Sale of liquor debate in Saskatchewan goes back 100 years

Saskatchewan has a long history when it comes to regulating the sale of alcohol.

Saskatchewan legislation in 1915 closed all bars

Restrictions on the sale of alcohol in Saskatchewan date back to 1915. Saskatchewan had broad prohibition laws in place from 1920 to1924. This image, from 1920, refers to the work of the Saskatchewan Provincial Police in Maple Creek, Sask. (South-Western Saskatchewan Oldtimers’ Association Museum and Archives/Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan )

Saskatchewan has a long and storied history when it comes to the sale of alcohol and it is a topic that continues to generate controversy and debate.

As recently as September, a group of business people in the province's hospitality industry called for a revamp of the rules for the retail sale of alcohol, complaining that existing laws are unfair and confusing.

The province has, over the years, tweaked its laws on liquor sales — a practice that goes back over a century.

According to researchers, Saskatchewan's first foray into liquor laws dates to legislation in 1908 that gave local authorities the power to grant a liquor licence for a bar. Some communities adopted policies to forbid granting licences, with Lumsden being the first to do so in 1908. Moose Jaw followed in 1910, but that was reversed when a petition was submitted by citizens in favour of having bars in that city. Votes in Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert favoured having licenced bars.

According to researcher Ken Dahl (in his 1999 Masters Thesis), the prohibition and temperance movement that had been active in other parts of Canada and the United States for years did not have much success in Saskatchewan until the outbreak of World World I, when opinions changed.

Bars outlawed in 1915

In 1915, the government of Walter Scott passed laws to close all bars and limit the sale of alcohol to government run outlets. That led to the closure of 406 bars and 38 wholesalers. The government then opened 23 liquor outlets where people could purchase booze to take home.

Following a province-wide plebiscite in 1916, the government outlets were shuttered in 1917 which further restricted the availability of liquor.

Other provinces were following a similar path to prohibition and within a few years federal legislation was in place that allowed for even more restrictions on the movement of booze.

According to one historical note, on Oct. 25, 1920 — with the latest prohibition laws approved — Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Alberta were noted as the first completely "dry" provinces in Canada.

It would not last long. Historians noted that many people were getting around the laws and enforcement was an ongoing challenge.

By 1924, citizens had had enough and new plebiscites on prohibition were held. In 1925 the Saskatchewan government formally abandoned its restrictions on liquor consumption but continued to control wholesale outlets for the sale and distribution of alcohol.

Dahl's thesis concluded that prohibition was a movement of its time.

"It was a reform, in a period of reform," Dahl wrote. "It was tried but, because the promised results were not achieved, rejected."


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