Ontario Temperance Act

The Ontario Temperance Act (the Act) was a law passed in 1916 that led to the prohibition of alcohol in Ontario, Canada. When the Act was first enacted, the sale of alcohol was prohibited, but liquor could still be manufactured in the province or imported. Strong support for prohibition came from religious elements of society such as the Ontario Woman's Christian Temperance Union, seeking to eliminate what they considered the societal ills and vices associated with liquor consumption, including violent behaviour and familial abuse.[1] Historically, prohibition advocates in Ontario drew inspiration from the temperance movements in Britain and the United States.[1][2]


Prior to the Act, two attempts failed to control or eliminate the sale of alcohol in the province. A non-binding plebiscite in 1894 failed because of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council ruling's that disallowed provincial control over the importation of alcohol.[3][4] Another attempt in 1902 failed because of low voter turnout, with less than half of those eligible participating.[3]

However, in 1864 the Dunkin Act enabled any municipality or county in the united Province of Canada to hold a majority vote to prohibit the sale of alcohol. In 1878, the Scott Act extended "local option" to the whole Dominion of Canada.[5] In the early twentieth century, an increasing number of Ontario localities went "dry"; by 1914, 520 localities had banned the sale of alcohol, and only 322 were "wet".[6] When the Ontario Temperance Act was passed, three Ontarian counties had used the Scott Act to implement their own prohibition laws.[7]

When William Hearst became premier of Ontario in September 1914, the temperance movement gained an ally, despite complaints from wet elements of Hearst's own Conservative Party.[8] The onset of the First World War gave advocates further impetus to push the cause, arguing temperance would reduce waste, inefficiency, and distractions.[8] In 1916, the Hearst government unanimously passed the Ontario Temperance Act. In March 1918, the Government of Canada passed an order-in-council that prohibited the manufacture, importation, and transportation of alcohol into Ontario and other provinces where purchase was illegal.[9] Nonetheless, Ontarians could still acquire alcohol from doctors' offices and drugstores.[10] In 1920 alone, Ontario doctors wrote more than 650,000 prescriptions for alcohol.[11]

Following the end of World War One, prohibition at the federal level was repealed at the end of 1919. That year, a province-wide referendum saw support of the Ontario ban on sales by a majority of 400,000 votes.[12] The manufacture and export of liquor was made legal.[13] In 1921, another referendum showed a slight slip in support for prohibition, but the province now became "bone dry" by banning the importation of alcohol.[14] A subsequent referendum two years later showed a greater slip in support for the Act, with 51.5 percent for and 48.5 against.[15] In 1926, Howard Ferguson's Conservatives won a general election in which they promised the introduction of liquor sales by the province.[12]

Repeal and government as alcohol retailer

In 1927, the Liquor Control Act overturned prohibition as legislated in the Ontario Temperance Act and established the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), through which the province managed liquor distribution with government-run stores. Nonetheless, drinking in public establishments remained illegal until seven years later.[16] Some communities maintained a ban on the sale of liquor under local option until the 1970s and The Junction neighbourhood of Toronto remained "dry" until 2000, largely because of the efforts of former Ontario CCF Member of Provincial Parliament for High Park, "Temperance Bill" William Temple.[17]

The Ontario Temperance Act failed because of changing public opinion and the inability of the Government of Ontario to effectively control consumption and importation of alcohol into the province. According to one historian, "the legislation seemed to be too drastic for the average citizen and not harsh enough to stop the large bootleggers."[18] It has been also noted that prohibition deprived the Government of Ontario of significant tax revenue and the getting those revenues back was a motivation in repealing it.[19]

See also


  1. Cook, Sharon A. (1995). "Through sunshine and shadow": the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, evangelicalism, and reform in Ontario, 1874-1930. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. pp. 19–20.
  2. Barron, F.L. (December 1963). "The American Origins of the Temperance Movement in Ontario". Canadian Review of American Studies: 133.
  3. Johnston, Larry (July 2007). "Referendums in Ontario: An Historical Summary" (PDF). Ontario Legislative Library: 4–6.
  4. Fish, Morris J. (2011). "The Effect of Alcohol on the Canadian Constitution ... Seriously". McGill Law Journal: 200–203.
  5. "Prohibition", The Canadian Encyclopedia
  6. Tennyson, Brian (December 1963). "Sir William Hearst and the Ontario Temperance Act". Ontario History: 233.
  7. Brock, Kathy Lenore (1982). Sacred Boundaries: Local Option Laws in Ontario. Hamilton, Ontario: McMaster University. pp. 34–35.
  8. Tennyson, Brian (December 1963). "Sir William Hearst and the Ontario Temperance Act". Ontario History: 235.
  9. Hallowell 1972, p. 75.
  10. Hallowell, Gerard (March 4, 2015). "Prohibition in Canada". The Canadian Encyclopedia.
  11. Heron 2003, p. 238.
  12. Hallowell 1972, p. 156.
  13. "Ontario Temperance Act". cdigs.uwindsor.ca.
  14. Hallowell 1972, p. 91.
  15. Mayers, Adam (September 24, 2007). "The 1924 ballot: Wet vs. dry". Toronto Star.
  16. Malleck 2012, pp. 3–5.
  17. McMonagle, Duncan (June 26, 1987). "Spirited fight against alcohol still heady work for Temple". Globe and Mail.
  18. Hallowell 1972, p. 163.
  19. Heron 2003, p. 386.


  • Hallowell, Gerald A. (1972). Prohibition in Ontario, 1919-1923. Ottawa: Lowe Printing Service.
  • Heron, Craig (2003). Booze: A Distilled History. Toronto: Between the Lines. ISBN 1896357830.
  • Malleck, Dan (2012). Try to Control Yourself: The Regulation of Public Drinking in Post-Prohibition Ontario, 1927-44. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Further reading

  • Barron, F. L. "The American origins of the Temperance Movement in Ontario," Canadian Review of American Studies (Fall1980) p131-150
  • Tennyson, Brian. "Sir William Hearst and the Ontario Temperance Act," Ontario History (December 1963) pp 233–245
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