Under the Influence

Beer is to Canada as wine is to France. How Labatt and its allies brewed up a nation of beer drinkers

Illustration by Ross MacDonald

In the early-morning hours of Christmas Day 1936, James Sloan of Golfview Avenue in Toronto drove through downtown after a late night of drinking. He lost control of his car and went careening across the intersection of Jarvis and Fleet Streets. Impaired by alcohol, he was unable to avoid a sixty-five-year-old pedestrian who had woken up early to walk his dog, and both man and dog were killed instantly. The police found three Christmas cards in the dead man’s pocket, from Mildred, Bill, and Joan. Sloan was charged with manslaughter. That day, more than 100 motor accidents occurred in Toronto, most of them attributable to alcohol. The Globe and Mail pronounced it “the blackest Christmas in the history of the city.”

The tragic events of that day mobilized “wets” and “drys” alike. The drys saw “Black Christmas” as proof of the dangers of John Barleycorn. “If we had released a bunch of maniacs from 999 Queen St. West [the Provincial Lunatic Asylum],” proclaimed Dr. A.J. Irwin of the Ontario Temperance Union on December 26, “we would probably not have had more serious results than we had yesterday.” He blamed the provincial government and the liquor trade for doing their “utmost for some years to create the psychology out of which such tragedies arise.” The brewing industry in particular had pressured the government for policies that made it easier to buy a drink. Now, Irwin complained, “even the holy Nativity must be celebrated with longer hours of selling liquor.”

The ban on public drinking was still a fresh memory in Ontario, where it had reigned for nearly two decades, until 1934, when Premier Mitchell Hepburn finally made the practice legal once again. Labatt, one of the nation’s largest breweries, and its stalking horse, the Moderation League, had kept a vigilant eye on the retail sector ever since, watching for any turn of events that might create “an unfavorable attitude on the part of the public.” Internal polls conducted by the London, Ontario, brewery indicated that the prohibitionists continued to command support from roughly 35 percent of the population. Hugh Labatt, the fifty-three-year-old vice-president (and grandson of founder John Labatt), worried that a catastrophic event like Black Christmas could move a majority of the population back to the dry side.

A few days after Irwin’s appeal appeared in the press, the president of the Moderation League, Colonel Richard Haliburton Greer, wrote to Labatt, warning him that the premier did not want to “be embarrassed on the question of his administration of the [liquor] trade.” Greer, a Toronto lawyer who had successfully defended Ben Kerr, keeping Canada’s most daring rum-runner out of jail, was a close ally. Labatt knew the brewers and their supporters (which included veterans’ groups and organized labour, as well as his competitors) needed to be out in front of the issue. In a letter dated January 6, 1937, he responded to Greer with an appeal to put “the industry on a high plane and in a proper light, which might help to safeguard the future of the business—in other words, an educational campaign,” he concluded. The objective was twofold: to avoid another calamity like Black Christmas, and to prevent the return of Prohibition. In the process, Labatt and its allies did much more: they turned us into a nation of drinkers, and meanwhile cemented moderation among our national values.

At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Jon Montgomery came from behind to win a spectacular victory and take the gold medal in skeleton sled racing. Moments afterward, the red-haired Manitoban walked triumphantly through the crowds at Whistler, pumping his fists as he made his way to an interview booth. From the crowd that had gathered to see Canada’s latest Olympic hero, a woman emerged with a pitcher of beer and handed it to him. He took a moderate drink and lifted the jug over his head in celebration. Labatt or Molson could not have orchestrated the moment any better.

Montgomery’s Olympic walk emerged as a passionate declaration of national pride, and his post-race performance, which resonated deeply with Canadians, points to a profound link between beer and our national identity. So do the statistics. It is the number one alcoholic beverage in the country, in terms of both production and consumption: 2.2 billion litres are produced each year, and quaffed by some 10 million Canadians.

For most of our history, though, our alcoholic beverage of choice was something else, and there was nothing wholesome about the way Canadians drank. When the English author and traveller James Buckingham arrived on the east coast in 1843, he was appalled by what he found. “Though we had been often disgusted with the tobacco-chewing passengers we had encountered in the steamboats and stage-coaches of America,” he carped, “we would willingly have taken the worst of them in exchange for the drunken, profane, and still more disgusting [Canadian] brandy-drinkers.”

The hardship of life on the frontier increased the temptation to drink immoderately. Life was rough, the water could kill you, and people coped by drinking a lot. In her 1852 account, Roughing It in the Bush, Susanna Moodie remarked on the prevalence of spirits in the backwoods; and when Sir Richard Bonnycastle visited Canada, he noted that whisky and “very atrocious brandy” were virtually the only beverages that could be procured along the country roads. At mid-century, men, women, and children consumed an average of eleven litres of whisky a year in the numerous inns, taverns, and grog shops.

Even at the two constitutional conferences held in 1864, the delegates drank enormous quantities of sherry and champagne but very little beer. The most imposing figure at these meetings was future prime minister John A. Macdonald, whom biographer Donald Creighton compared to a “two-bottle man”—one who drinks two bottles of whisky a day.

For the rest of the nineteenth century, Canadians continued to drink more spirits than beer. It seemed there were only two types: those who drank to excess and those who did not take a drop. Many teetotalers believed that society would be a better place if everybody was on the wagon, and in the years leading up to World War I this position gained traction across English Canada. Alcohol, the abstainers argued, was the cause of misery, poverty, health defects, and crime. These scourges would evaporate if the population could summon the courage to legislate brewers, distillers, and vintners out of business.

Many prohibitionists were part of a larger social purity movement, as Mariana Valverde notes in The Age of Light, Soap, and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885–1925. They sought not only to suppress sexuality and intemperance, but also to promote a nation whose ethical identity was consonant with the values of middle-class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Canada. Since the mid-1880s, they had voiced their alarm over prostitution, immigration, racial impurity, the threat of the city, and drunkenness. They did not welcome the working-class “beer-loving foreigners” within their midst. The social purists described “good” things as: “clean,” “pure,” and “wholesome.” In their judgment, liquor was a social evil: “impure,” “foul,” “lethal,” and “toxic” to boot. “Drink is a Cancer,” asserted one campaign ad, “a racial poison and a national curse.” “Whether in the form of beer, wine or spirits,” noted a newspaper column, “alcohol poisons those higher centres of the brain which control the moral faculties, such as patience, kindness, unselfishness, generosity.”

As with contemporary debates about the legalization of marijuana and gay marriage, the late nineteenth-century issue of Prohibition split Canadians more or less down the middle. South of the border, the federal government has the power to prohibit both the production and the distribution of booze, but control here is split between the federal and provincial governments. In each of the provinces (with the exception of PEI, which had gone dry in 1901), the drys failed to convince a majority to embrace their cause, until World War I. Nearly everyone agreed that the war in Europe demanded a higher level of personal sacrifice at home, and temperance advocates saw an opportunity, arguing with missionary zeal that “King Alcohol” was an enemy as great as any overseas, weakening the nation from within, and that those who kept drinking were hindering victory. The patriotic appeal struck a chord with those seeking a way to martyr themselves without venturing onto a battlefield.

Beginning in 1916, one province after another joined PEI, passing laws that prohibited the retail sale of “intoxicating beverages.” By 1919, a year before Prohibition would come into effect in the United States, Canada was dry from sea to sea to sea. But Prohibition was short lived in some provinces; Quebec’s bottle ban ended after a few months. In every one, though, dry legislation looked the same: drinking establishments were closed down, and the sale of alcoholic beverages was forbidden. Only “near beers”—non-intoxicating, with no more than 2.5 percent proof—could be sold in public places. Anything higher had to be consumed in a private dwelling.

Huge sums were spent enforcing these laws, but thousands of people each year continued to pour into “blind pigs” (Canadian slang for a speakeasy) during the dry regime, as historian Craig Heron points out in his insightful treatise Booze: A Distilled History. The police exhibited little enthusiasm for enforcing the law, in part because so many of them were drinkers. Corruption was rampant among the customs officials charged with monitoring the international stream of alcohol, bootlegging was common, and organized crime was on the rise. In 1921, Hugh Labatt and his older brother, John, handed over management of the company to Edmund Burke, a hard-nosed Irishman who had cut his teeth selling tobacco and whisky in the US. Burke set up a “snake fund” to bribe customs officials, and to influence politicians and the Bermuda Export Company—a consortium of eleven of Ontario’s largest breweries—to put an end to the province’s costly price wars and control the lucrative traffic of beer to the US, where Prohibition was in full force. Smuggling Labatt’s “export-strength” bottles back into Ontario generated huge profits, and Prohibition, in the words of one Canadian, was “one hell of a farce.”

In 1924, Labatt formed an alliance with the Moderation League and began shoring up support among organized labour and veterans. They maintained that society would be a better place (not to mention more profitable) without Prohibition, and together they presented provincial governments across the country with long petitions demanding a plebiscite. These often listed tens of thousands of names, and went a long way toward changing politicians’ minds. Attorney General John Brownlee, once a staunch prohibitionist, later told the Edmonton Bulletin that Prohibition was not a “delicate flower to be shielded from every adverse blast. If it was not implanted deep in the hearts of the people it could not last.” He became premier in 1925 and upheld his predecessor’s legalization of public drinking. Petitioning provincial governments was just the first step for the brewers. To win the battle against Prohibition, they would have to fight for the hearts and minds of Canadians, to convince them to imagine beer in a more favourable light. They would have to win the propaganda war.

During a stirring sixty-second Molson commercial for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, the narrator asks us to consider what makes us Canadian: “You might ask yourself, why are we the way we are? ” he says. “Well, the answer is lying right under our feet, literally.” The company first associated its product with the land three-quarters of a century earlier, in calendars with depictions of countrified settings positioned above a nostalgic text that read, “The Ale Your Great Grandfather Drank.” The page for January 1931 featured a painting by Cornelius Krieghoff, perhaps Canada’s most popular artist of the 1800s. His mid-nineteenth-century winter ball at a country inn was accompanied by a text that conjured up more images of a simpler time, one “without motors or radios,” when “life in Quebec was merry.”

Between the wars, the land held a special place in the hearts and minds of Canadians. It was considered a sanctuary from the dangers and chaos of the urban world, and its products were seen as wholesome and pure. This anti-modern back-to-nature sentiment was expressed in various cultural manifestations of the period, from the works of the Group of Seven, to the writings of Harold Adams Innis, to the creation of summer camps and national parks.

The anti-modernist language and imagery utilized by Molson and other companies was aimed at distancing their products from the sins of the city. By linking beer, brewing, and drinking to country places and rural folk—who, like the majority of Canadian consumers in today’s ads, were white, male, and middle class—they endeavoured to sanitize them and make them more appealing to the mainstream. Then as now, the ads conveyed a deep-rooted conservatism that reflected a past reality rather than the current one.

Labatt manager Hugh Mackenzie wanted to go even further: the time had come, he said in 1935, to elevate beer’s status in society by making its consumption an expression of Canadianness. A chartered accountant by training, he had joined the company shortly after Prohibition ended in Ontario in 1927, and he was instrumental in shepherding the brewery through the worst years of the Depression. He was athletically built, bright, and polished, and had roots in the educational elite of central Canada. A potent mixture of skill and ambition helped to propel him rapidly up the ranks at the old London brewery, but Hugh Labatt resented him for it.

Before the Black Christmas of 1936, Mackenzie approached J. Walter Thompson Co., a major global advertising agency. Mark Napier of the Toronto office had an uncanny feel for the cultural logic of the age, and wanted to portray brewers like Labatt as instrumental, not detrimental, to the nation’s development. In a series of advertisements published in the national monthly Canadian Homes and Gardens, he highlighted Labatt’s long, influential past. “It really all began 70 years ago,” read the text of one ad in 1937, under the tag line “Then As Now.” In others, he linked the company’s evolution to watershed moments in our history, such as Confederation and the Boer War, when “soldiers knew good ale.” As Canadians searched for uniquely Canadian ideas, events, experiences, and commodities—the makings of a national identity—Napier served up Labatt’s product as an age-old piece of Canadiana.

The strategy worked, and—along with increased immigration from other beer-drinking countries and beer’s relative affordability during the Depression—it helped push sales to new heights. Per capita consumption had grown by 50 percent since the turn of the century, while hard liquor use declined by half. By 1936, Canadians drank twenty litres of beer per year on average, compared with just one litre of spirits.

Since the birth of brewing in Canada in the seventeenth century, companies had maintained that their products were not harmful, and that beer’s lower alcohol content made it an ideal temperance beverage. When Black Christmas threatened to push it back into the shadows, they launched an educational campaign to encourage the population to drink beer moderately and responsibly, and reframed the debate around individual liberty. “Government control,” their ads insisted, “cannot be effective without self-control,” and self-control was learned behaviour. In a widely circulated propaganda piece entitled “Let’s teach Temperance!,” they argued for teaching people “to use any of nature’s gifts temperately.” Such an education, they said, was best received in the barrooms of the nation, where “public opinion discourages excess.”

Only by drinking publicly, they suggested, would Canadians learn the rituals and habits of imbibing responsibly and thereby become good citizens. Like eating and smoking, drinking was a social custom, determined by the cultural norms and ideals of society. Prohibition had deprived a whole generation of the opportunity to learn moderation. “The present propaganda against beverage rooms,” the companies warned, “if successful… would defeat the object of true temperance.”

As they saw it, wisdom through the ages had shown that lasting enjoyment of life’s pleasures depended on moderation, an ethos and approach to drinking largely absent during the age of excess that prompted Prohibition in Canada. The ideal citizen, as described by Ontario brewers in “A Dialogue on Moderation,” understood the obligation to community and country, and reflected this by “avoiding of extremes, being temperate in conduct.” Moderation was a Canadian way of life, a means of reconciling the tension between self-indulgence and social well-being, between the pursuit of pleasure and delayed gratification. Beer was an excellent temperance drink: “wholesome” and “mildly stimulating.” A few years later, the research department at J. Walter Thompson interviewed 1,767 people from a cross-section of society: rich and poor, rural and urban, wet and dry. The pollsters determined that roughly three-quarters of those who had read the Ontario brewers’ ads to promote moderation “thought them convincing.”

In working to steer the country clear of a second Prohibition era, the companies fashioned a Canadian story drawn from mainstream values, a strategy still employed today with great success. Consider Molson’s now famous Joe Canada rant, first aired in 2000. It may stand as one of our most naked displays of patriotism, far more stirring than those well-meaning Heritage Minutes. In the following year, the Canadian brand (which the company promotes with the tag line “Made from Canada”) grew its market share by 2.5 percent.

A more recent Molson ad, “The Canadians,” taps into national pride by portraying Canadians as a friendly, beer-loving bunch, adored and respected around the world. Molson and Labatt are now owned by global corporations, and while they are no longer Canadian the ethos of beer drinking remains so. This, fortuitously, has given rise to a burgeoning community of microbreweries. The language and imagery of beer ads continue to promote unity and social cohesion in ways that the major companies likely did not intend: Jon Montgomery recently parodied the “I Am Canadian” rant to galvanize support for our Olympic team.

Today beer is to Canada what wine is to France, vodka is to Russia, tequila is to Mexico, ouzo is to Greece, and sake is to Japan. Our athletes publicly celebrate their victories with it; Canadian musicians rejoice about it in song; comedians poke fun at our collective thirst for it; and even our prime minister allows himself to be caught on camera enjoying it by the glass. It is not the quantity that we drink, but rather the way we drink it and imagine it that makes beer quintessentially Canadian. It is what Roland Barthes terms a “totem drink.” Just as a primitive totem united all who worshipped it, so it is with our beer: we drink, therefore we are.

The Walrus thanks the Writers’ Trust of Canada for its financial support of this story.

This appeared in the June 2013 issue.

Matthew J. Bellamy
Matthew J. Bellamy teaches Canadian business and cultural history at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Ross MacDonald
Ross MacDonald is a prop designer on Boardwalk Empire and Parks and Recreation. His latest children’s book, Henry’s Hand, comes out this year.