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Belly up to the Bar


It Was All About Whiskey


Even here in Portage la Prairie the name of the game was whiskey. Whiskey was the force that impelled the American fur traders into our Canadian West; and it was the liquid lorelei that lured the Indians to the trading posts and to their own destruction. Whiskey kept the embers of the American annexation smouldering in the Rossin House bar on Main St. in the 1870’s. It brought on the dispatch of the Northwest Mounted Police to the Western Plains to evict the American whiskey traders; whiskey fuelled the engines of the political machines and corroded their steering mechanisms. Whiskey oiled the escalators to political success and greased the skids to oblivion. From Portage la Prairie to the Rockies, whiskey kept the Prairies in a ferment for 50 years. Other causes flared brightly for a decade or two and expired. The crusade against whiskey went on and on. The Prohibitionist zealots may have let their attentions wander occasionally to their belief in womens sufferage, the eradication of prostitution, or the adoption of the Single Tax, but in the end they always came back to the anti-whiskey crusade. Usually, trailing converts were picked up along the way from other movements. It was only natural that the religious Methodist, Baptists and Presbyterians, who pioneered settlement of our west, and considered the strong drink to be the ruin of mankind, never gave up the challenge to eradicate booze. Whiskey to the fundamentalists Protestants was what was pork was to the Muslims and the Jews, animal flesh was to Hindus, and coffee and tobacco to Mormons. Not only was liquor an abomination to their religion it was also a millstone grinding down their business interests, and in the rural areas, a threat to their very physical existence. For shear intensity of conviction and staying power over the long haul, no other prairie mass movement ever equalled the Prohibition crusade. And yet the excitement and the political infighting that marked the long assault on the demon-rum was hardly more boisterous than the up roar that developed after Prohibition was enacted by law. Then, as governments did their best to enforce the law, they were heckled continually by the Prohibitionists. While the temperance spokesman were demanding more adequate enforcement, clutches of doctors, druggists, lawyers, judges, and freelance protectors of the public thirst were conspiring to reduce the law to an absurd unenforceable state. Out of all of this there developed a bootlegging industry that kept the newspapers supplied with headlines and provided both the wets and the drys with speechifying ammunition with which to bombard the current legislature.

Life, as is its nature, has worked its magic on creating a Prohibition era mythology out of the polemic flotsam drifting in the back waters of our ageing memories. It seems that we Western Canadians are convinced that Prohibition either was foisted upon the country by the Sir Robert Borden government during the First World War or was the result of granting voting rights to the women while the men were off fighting in the First World War. As a sidebar, there is the belief that an outraged and enlightened populace voted out Prohibition at its first opportunity. The evident negative result was that Saskatchewan was turned into the rum-running capital of the world, and as a result law enforcement broke down and an era of corruption, violence, drunkenness and debauchery was ushered into our life.

Photo: Wainwright Hotel, 1910. The newspaper reads “Don’t knock the best city on Earth. You are living in it!”

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Hello and welcome to my thought process !

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