The Last Dry County in the West

On a podcast I was listening to recently, one of the hosts drew a parallel between the increasing marijuana legalization in the United States and the fading of the temperance movement some 70 years previous; in time, he claimed, we would look back on the fact that pot was illegal and socially frowned upon as another preposterous and archaic story line typifying how the most modern progress is always the most progressive, and all those previous attitudes just make us shake our heads in a “Those suckers didn’t realize smoking was bad for you?!” or “People actually used MySpace!?” kind of way.  Now, he only mentioned this in passing, and I think there are a number of problems with the comparison, but it did get me thinking about the temperance movement in general.  My association with the temperance movement has almost always been with how it played out in the United States. But, like lots of things that happen in the US, Canada (and Canada’s heartbeat, our fair city), has its own smaller, tamer, cuter version; the well-kept, flower-lined pedestrian path beside the slightly reckless, busy road.


Let’s start our jaunt down that path with a few quick definitions. Firstly, the Temperance Movement was the movement for the abolition or restriction of the sale of alcohol, mostly based on the idea that it was the cause of many/all of the social ills afflicting humanity. A plebiscite (spoiler alert, it’s not a sub-plebeian or parasitic biscuit) is basically a referendum, and a number of cities and counties held them to decide if they would enact some form of prohibition law.  In the United States and Canada, temperance groups started to pop up in the mid-1800s, and national prohibition existed in the US from 1920 until 1935.

This photo isn’t until 1928, but…it perfectly illustrates the temperance movement. These women were part of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union

In Toronto, support of temperance waned and waxed throughout the 19th century. The Temperance Act was passed in the Province of Canada in 1864, which didn’t take a particular stance, but because even individual populations were divided on the issue, the act put it to “local option” so that municipalities could decide for themselves.  Toronto voted on the Temperance Act, more commonly known as the Dunkin Act, in 1877, named so for Canada East Parliamentarian Christopher Dunkin. No relation to this DunkinAll the land owning white men that voted decided against implementation of the Dunkin Act by a vote of 4,063 to 2,947.  Then they had a parade and some fireworks, where, according to a contemporary news article, “it is certain that the conduct of certain individuals in the procession was most reprehensible as indicating not only want of good taste but a total disregard of all the rules of decency.” Classic Anti-Dunkinites.

Dunkin
C Dunks himself as a young rip. I truly wonder how he would have responded to someone trying to call him C Dunks. Sorry sir.

A few decades later, in 1903, there was another plebiscite locally optioned, and this time the temperance movement had gained enough steam for the “Yes” side to win out 14,605 to 13,074. Incidentally, more people showed up to this vote than showed up for the provincial election of 1898. The next year, an independent suburb of Toronto, called West Toronto, voted to become dry themselves.  A few years later West Toronto was annexed into the larger city, on the condition that it would retain the independent right to stay dry if it so chose. And boy did it continue to choose.

Ontario passed the Ontario Temperance Act in 1916, which was repealed in 1924. After prohibition was repealed in the USA in 1935, temperance really began to decline in popularity up here too. I think people increasingly realized that a) they didn’t want their personal choices infringed upon by the government, and b) people drank even if laws told them not to.  The rest of Toronto fell back in with Ontario in the 20s, but West Toronto, which was roughly boundaried by Bloor, Jane, Keele, and St. Clair, kept the blow dryer on full blast. It stayed mighty dry. And not just for a few more years, either. Plebiscite in 1966? Still dry. In 1972? Sahara. During these years there was a very popular resident who was a champion of temperance that fought tirelessly to keep this place free of liquor: Mr. William Horace Temple, who was a very public figure and MPP from Toronto. What was his nickname, you ask? Are you ready? Temperance Willie. He was literally the opposite of Wet Willie. In 1984 there was a tough fight between T dubs (sorry sir) and a woman named Monika Diaz and her coalition of disgruntled restaurant owners, who claimed the ban was terrible for business. In 1984 Temple was 85 years old, but he still headed up the temperance effort.  In vintage Willie form, he managed to once again convince West TO folks to say no to liquor sales by a vote of 8,395 to 5,375.

I mean, clearly it was only an ideological victory in 1984. There were bars on literally all sides of the dry area, and consuming alcohol in that area wasn’t illegal, just the sale of it was. So if you lived close to the border you could still walk to a pub then walk home after, or you could stop by the LCBO on your way home. There was also a restaurant that got a liquor license even though its entrance was in West Toronto, because the majority of the building was located in the neighboring borough on the other side of the boundary. Also, in 1983 the Addictions Research Foundation said that there was absolutely no difference in the prevalence of drinking habits in West Toronto than in any other area of the city. The holdout is still impressive.

William_H.l_Temple_CU_1948
Temperance Willie in 1948

Temperance Willie and his root beer sipping, early bed-timing allies beat out one more plebiscite in 1988, but unfortunately he passed away a few months later. The first alcohol was sold in part of West Toronto in 1994, and part of The Junction didn’t see alcohol sold until 2000. The year two thousand. I know it’s pretty useless, but I love that: A final bastion attempting to uphold their vision of a community bound by morality and self-control. Walls of wholesome built up in the golden age of temperance and standing tall beyond their time, ancient stones repelling the crashing waves of enterprising restaurateurs and LCBOs. What I mean to say is…I respect it. Props to West Toronto. Actually…cheers to West Toronto.

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2 thoughts on “The Last Dry County in the West

  1. The weed-booze analogy i find apt. Numerous laws which prohibit explicitly (‘you can’t do this’) or implicitly (‘only this can be done’ and thus that can’t be) in any given age (or culture) seem risible in another. The present prohibition of marijuana and psilocybin are two present explicit prohibitions i find misguided (and many past and i dare say future societies would agree). More complex it seems yet perhaps equally misguided are laws that privilege humans (and often certain classes of humans – whether based on socioeconomic status, psychic or mental configuration, or other factors) over other creatures that share the earth. Is it an evolutionary regression, for example, to not allow robots or cats to vote – a prejudice analogous to our quite recent exclusion of people based on sex, race, and ethnicity? That humans get to decide whether the Northwest Passage is used for shipping (and often humans far removed in their habitation and embodied knowledge from that Passage) – who would say this is just? All this too an absurd or existential distance from West Toronto’s holdout (which now seems as quaint as certain Amish’s refusal to drive cars) to hold? The adage is that time will tell. But the criteria for its telling and the applications of justice and risibility to it – who will tell that?

    1. I think very broadly, sure, the analogy is fair. But I think only as far as they are or have been prohibited substances, and the basis for their prohibition is either viewed as misguided or as appropriate, depending on who you ask. But their contexts and the groups in favour of both legal and illegal use are not the same, especially referring to the specific movements of early 20th century alcohol prohibition and the current push for pot legalization. Also, the places of weed and alcohol in a culture, society, and individual’s use and perception, have been distinct from each other. I won’t delve here into the complexity of potentially species-ist laws though. I’ll wait for a whale treatise on the unfair use of the Northwest Passage.

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