When Prohibition ended, Ontario did not drown in whisky, gin and wine. The province drowned in the bureaucracy.
The first week of government-controlled liquor was marked by queues. There was a line to get in. There was a line to get a permit, which you needed to buy anything in the shop. A line to fill out an order form. A line to pay. A line to pick up your purchases at a counter, wrapped in brown paper. Anyone who emerged from the “maelstrom” of the LCBO was a beacon of hope to those waiting outside. At least with the bootleggers, one man cracked, you got fast service.
On Oct. 17, cannabis will be legal across Canada, and the Ontario government has a website to describe what that means for purchasers in this province. Back in 1927, when the government transitioned to legal alcohol, the clearing house for all concerns and questions was essentially one man.
The first chief commissioner of the LCBO was D.B. Hanna, 69, an old railway executive. He was a looming Scot with a gentle demeanour, a warm handshake and a good sense of humour, according to the press. He came out of his retirement to be the government’s “strong man” in the liquor game, and told the Star he only agreed to be Ontario’s “chief bartender” because he liked the challenge of a new industry.
“The people of Ontario evidently want some kind of liquor business to be established,” he said in the winter of 1927. “Perhaps it will be a public service to construct it for them on sound business principles.”
The countdown to opening day had been marked by worry. How would the government weed out “suspicious” characters? Would people who applied for liquor permits have to file affidavits? “What good would that do?” Hanna asked. The official stance was that all 21-year-old Ontario residents were eligible. The government wasn’t assuming everybody was a crook, he said.
On June 1, 1927, at 10 a.m., the province planned to open the first 18 LCBO shops in Ottawa, Kingston, Hamilton, London, Brockville, Kitchener, Fort William, Windsor and Toronto. Hanna wanted to avoid “anything that would look like a wild celebration,” the Star noted.
In interviews with the press, he had asked people to dive back into alcohol with “leisurely dignity.” On the eve of opening day, he was still convinced there would be no wild rush. But he was wrong.
Across Ontario, the stores were besieged. It was a “crush” in London, a “splendid business” in Kitchener, and in Windsor, they were so overwhelmed they had to shut down early.
“Long lineups at all liquor dispensaries,” read the Star’s front-page headline about Toronto’s six stores.
“No cattle car was ever more crowded,” the coverage continued. “It was a struggle for a strong man to fight his way through the sardine tin to the counter at the rear where licences were sold. One had to be a contortionist to get an arm free to write out a slip.”
Hanna didn’t have much sympathy. He blamed the people who failed to get their permits in advance for causing the congestion. They had a whole week. They had been warned. What did they expect? He reluctantly reopened the permit office at 74 King St. E., to take the pressure of the liquor shops.
He also took issue with the Star’s characterization of the day as an “opening of the sluice gates.” What an insult to the fair name of the province!
There had always been a powerful temperance lobby in Canada, and Prohibition had been enacted in Ontario in 1916. It was difficult to enforce, because unlike the U.S., Ontario hadn’t outlawed the manufacture of alcohol for export, said Dan Malleck, an associate professor of health sciences at Brock University and author of Try to Control Yourself: The Regulation of Public Drinking in post-Prohibition Ontario, 1927-44.
In Toronto, there were speakeasies where you could ease your dusty throat with bootlegged alcohol and home brews. Wineries were still legal because the province wanted to nurture the homegrown industry, Malleck noted. Alcohol could still be purchased for medicinal, industrial and religious reasons — and the sale was regulated by the Board of Liquor Commissioners, precursor to the LCBO.
Prohibition started to officially weaken in 1923, when Premier Howard Ferguson’s government introduced the sale of low-alcohol beer in restaurants and beverage rooms, but the quality of the beer was widely criticized, Malleck said.
There were also the veterans. “Some people argued that as soon as the soldiers came back, they’re coming back to this dry country and they’re saying, ‘What the hell? We just put our lives on the line and, we get what now?” By 1927, it wasn’t really surprising that Ontario decided to follow other provinces into government liquor control.
The bureaucratic process was by design. The LCBO was based on a Scandinavian system of “disinterested management,” where sales were not encouraged, but moderation and restriction were, Malleck said.
“I think what they were trying to do was appease both sides by making it available, but not making it so available that there would be so much disorder that the temperance movement would try to reassert itself,” he said.
In the lineups, complaints abounded. “Absolutely the worst system I have ever seen,” said one man who was not a fan of the disinterested management style.
As the week progressed, the chaos subsided but the lines were still long enough for reporters to recognize repeat customers from earlier in the week. “I had a party last night,” one man explained. One woman said she was so confused on the first day that she ordered beer when she meant to order whisky. “She admitted however, that the beer had been pretty good and ordered another case today as well.”
The women in line were somewhat of a novelty, carrying away their whisky and gin “with as much sang froid” as the men, the Globe noted.
With congestion still bad at the end of the first week, Hanna introduced a temporary measure of one alcohol purchase a week per permit. It had not been an “auspicious” start, the Globe noted, criticizing the “disgraceful street scenes.” People wrote letters to the editor decrying the drunken displays and the risks to the family. By September, Hanna warned that liquor permits could be cancelled permanently for drunkenness.
By the end of 1927, the LCBO had opened 86 stores, three mail-order departments and four warehouses. Five months after opening day, a source at Queen’s Park told the Star sales were between $11 million and $12 million, far higher than they imagined, and it would help give the government its first surplus since 1919.
The next day D.B. Hanna called those numbers “absolutely foolish” but a few months later confirmed that sales had actually been $17 million. He was convinced that just as much alcohol had been consumed under prohibition law and just a few years ago, “the profits were pouring into the hands of the lowest element of the people in the province” instead of the taxpayer.
In its first report, the LCBO said there was a marked decline in the “bootlegging evil,” and dangerous home brews and a “lessening of youthful temptations to break prohibitory laws.”
They praised the people of Ontario for their moderation, especially during the holidays, which had been enjoyed without “excessive intemperance.” Perfection had not been achieved, they noted, but it was a safe and sane system. In the bureaucratic language of the LCBO of the day, the praise didn’t get much higher than that.
The Bureaucracy of Buying Booze
1927: Permit books used for ordering
1957: Permit books started to be replaced by an identification-card system
1961: Ontarians were permitted to buy liquor without permits or identification cards (proof of age was still required)
1969: First self-serve store where no order had to be written down on an order form
1993: Last counter-service store where orders had to be written down on an order form