert general squandering and societal ineptitude. Others though the barrooms in Canada had become disreputable establishments, where foreigners assembled to plot against the British Empire. After the war ended, many provinces, including Saskatchewan, extended the prohibition of alcohol long after armistice.

However, alcohol had become readily available as a black market item in Saskatchewan. Irish in Golden Memories noted “The bootleggers and home brewers carried on where the licenced dealers left off.”    

During the prohibition era, bootleggers were creating potent brews. The underground liquor manufacturers often used ingenious methods to conceal their illegal operations. In From the Turning of the Soil – a history of the RM of Hart Butte – an immigrant from Syria named Zid in the Buffalo Gap region decided to organize a still inside an old coal mine to make some extra cash. However, because the smoke from the still could be viewed on a clear day, Zid’s operation was soon discovered by the authorities. His still was confiscated and the immigrant quickly returned to Syria.

A popular hooch recipe in southern Saskatchewan at the time called for two bushels of chopped barley, 4-5 pounds of hops, 10 pounds of sugar and four yeast cakes. Four pots of boiled water were added to the ingredients in a twenty-gallon crockpot. Afterwards, the mixture was bottled then a spoon of sugar was added to each bottle prior to being corked. The bottles were left to set in a warm place for 4-5 days.

Prohibition in Saskatchewan continued long after the First World War until July 1924. Dave Deibert in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix in October 2018 reported the vote for continuing prohibition was voted down in a close shave of a tally amounting to 119,337 against verses 80,381 for those who favoured keeping the anti-drinking laws in place in the province.

When prohibition ended in Saskatchewan, Assiniboia’s first liquor store was opened in the W. Ball building on Lot 10, Block nine on Centre Street – this establishment was managed by A.E. Nougaret.

South of the border in the United States, alcohol prohibition had been introduced on a nationwide basis in 1920 and endured until the law was repealed in 1933.    

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