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Prohibition’s Shadow

Prohibition’s Shadow

Though repealed in Nova Scotia in 1930, its effects are still felt today

The almost-forgotten chirp of the songbird, the fresh scent of awakened earth, the first spiky green tendrils breaking through near-frozen soil, and the caged steel and warped plastic tables forming patios along sidewalks in downtown Halifax. These are just a few signs of early spring in Nova Scotia. Nothing quite spells turn of the season in our province like the first patio drinkers of the year, still bundled in zippered jackets, wearing gloves, clinging to a pint of beer with their breath still visible in thick air. It’s the freedom that really attracts; to sip in open air and watch the world buzz around you. But take one step outside that demarcated steel fence with a drink in your hand and you’ll quickly be reminded of the prohibitory boundaries that still exist. While technically prohibition was officially repealed in our province in 1930, those patio boundaries exemplify the long shadow of temperance that still shades us to this day.

Prohibition of alcohol is typically the forbidding — especially by law — of manufacturing, sale, storage and consumption of alcohol. The most notable prohibition movement in modern times happened between 1920 and 1933 in the U.S., when the Eighteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution effectively established a nationwide ban on alcohol. While Canada never had a national ban to the same effect (though there was a two-year national ban from 1918 to 1920 as a temporary wartime measure), our country was no stranger to the rising tide of temperance movements. In fact, like many major movements in early Canada, Nova Scotia led the way.

When Halifax was first colonized in 1749, it was a haven for the rough and the ready. Those willing to sail the rough seas and put their life on the line were also quick to raise a glass to their lips. The earliest, and most influential, merchants in Halifax were colonial entrepreneurs interested in overseas trade for various goods, oftentimes contraband. Halifax was quite literally built from rum, and it flowed freely through the veins of the people and the gutters of the streets.

Alcohol was a major part of early colonial life. It was used at home to welcome friends, to treat maladies and cure illness. Labourers would often take mid-day breaks for a daily ration, shopkeepers would pour a dram to entice shoppers, and the numerous inns and taverns celebrated the spirit of social exchanges. With alcohol being such a driving force in day-to-day life in early Nova Scotia, something was bound to give.

The road towards prohibition in Nova Scotia could be seen as a sort of multi-lane highway. Each lane had a different origin, but ultimately all arrived at the same destination. There were many powerful forces working to either fully ban, or at least limit, the influence alcohol had on society. World War I reformists, various religious groups, secular progressives and those of the nineteenth-century temperance movement all impacted the inevitable provincial sanctions on alcohol. One of the earliest, and most influential, moments was when Canada’s first-ever temperance society was formed in Pictou County in 1827. The movement spread like wildfire, and within a decade the Maritimes would see almost 100 different societies all bent on the moderation and eradication of what they perceived as one of societies biggest evils: alcohol.

In 1878, the Canada Temperance Act was passed, and it stated that any county or municipality in the country could prohibit the retail sale of alcohol based off a majority vote. It was a landmark decision that meant local individuals had the power to shut down commercial alcohol sales in their own community. By 1898, the temperance force was so strong that Sir Wilfred Laurier was forced to introduce a federal referendum on prohibition that could have led to a country-wide ban. It ultimately came up short but would do little to weaken the discerning voices in support of prohibition. In 1901, Prince Edward Island became the first province to officially enact prohibition, and soon other provinces would follow suit. Ultimately prohibition began to be seen as an act of patriotism and a necessary wartime effort during World War I. In 1921, Nova Scotia officially became the last province to enact prohibition, and this crashing wave of temperance still ripples to this day.

As it currently stands, there are 105 dry communities in Nova Scotia where it is illegal to sell alcohol. All of these dates back to 1930, when the provincial ban was lifted. We are the only province that provincially legislates where alcohol can be produced and sold, and where store hours, locations, product selections and prices are all mandated.

So, the next time you’re enjoying a pint on a downtown patio with that sun gleaming in your eyes this spring, remember this: Though it sure might seem that you’re free as the birds singing above you, those invisible barriers of temperance still seem to hold us all well in our places.

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