July 8 1915
The rhetoric of the Camrose Women’s Christian Temperance Union, July 8th, 1915 ( online archive)

While the Great Powers did battle across Europe and much of the rest of the world, another war was being waged at home in Canada, over the issue of alcohol consumption. By the time of the Great War’s onset, the Temperance movement had been gaining strength in Canada for a number of years, and was increasingly flexing its muscles.

In 1916 Alberta introduced a provincial prohibition of alcohol with lasting affects into 1917. August saw the first case in Alberta for violation of the Liquor Act, in which the violator was fined $50.00.1 The selling of whiskey offered a temporary yet profitable business in Alberta in 1916.2

In March of 1917 Amendments of the Liquor Act were made by the Alberta Premier Sifton to the effect that the quantity of alcohol in private dwellings must not exceed one quart of spirits or two gallons of beer.3 Revisiting the previous year’s Prohibition the author of a particular article stated, “prohibiting the sale of intoxicating liquor in the province deviated from the principle that public had voted for.”4

This was, to put it mildly, serious stuff. For Temperance and Prohibition advocates of the time, the effort to limit or ban the consumption of alcohol, particularly hard liquor, was nothing less than an existential struggle for the future of Christian civilization, and their rhetoric reflected this belief. In the pages of the Camrose Canadian newspaper, the Camrose chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union ran weekly notices frequently using the war or the imagery of battle as as a jumping-off point to highlight what they seemed to see as an even greater threat than the hated Germans. Through a reprinted excerpt from James L. Gordon’s All’s Love yet All’s Law, the WCTU exhorted fellow Albertans to know that “the bravest fight a man ever made” was not against the armies of the Central Powers, but rather, “the fight against physical appetite”. Further, the greatest hero of the age was not, apparently, poor Johnny Canuck in his cold and muddy trench, but instead “the man who is struggling against an inflamed and disordered physical frame, when every nerve centre in his body calls for drink, drink, drink”. Standing against the heroic teetotaler was the head of the liquor trust, a dark, satanic figure luxuriating in the “vast bulworks of his organized brutality” under which “every evil of a growing civilization sought protection”.5

In a curious contrast to such evocations of epic struggle against apparently nigh-insurmountable odds, the rhetoric of the WCTU prior to the actual vote on the Liquor Act took on a strangely triumphant tenor. Even while describing the vast power of the brewing industry in the most lurid terms. Gordon’s excerpt, for example, was accompanied by a cartoon depicting a flood entitled “public opinion” swooping down to destroy a tranquil congregation of breweries.

The imagery of inevitability, May 20th, 1916 ( online archive).

The issue was also one that dovetailed significantly with the question of women’s rights, with WCTU rhetoric frequently playing upon the figure of the martyred wife abused by a drunken husband, a line of thinking that would find its logical conclusion in a speech given by Nellie McClung, one of the “Famous Five” Canadian women’s rights advocates, at the Camrose Presbyterian church on April 5th, 1915. Addressing the assembly, McClung held forth on the proposition that women suffered “infinitely more than men” during wartime, alternately condemning the human tendency to conflict for making “the red-blooded assassin” a hero, but then asserting that the Great War had nonetheless “given the death blow to the liquor traffic”.6

While the Canadian would print the occasional, corresponding bit of advocacy from the anti-Prohibition side, the paper of itself was firmly in the camp of Temperance, running pieces that could be almost as vehement in their condemnation of “the liquor trade” as anything the WCTU could gin up. The April 1st, 1915 edition, for example, featured an article on British politician David Lloyd George, future Prime Minister and then-Minister of the Exchequer, and quoted George observing that “we are fighting Austria, Germany and drink, and so far as I can see the greatest of the three deadly foes is drink”. Earl Kitchener, then Secretary for War, and John French, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force in Europe, were also alleged to be in favour of Temperance in the same article.7

However, it would be a mistake to conclude that Temperance and Prohibition in Alberta in general, and Camrose in particular, were solely the preoccupation of women or of upper-class men dictating standards of conduct to their social inferiors. The Canadian reported that many military men were in favor of enacting stricter controls upon alcohol consumption, with every poll taken amongst soldiers in the neighboring province of Manitoba, for instance, coming up “dry”, and Camrose itself polling 1,933 to 723 in favor of Prohibition by the middle of 1915. 89

When the time actually came to vote on the Liquor Act, “John Barleycorn” was “ushered out in royal style and very few [were] sorry to see him go,” though it was nonetheless noted that, in Camrose, “a goodly number took advantage of the last day to gather in a stock of wet goods either internally or by way of pockets and other receptacles,” hinting at new problems with the liquor laws yet to fully, and inevitably, manifest themselves.10

  1. The Camrose Canadian. “Fined $50.00 for Selling Whiskey: First Case for Violation of Liquor Act Before Justice Friday.” August 17, 1916. 8.37:1.
  2. The Camrose Canadian. “Fined $50.00 for Selling Whiskey: First Case for Violation of Liquor Act Before Justice Friday.” August 17, 1916.
  3. The Camrose Canadian. “Claus 55′.” March 29, 1917. 9.17:1.
  4. The Camrose Canadian. “Claus 55′.” March 29, 1917. 9.17:1.
  5. The Camrose Canadian. “W.C.T.U. Contribution.” May 20, 1915.
  6. The Camrose Canadian. “War’s Toll Cannot Be Estimated in Dollars.” April 8, 1915.
  7. The Camrose Canadian. “Total Prohibition for Great Britain During War Probable.” April 1, 1915.
  8. The Camrose Canadian. “Manitoba ‘Dry’ by Majority of Twenty Five Thousand.” March 16, 1916.
  9. The Camrose Canadian. “Dry Majority Continues to Grow.” July 29, 1915.
  10. The Camrose Canadian. “Exit John Barleycorn.” July 6, 1916.