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Manitoba History: The Boons and Banes of Booze: The Liquor Trade in Rural Manitoba, 1929-1939

by Geoffrey Bernard Toews
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 50, October 2005

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The history of liquor is an interesting and difficult one to undertake. It is deeply entangled in the larger issue of moral reform, creating divisions along class, gender, ethnic, and geographic lines. Constructions of identity, the regulation of public (and private) space, and individual and collective agency all should be included in the analysis of such a topic. These variables present the historian with a myriad of possible social and cultural interpretations. Although ethnicity, religion, and geography will be brought into this study when possible, the limitations of the available resources necessarily ground this study in an analysis of gender and class as determining factors in the construction of moral public space in relation to the liquor trade in rural Manitoba. To borrow a couple of terms from Canadian historian Robert Campbell, this paper deals with competing “discourses of decency” and how they worked either to expand or collapse the “boundaries of leisure.” [1]

The historian of liquor is also presented with difficulties related to available sources. Not only are relevant documents such as inspector reports on individual establishments hard to come by, but often the subject (or subjects) that need to be studied have no direct expression in the written record that is available. Still, the available sources, such as minutes from Liquor Board meetings, newspaper articles from the Winnipeg Evening Tribune and the Manitoba Free Press, and the Government Liquor Control Act of 1928, do contain valuable evidence of who and what was being regulated, and by whom, in early twentiethcentury Manitoba. These sources also reveal the many points from which regulatory pressures originated, which included the public funded liquor board and liquor commission, the more privately endorsed moral reform agencies such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and individual owners and managers, who also policed their premises. These two categories of regulators, public and private, often had similar goals, but very different motivations. [2] Private groups (such as the WCTU and Ladies’ Aid Societies) often clashed with the government’s philosophy towards regulation, demanding that morality be central to the larger issue of regulation. [3] As we will see, for the government, at times, there was no clear distinction between moral and economic regulation.

Advertisement for Drewrys beer, The Hotel News, vol. 5, no. 9, p. 2, 1940.

Historians of liquor are faced with further methodological considerations concerning whether a “social control” or “moral reform” approach would be more assiduous. This article will focus more heavily from the latter approach; however, it will still borrow from both. Applying the following methodology reveals opposition and resistance toward the government’s regulatory measures and policies. This resistance, however, is not the type of resistance that social historians are used to discovering and writing about. This article will apply a focus on resistance that originated from the “top-down,” rather than the normative methods of historical inquiry usually adopted by social historians, which have been chiefly concerned with locating agency among history’s “forgotten” peoples from the “bottom-up.”

With such an approach, this article, located in the broader context of state formation and its increasing presence in the private lives of Canadians, will outline the events that led up to the passing of the Government Liquor Act of 1928. It will further discuss the role of reform organizations and legislative institutions in regulating, policing, and moralizing public space in rural Manitoba, from the passing of the Act in 1928 to the Second World War. Furthermore, this paper will reveal how the realization of government intervention into the liquor trade mediated both economic and moral imperatives and formed a compromise that regulated the everyday lives of Manitobans through its own discourse of decency.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Canada was experiencing tremendous changes in its social and geographic landscape, due primarily to rapid industrialization and urbanization. [4] Moral and legal authorities were in a state of flux. Different identities became oft-contested sites, resulting in major shifts in power in the first half of the twentieth century. Largely as a result of the hegemonic Protestant belief system, public discourse centred on what it meant to be a “good Christian” and, in the eyes of temperance workers, a “good citizen.” Increasing immigration, industrialization, and urbanization by the time the First World War started allowed for a growing working class to take shape in Manitoba’s rural and urban communities. Reformers and morality squads turned their attention to this new dual threat of swelling immigrant and working-class populations. In the changing political, social, and economic landscape that preceded the First World War, reformers of all kinds, from a host of organizations, found themselves dedicated to improving the moral, social, economic, and political character of Manitoba’s immigrant and working-class population.

The beer parlour of the Dauphin Hotel in Dauphin, circa 1940.
Source: The Hotel News, vol. 13, no. 6, p. 21, 1940.

It was becoming clear to Manitobans that the regulation of liquor consumption, moral and legal, was not working. The solution to society’s social ills had become worse than the problem, as the bootlegging trade was playing an ever increasing role by supplying Manitobans with illegal, but cheap and readily available, liquor. A new group of activists calling themselves the Moderation League, formed in 1921 and made up mostly of “wets,” offered a solution to the new afflictions that had arisen because of prohibition. The solution to suppress bootlegging – and one that would please the lobby groups consisting of the Beer and Wine League, veteran’s groups, and the working class – lay in the availability of beer and wine to be sold by the glass. In 1928, under a revised Liquor Control Act, this proposal became law, creating a public space where liquor could be consumed. The responsibility for regulating drinking space was now officially thrust into the hands of government, although temperance groups and other private organizations would always make their voices heard.

Government Sponsored Regulation

With the end of prohibition and the creation of a liquor board to regulate the production and consumption of alcohol in Manitoba, members of the working class were provided with a public place to drink. Engaging in the bootlegging trade allowed members of the working class to successfully challenge and resist the prevailing discourse advocated by Protestant temperance workers and other moral reformers. However, in order to assuage these groups of concerned citizens, a strict tone was adopted within the Manitoba Liquor Act of 1928. The government very clearly laid out the rules and regulations for buying, selling, serving, and drinking liquor. These rules and regulations also made an analysis of the politics of private and public space possible.

The Liquor Act was simply another part of the government apparatus that communicated to the people of Manitoba the regulations that the majority “wets” and “drys” felt were appropriate and necessary. The four-member Liquor Board (royally assented to in 1924) and the Liquor Commission [5] worked together as part of the larger government-sponsored regulatory apparatus that, like Foucauldian disciplinary institutions, “compare[d], differentiate[d], hierarchize[d], homogenize[d], exclude[d]. In short, it normalize[d].” [6] By regulating who could drink, how much a person could drink, at what time a person could buy beer and drink publicly, who a person could drink with, and who could serve alcohol, the government undertook the responsibility of creating, in the eyes of the WCTU, a more moral and respectable public space for drink.

To fully understand the dynamics of class, gender, and race in 1930s Manitoba, it is important to consider who was doing the regulating and who was being regulated. Certainly, it would be fair to conclude that everybody was being regulated, since the Manitoba Liquor Act of 1928 applied to all residents, permanent or otherwise, of Manitoba. However, there were specific regulations targeted at specific people, that is, there were separate laws and sections within the law. It was these laws that reflected contemporary societal views and biases, based on gender, class, ethnicity, race, age, and geography.

Gender dynamics are a significant part of this study, and it is important to consider them in relation to who sat on the Liquor Board. The 1928 Liquor Law called for a onemember board that would decide which establishments would be granted permits to sell or serve beer. In 1934 an amendment was added to the 1928 Act that called for a four-member board that would regulate who (or, more specifically, what establishments) would be granted or refused liquor licenses throughout the province. There is little information about who these members were, however, they were certainly all men. Richard Deans Waugh was the original member of the board and, after the 1934 amendment, served as its Chair. The other members, with their full-time professions in brackets, were: Alfred Osmond Marrin (wholesale grocer), Duncan Cameron (merchant), Charles Rhodes Smith (barrister-at-law), and Samuel Wilfred McCullough (insurance agent). [7] The first three members listed here, Marrin, Cameron, Smith, as well as Waugh, all resided in Winnipeg, while McCullough came in from Brandon to meet with the board. The members of the Manitoba Liquor Board were all white, English-onlyspeaking, city-dwelling men whose full-time professions made them part of the middle and upper classes. The residents of Manitoba who possessed a direct voice in the decision making process of legal regulation were white, middle- to upper-class men.

Richard Deans Waugh (1868 - 1938), former Mayor of Winnipeg and Chair of the Manitoba Liquor Board.
Source: Manitoba Pictorial and Biographical, Vol. 1, Winnipeg: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1913.

Along with rules that prohibited food, standing and singing, parlours were also strictly regulated with regards to who was allowed in them and who could serve the customers. Women and minors were strictly prohibited from selling or handling beer. Section 82 of the Act reads: “No beer licensee shall employ or suffer any person under the age of twenty-one years or any female to act in any way in connection with the sale, handling, or serving of beer in, on or about any beer parlor.” [8] Women could expect to be fined heavily, and licensees would have their licenses suspended or revoked if caught having a woman sell or serve beer. In one instance, a woman pleaded guilty to a charge of selling liquor and was fined under the Liquor Control Act. The magistrate, named Felsford, declared to the defendant, Annie Hnetiuk, that “It is a problem to know what to do with you women.” The Manitoba Free Press reported that her six children saved her from going to prison. [9]

Another regulation was also directly related to gender. Although both women and men were permitted to hold liquor permits and enter into beer parlours, they had to do so through separate entrances. Furthermore, they could not occupy the same space. A partition was required to separate the two sexes from each other so as to maintain a respectable and strong moral character. Here, in this regard, the Manitoba Liquor Act of 1928 is worth quoting at length:

No beer licensee shall serve beer or permit beer to be served to or consumed by men and women together in the same beer parlor. Where a beer licensee desires to serve beer to both men and women the Commission may in writing allow him to establish in his hotel a separate beer parlor for each… but no internal means of communication shall exist between the two parlors and the public entrance to each shall be separate. [10] 30 July 1929.

This legislation regarding the regulation of the sexes was endorsed more as a proscriptive measure than anything. The source material indicates that regulating men and women with a partition that separated them was never really a problem, as no Manitoba beer parlours allowed the admittance of women anyway.

The Manitoba Liquor Act of 1928 also reveals that race was an important variable to consider when constructing a moral public space. The Act defined a public place as “any place, building or convenience to which the public has or is permitted to have access and any highway, street, lane, park, or place of public resort or amusement.” [11] Beer parlours were considered public places to which people could have access, or be permitted to have access. However, members of the public needed to purchase a general permit from the government for one dollar, which would allow them to buy beer and to enter beer parlours. In effect, this permit determined who was and who was not part of the public. Under sections 38(1a) and 38 (1c) the Act read that the “Commission shall not issue any permit: (a) to any person under the age of twenty-one years [or] c) to any Indian or interdicted person.” [12] Under the 1928 Liquor Act an “interdicted person” was defined as “a person to whom the sale of liquor is prohibited by an order under this Act.” [13]

The five member Manitoba Liquor Board was responsible for approving beer and beer vendor licenses, which could be approved or denied depending on what was defined as respectable public space. For instance, the board took measures to prevent people with “bad character” from getting a license to sell beer, despite having no explicit guidelines for what exactly constituted “bad character.” Board minutes reveal that licenses were refused to people who had broken the law, who had previously violated the codes of the Manitoba Liquor Act, or who were either suspected of or known to gamble. Inspectors also made public inquiries about the character of some applicants of behalf of the liquor board.

One situation involved two men from the same town who were competing for a liquor license. Only one license would be given out since the population guidelines, as expressed under Section 74 (1b) of the 1928 Liquor Act, did not warrant a second license. [14] The two men had applied and gone through the proper channels at roughly the same time, so neither had priority. The license came down to character reports, made on behalf of the Chief Inspector. One report read:

He is a very heavy drinker and is addicted to the drinking of homebrew. He is not a very good business man and is not making much of a success of operating his [name of hotel]. [Name of relative] started him in business about two years ago but the business had not prospered during that time and it is doubted if he can carry on much longer. [Name of applicant] is not a bootlegger but is known to consume considerable quantities of homebrew.

The report on the second man is much more favourable.

He has operated hotels at [name of town] and [name of another town]. He is a very good hotelman and has operated his hotels in a very clean and satisfactory manner. No complaints were received at any time and at all the different inspections made of his premises everything was found to be in good order. [15]

Nick Prygrocki in his Fisher Branch store with Nick Drohomereski, drinking locally-brewed spirits, 1916.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Andrew Malofie Collection 92.

Another incident reveals the extent of the powers granted to the liquor inspectors, as well as the lengths they would go to maintain the respectability of a public space. Two inspectors responded to a number of complaints from a particular hotel with a stakeout of sorts. They set up a ploy, where one inspector went in to buy some beer while the other stood outside to witness the transaction. The hotel in question did not carry a vendor license and was charged by the two inspectors for “unlawfully selling liquor.” [16] As a result, it was recommended that the application to renew this particular hotel’s beer license be held until the trial took place. In this manner, the boundaries of leisure, having been lobbied for and voted on by the people of Manitoba, were policed by a board, which acted as both a prescriptive and proscriptive medium to maintain a moral public space. If, however, the governing board ruled in a fashion that was not to either side’s liking, measures were taken to ensure that both sides received a public hearing on the matter.

People were further regulated by sections of the Act that carried with them distinct geographical and class biases. According to the Act, people who wanted to buy booze could obtain it from a government-operated store or from privately operated, but still government-licensed, beer vendors, usually located in hotels. From these vendors a patron could “carry away with him from the liquor store to his residence any quantity of liquor he may lawfully purchase thereat on a general permit in any one day.” [17] Purchasers of liquor could also send in orders to the Liquor Commission to be delivered to their homes, usually within a couple of days. The main problem with these regulations was the hours under which the liquor stores were operated. They were only open until 7 p.m. in rural Manitoba and until 10 p.m. in urban Manitoba. These regulations worked well for middle- and upper-middle-class Manitoba drinkers, as well as drinkers who lived in Winnipeg or Brandon, who finished work before six and/or were near beer depots. However, for farmers and members of the working class (the majority of the people who lived in rural Manitoba) who did not have a liquor store near by, this caused problems. Neither rural Manitobans nor workingclass Manitobans had access to liquor stores, since the stores closed before they could get off work and make it there. An article written in reaction to a vote in parliament on proposed changes to operating hours appeared in the Winnipeg Evening Tribune. The writer of the article made a “plea for a respectable liquor law.” The article went on to discuss how the beer depots in the country discriminated against country beer drinkers by closing at 7 p.m. The article points out that the law encouraged bootlegging by creating a demand for more convenient, if illegal, access to liquor. [18] Interestingly, the urban members of parliament, with the exception of two, voted for the bill, which would extend the hours of operation for liquor depots to 10 p.m. The rural members, on the other hand, voted for the hours to remain the same. The bill was defeated 22 - 19. Two days later, another article appeared, again discussing the goings on of the provincial parliament. A bill was introduced to close the city liquor stores at 9 p.m., which currently remained open until 10 p.m., not because the member wanted the bill to pass, but rather to display the absurdity of the current law under which “a city man can buy beer later than a country man.” [19] Only a few days later another bill was introduced into parliament that called for country beer depots to remain open until 9 p.m. The bill was passed 22- 16. According to the article, city support, as well as opposition members, helped push the bill through. [20]

Interior of the Cecil Hotel, Rivers, circa 1915.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, N7159.

Some conclusions can be drawn from the preceding debate that occurred in Manitoba’s provincial parliament and that was communicated to the public through the newspaper. The split between the country and city vote is curious. Country members of parliament either voted with the majority of their constituents many desires or against them. If they voted against the wants and desires of their constituents then the passing of this bill demonstrates the lobbying power and agency of a particular section of society, namely the rural, working-class beer drinkers. It also reflects the desire on the part of the rural politicians to maintain a moral environment in the countryside. However, if the members of parliament voted with the wants and desires of their constituents, then this vote exposes the dual purpose of government involvement in the liquor trade, as well as the power that city members had over the country members. For instance, if Manitobans residing in the country did not want their liquor depots to remain open at a later time, to make liquor more accessible, then the city members who helped pass the bill were caught between voting for moral regulation and budget balancing. According to temperance workers, moral regulation was the government’s legitimate reason for being involved in the liquor trade, while budget balancing and the economy was their ostensible reason for being involved in the liquor trade. More likely, however, rural politicians did vote against the wishes of most of their constituents “for their own good.” This curious voting pattern reflects possible class divisions between farmers and their members of parliament. Also, the large Aboriginal population in rural Manitoba may account for the reason why rural members of parliament voted against their constituents, desiring to keep booze away from Aboriginal people.

The following discussion of the regulation of the actual physical space that hotels occupied offers a unique window into the often fluid and transitory relationship that existed between government regulatory agencies and the more private organizations determined, if not to celebrate the return to prohibition, then to at least ensure severe limits on the availability of booze.

Privately Sponsored Moral Regulation

Some historians see temperance unions and moral reformers as groups “trying to retain control in a society that was increasingly characterized by a distinct and, to middle-class eyes, disorderly working class lifestyle.” [21] Following the plebiscite that eventually gave birth to the Manitoba Liquor Act of 1928, the WCTU and other moral reformers accepted defeat, realizing that a return to prohibition would come about shortly. However, in the time they spent rebuilding and reorganizing, many temperance unions, religious associations, and other private groups lobbied the people and the government in an effort to curb and stamp out the moral evils that they believed had arisen out of the liquor trade. Newspaper headlines and articles from the pages of the Manitoba Free Press and the Winnipeg Evening Tribune proved a rich source for evidence of the efforts by temperance unions and moral reformers to resist the legislation and curb the liquor trade.

Following the passage of the 1928 Liquor Control Act, town after town began voting “wet.” “Dry” organizations then chose to fight battles they thought they could win. Advertising was one of them. They believed that advertising made the public all the more aware of drinking establishments, which, temperance activists observed, would be contrary to the primary reasons why the government became involved in the liquor trade in the first place. Advertising was one of the main requirements that a potential licensee needed to fulfill in order to get his license. Under section 68 (1d) of the Manitoba Liquor Act, a beer license would not be granted:

unless public notice of the making of such application has been given by the applicant by advertisement in the prescribed form commencing at or about the time of the making of the application and continuing during the prescribed period, which shall not in any event be less than two weeks, in The Manitoba Gazette and in a newspaper published in the municipality in which the premises are situated or if no newspaper is published in that municipality, then once in each week for two weeks in a daily newspaper published in Manitoba circulating in that municipality. [22]

The Manitoba League Against Alcoholism (MLAA), fronted by Reverend O. Coleman, spearheaded a campaign against the advertising of liquor, stating that the “Manitoba Liquor Control Act was intended to control rather than increase the consumption of liquor.” [23] This clause in the Liquor Control Act had a dual effect. The necessity of advertising, the government believed, demanded that applicants for beer licenses make the surrounding public aware that a drinking establishment would be entering their town. This public notice allowed concerned local citizens to protest, either by writing the liquor commission or by calling for a local option vote. In this way the public was given a legal course of action to follow if they did not want a beer parlour in their town.

Beer kegs rolling off a delivery wagon into muskeg at Flin Flon, circa 1933.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Flin Flon Streets.

The Women’s Missionary Society of the Winnipeg Presbyterial, on more than one occasion, commended the Winnipeg Evening Tribune for its refusal to advertise liquor. [24] The efforts of the Manitoba League Against Alcoholism and the Women’s Missionary Society were rewarded. On 25 December 1930, a headline read “Manitoba Will Ban Advertising of All Liquor: Control Act To Be Amended at Coming Session of Legislature.” The amendment to the act, the article continued, would call for the complete prohibition of “all forms of liquor advertising.” [25] A couple of months prior to this, the government had banned the advertisement of all spiritous liquors and would now apply the same law to all malt liquor as well. However, the ban could not be applied on publications that were imported into Manitoba. Unfortunately for the moral reformers, the ban only lasted until 1934, when Premier Bracken decided not to interfere with the Liquor Commission’s decision to lift the ban. [26] Another major effort by the WCTU and MLAA, which was nowhere near as successful, was in reaction to the expanding bootleg trade in Manitoba. [27] Their campaign failed to stamp out bootlegging primarily because it was too broad in scope. Moral reformers of the WCTU and the MLAA called for total prohibition and kept threatening that a reaction against the recent legislation (the 1928 Liquor Act) would soon arrive. This was a fairly unreasonable vision. The people of Manitoba had shown, only a few months earlier and by a margin of almost two to one, that they were willing to support government regulation of liquor. Although Manitoba “drys” continued to threaten with talk of prohibition, they made very little progress. One telling article, which portrayed what may have been their most optimistic strategy since prohibition, demonstrated that 600 school children had signed temperance pledges. [28]

Between 1928 and 1939 moral reformers continued to express dismay, directed at both the government and the people of Manitoba, to how the liquor trade was operating in the province. Occasionally the clergy spoke out, voicing pleas for a return to prohibition, or, more specifically, demanding that bars shut down during the royal visit of 1939. In February 1939, the Women’s Missionary Society began preparing for King George and Queen Elizabeth’s visit, scheduled for 24 May. [29] Moral reformers asked that beer parlours be closed while the king and queen were in town. Their appeals were unsuccessful; in fact, the behaviour that parlour owners permitted in the establishments became a bit of a scandal.

A day after the royal visit the beer licenses of seventeen hotels were suspended, fifteen of which were in Winnipeg, the other two in Norwood and St. Boniface. Their licenses were suspended because they had allowed women to drink in the hotel parlours. Unfortunately, none of the beer parlours had proper licenses that would allow women to drink in them, let alone together with men. Hotel proprietors claimed they were confused and misled by rumours that had been spreading throughout the province. These rumours reported that “regulations were being relaxed for the day and permission given to serve women.” [30] Other hotel owners tried a different argument to defend their actions. They claimed that “unpleasant disturbances would have occurred had they tried to bar women patrons who were trying to get admission.” [31] Even though all the parlours were allowed to reopen by 29 May, three days after their licenses were suspended, quite a bit of public disapproval was voiced in response to this latest instance of “immoral” conduct. The Second World War distracted moral reformers, and they lost the momentum they had gained as a result of the “immoral” behaviour that had occurred in parlours during an even more moral time than usual (the presence of royalty). Paradoxically, it could certainly be argued (as these women and parlour owners surely did) that the presence of royalty allowed for a more celebratory, “looser” time than usual.

Another concern of moral reformers has been the lower classes, particularly those who could be labelled as “the poor.” In the 1930s, denying citizens who were receiving government aid of leisure space, such as a beer parlour, was considered a preventative measure so that “the poor” would not spend money they never really had. Many temperance workers, men and women, believed that the government already spent far too much money to regulate booze in Manitoba. They felt that if they could prevent a parlour from being built in areas that were especially populated by poor people, then they were saving the government, and therefore the rest of the population, money. [32]

Liquor Board minutes show that beer licenses were occasionally denied, sometimes because the board members themselves felt a particular town’s economic situation did not warrant it, sometimes because the community appealed strongly to the board, to refuse a license on economic grounds to protect people, mostly “the poor,” from themselves. On a couple of occasions the minutes cited “distressing conditions.” More often, the board members spelled out directly what the problem was. In one town a man applied for a beer license and a beer vendor’s license for his hotel. The board gave two reasons for their decision to deny his applications. First, the “local conditions” (based around arguments of economy and population size) did not warrant the establishment of a beer parlour. Second, the “inhabitants [were] in poor circumstances.” [33] In another instance, the board deferred its decision and thought it over. The applicant had the deputy mayor assure the board that no resident of Winnipegosis had received direct relief for the past few years. [34] The deputy mayor provided further motivation for the board to approve the applicant’s license: not only would the province receive more tax revenue, but the construction of the hotel and parlour would provide employment opportunities.

Another applicant, in St. Boniface, having gone through the proper channels of advertising and a public hearing, had to contend with issues that the board raised regarding class and ethnicity. The petitions that the applicant provided favoured the granting of a license. However, the board decided that certain wards should not be represented. The show of support for the license belonged “to the French and foreign populace, living in wards I, II, and III and the north and east part of ward IV. It is presumptuous on the part of these people to influence favourably a beer license in this vicinity.” [35] In this matter, the board ruled that these people should not vote as their wards were well supplied with booze already. The board further concluded that “It is not the property-owning classes that will patronize the proposed beer parlour, but predominantly the tenantlabouring class. This class does not have the money to spend on such stuff. From this class the relief cases come almost entirely.” [36] Here the board decided for itself, without the aid of temperance workers or moral reformers, that the town did not need another parlour. They were, however, still emphasizing the reformers’ Protestant-dominated discourse of decency.

Headingley - A Case Study in the Manufacture of Interior and Exterior Moral Public Space

In many instances beer and beer vendor licenses were refused to hotels for being located or wanting to be located too close to either a church, school, or railroad. One application in Headingley provides a particularly fascinating representation of the powers of the government and the influence of the public, as well as the dynamic relationship between regulators and the people who opposed them. In 1931 a public battle began over the decision of whether or not to grant a beer license, which was still not decided by 1939. A good example of their efforts can also be found in letters contained in the minutes of Liquor Board meetings. The letters were written most often by women. [37] These letters offer unique insight into what the residents of Headingley and West Winnipeg thought of the board’s decision to grant a beer license to the Riverview Hotel. They also reveal the extent that private associations would go to express their might and to exercise their influence, as residents, voters, and concerned parents. Furthermore, these letters to the board reveal how troubled residents narrowed the boundaries of leisure with their own discourse of decency.

The government, even with a great deal of in-fighting, regulated the liquor trade. However, these regulatory measures did not develop in a vacuum. Influencing their decisions was a politically active public, who wrote letters to the board, pleading their case to Chairman Waugh directly, as well as the licensing board in general. One concerned mother wrote:

Dear Sir,

As one of the Mothers in this community I would like to make this last appeal to you against the granting of a license for a beer parlor at the hotel. We have a small athletic Club here and it is their intention to hold card parties and community dances in the school through the winter months, I am sure you will understand that these amusements would be spoiled for our young people if the beer license was granted.

Most sincerely,
Mrs. H. D. Brown [38]

Here the writer pleads to the chairman of the Liquor Board that the very presence of a licensed hotel in Headingley, located near the school, would create an immoral public space and infect nearby properties. What is also important, however, is her definition of “young people.” Although no insight is given in this letter as to what exactly is meant by this vague phrase, another letter does offer a more telling clue. It reads:

Dear Sir,

Re: the beer parlor license which is under consideration in this locality, may I, as a mother of rour [sic] young people of ages, 18 to 24, enter my protest against the license. We have been here, in the near vicinity of the proposed hotel, “Riverview Hotel” a pretty and peaceful little district, with quite a number of young folks growing up, as good citizens.

We mothers realize that, were the beer parlor to be opened, these young folks would be thrown in the way of temptation. Our schools [sic], too, is in close proximity to the hotel, which would be or might be very undesirable for both pupils and teachers, especially as the teachers live in the school building. Hoping you will consider this when decision is made.

Yours faithfully,
(Mrs.) Edith I. Taylor [39]

In this letter Mrs. Taylor tells us that “young people” include those between the ages of 18 and 24. These “young people” would be either close to or over the legal drinking age, and would be, judging by the tone of the letter, more tempted to drink at a dance if a beer parlour were close by. Also, in this letter “morality” is equated with “good citizen,” and booze is referred to as a temptation. In order to keep Headingley a moral public space, and to keep the people of Headingley moral, Mrs. Taylor asked the Liquor Commission not to award a liquor license to the Riverview Hotel.

Patrons and boys pose in front of a beer parlor at Gimli, 1907.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, N11231.

Other letters addressed to Mr. Waugh mention the fact that Headingley is a rural municipality, meaning that anyone who wanted to come out and drink at the hotel would have to drive. A letter from Mrs. F. M. Sanders asserted that “when so many public bodies, including the Winnipeg police[,] are drumming at us through the daily papers - ‘If you drink don’t drive’ [-] that is going in the face of all this good advice to grant a license to the above hotel, as it would be impossible for this business to pay if it had to rely on hotel trade, and the only way for an outsider to get here is by car.” [40]

One final concern regarding the location of the hotel was its proximity to a “dangerous railroad crossing.” [41] The beer parlour would increase the traffic, pedestrian and otherwise, in an already busy and dense area of town. Mrs. N. H. Barley of Headingley explained that “a bunch of the young people show up and if that place was open no telling what condition some of them might be in and as you realize with fast cars etc. and a crossing at the school it is very dangerous for small children when the traffic is heavy at any time; and it will certainly bring out a bunch that will not do the neighbourhood any good at all.” [42]

In these two letters, a certain tone is used to describe “young people,” as immoral and not responsible enough to keep their own desires in check. This was parents’ opportunity to impart values and morals to their children as well as to the state, by pleading and influencing the decisions that the Liquor Board would make. It is clear from the letters that Waugh wrote to the other board members that the letters he received from the women of Headingley affected him and contributed to his decision to veto the other board members’ decision to grant a license to the Riverview Hotel.

Although these letters reveal a great deal it is important to keep in mind that most residents of Headingley and West Winnipeg chose to remain quiet, by not joining the vocal letter-writers. Perhaps this was because they did not feel that their municipalities’ morality needed such protection. Essentially, it is worth remembering that these letters, although useful, may not represent all of the “public” in Headingley. In this case study the government advanced its position, albeit in a confusing and indecisive manner, of regulation and what constituted moral and respectable public space. The people of Headingley as well worked to normalize and institutionalize a certain code of conduct, or discourse of decency, whose aim was to allow the town, and the people, to remain moral. Although it was never made clear why the three members insisted on voting against Chairman Waugh, their motivation was likely economic – to increase tax revenues – or moral – to curb the bootlegging trade.

The 1928 Manitoba Liquor Act was passed in response to two competing discourses of decency. The “wets” wanted to create their own public space in order to expand their boundaries of leisure. The “drys,” realizing that a return to prohibition was not likely, lobbied for the maintenance of a moral public space. Government involvement, or regulation, was the middle ground that both sides accepted. Over the next decade the provincial government of Manitoba generated its own agenda and worked to integrate a different discourse of decency, separate from those of the “wets” or the “drys,” into everyday life. The government formed its own code of conduct that reflected moral and economic imperatives of the liquor trade in Manitoba. This discourse competed, but also at times worked with, the value system of moral reformers in Manitoba.

To conclude that the 1928 Manitoba Liquor Act was discriminatory against Aboriginals, women, youth, and country drinkers, seems banal. The decisions made by the members of the liquor board and the opinions and politics expressed in the pages of the Manitoba Free Press and the Winnipeg Evening Tribune, reveal how moral and immoral identity and space were constructed and contested around the notions of class, gender, ethnicity, and geography in 1930s rural Manitoba. This time and place was a site of competing discourses of both private organizations (moral reformers) and the provincial government. Government intervention in the liquor trade warranted a new, dynamic relationship between the state and the public that was influenced by different economic needs and competing discourses of morality. The dialogue that developed in local newspapers and minutes from Liquor Board meetings occurred between public and private regulatory organizations and illustrates the fluid boundaries of appropriate and inappropriate, moral and immoral, public space.


1. Robert A. Campbell, Sit Down and Drink Your Beer: Regulating Vancouver’s Beer Parlours, 1925-1954 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001): Introduction.

2. By “public” I am referring to the state and not individual members of the public. I also use the term “public” to discuss open venues that were open to the general population. The term “private,” with regards to regulatory agents, refers to privately funded groups, such as the WCTU. Even though such groups consisted of members of the “public” they certainly did not act in all of the “public’s” best interest, even though that was their aim. Concerning the usage of the term “public space” I mean both actual and metaphorical space, such as the theoretical idea of a moral public space, as well as the physical geography of space. This differentiation will be made clearer in the main body of the paper.

3. Mariana Valverde, The Age of Light, Soap, and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885-1925 (Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 1991), p. 165.

4. Industrialization and urbanization certainly had an impact on the various responses to moral regulation, but it is important to keep in mind that there were other factors at play here, such as the construction of politics and identities based on variables of gender, religion, class, and geography. For more on the impact that industrialization and urbanization had on responses to moral regulation see Carolyn Strange’s Toronto’s Girl Problem: The Perils and Pleasures of the City, 1880-1930 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995). For an excellent account of how gender, sexuality, and geography can contribute to the construction of moral space see Karen Dubinsky’s Improper Advances: Rape and Heterosexual Conflict in Ontario, 1880-1929 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

5. The Liquor Board and the Liquor Commission assumed different roles in the regulation of Manitoba’s liquor. The Liquor Board recommended who should and should not be granted licenses. They were also responsible for inquiring into complaints, hiring inspectors, and doing background checks of potential licensees. The Liquor Commission, more often than not, agreed with the decisions that the Board arrived at.

6. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), p. 183.

7. Minutes of the Licensing Board, 20 April 1934.

8. Government Liquor Control Act, 1928. Sec. 82, p. 95.

9. “Woman Fined Under Liquor Control Act,” Manitoba Free Press, 30 July 1929.

10. Government Liquor Control Act, 1928. Sec. 85 (1), p. 96.

11. Government Liquor Control Act, 1928. Sec. 2(32), p. 57.

12. Government Liquor Control Act, 1928. Sec. 38(1), p. 75.

13. Government Liquor Control Act, 1928. Sec. 2(18), p. 56.

14. Section 74 (1b) of the Government Liquor Control Act, 1928, reads: “one license for the first five hundred population, or fraction thereof; a second license for the next five hundred population or fraction thereof up to one thousand population; a third license for a population of at least two thousand, a fourth license for a population of at least three thousand, and one license for each additional four thousand of population thereafter.” This applied to all places, that is, cities, towns, and villages, with the exception of Winnipeg.

15. Minutes of the Licensing Board, 10 December 1937.

16. Minutes of the Licensing Board, 18 April 1938.

17. Government Liquor Control Act, 1928. Sec. 47 (a): 79. The legal amount that a person could buy from a liquor store in a single day, was limited to “two gallons (1 case) of beer, and one gallon of wine, and one quart of any other liquor.” As stated in the Liquor Act, 1928. Sec. 44 (1a), p. 77.

18. “Under the Dome,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 25 March 1936.

19. Ibid., 27 March 1936.

20. Ibid., 30 March 1936.

21. Marks, Revivals and Roller Rinks, p. 100.

22. Government Liquor Control Act, 1928, Sec. 68 (1d), pp. 88-89.

23. “Urges Prohibition of Liquor Advertising,” Winnipeg Free Press, 11 May 1929.

24. The first occasion occurred on 30 January 1930 and the second on 9 April 1930.

25. “Manitoba Will Ban Advertising of All Liquor,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 25 December 1930.

26. All advertisements were still subject to the approval of the Chairman of the Liquor Board, R. D. Waugh, which were limited to no more than 100 lines.

27. Unfortunately the scope of this paper does not warrant a more detailed discussion of the bootlegging industry that was, according to some, controlling the liquor trade in Manitoba. Suffice it to say, bootlegging was both a major problem and boon to Manitobans, not all of who were men. My research has found that women played a major role in the bootlegging industry, with regards to the purchase, manufacture, and sale of illegal liquor.

28. “Early Closing of Beer Parlors Now Sought,” Manitoba Free Press, 10 February 1931. The article emphasized that this was a record number for the month of January. Three years later, the Manitoba convention of the WCTU got 7000 signatures in two days, protesting the “passing of the bill permitting the sale of beer in cartons of six at beer depots.” From “Liquor Fight is Still Going On, Says Mrs. Leslie,” Manitoba Free Press, 16 May 1934.

29. This resolution was “sponsored by some 200 women” from the Dominion-wide movement of the Women’s Missionary Society of the United Church. “Liquor Restriction Urged,” Manitoba Free Press, 1 February 1939.

30. “Beer Licenses of 17 Hotels Suspended,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 25 May 1939.

31. “Beer Serving to Women Will Be Inspected,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 26 May 1939.

32. The sources seem to indicate that these efforts by the WCTU were aimed at recipients of poor relief in particular, rather than at “poor” people in general.

33. Minutes of the Licensing Board, 27 August 1936.

34. Ibid., 19 May 1938.

35. Ibid., 11 April 1938.

36. Ibid., 11 April 1938.

37. A total of five letters were found, all directly dealing with the matter in Headingley, MB. Only one was written by a man, who emphasized the community interest and support against the granting of a beer license that was not able to be present at the public hearing. The letters written by the women of Headingley express far greater and more specific concerns that would result if a beer parlour were allowed to operate in the municipality.

38. Letter from Mrs. H. D. Brown to Mr. Waugh, 18 August 1937.

39. Letter from Mrs. Edith I. Taylor to Liquor Commission, n.d.

40. Letter from Mrs. F. M. Sanders to Mr. R. D. Waugh, 18 August 1937.

41. Ibid.

42. Letter from Mrs. N. H. Barley to Mr. R. D. Waugh.

Page revised: 22 April 2011

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