In 1916 a referendum was released in the province which asked for the opinion of British Colombians on two important questions:
- Should women be allowed to vote?
- Should alcohol be illegal in the province of British Columbia?
I think that in the opinion of today’s society the answers to those two questions would be a resounding ‘yes’ and ‘no’ respectively but, back in 1916, the result wasn’t quite so clear. In regards to the question of selling alcohol, those in favor of prohibition won by a margin of 56.5% to 43.5% but, unlike the referendums that took place across the rest of the country, British Columbia gave the 20,000 soldiers of the province serving overseas the chance to vote and these weren’t calculated until months after the initial results were tallied from within B.C.. Now, this in itself wasn’t really a problem aside from dragging the process out for longer than was probably necessary; no, the problem was that the man who was given charge of counting the votes of these soldier was one Richard McBride who was a highly outspoken opponent of prohibition. Therefore, it was absolutely no surprise that the soldier votes were tallied strongly in opposition to the province going dry, however, to bow to this new development would mean that B.C. would go against the national trend and be the only province remaining ‘wet’. Potentially due to McBride’s personal beliefs, this development was viewed with suspicion by the government, especially in light of the fact that soldiers stationed within the province had voted roughly 50-50 with their vote; could their overseas contemporaries really have such a different view? Once this was investigated more thoroughly, it was determined that many of the overseas votes were invalid as some individuals had voted multiple times while other votes had been cast by ‘voters’ who were actually deceased, in prison camps, or not actually residents of B.C. at all.
The political scandal which followed this investigation saw the referendum overturned and prohibition was brought into effect. However, this was to be short lived as a thriving black market, arbitrary enforcement, and rampant corruption rapidly became the norm. Within just four short year, in place of this total ban, the government unveiled a plan which would regulated and tax alcohol (the same as we know it today) and this was enforced instead.
Following this, in the 1920’s and 1930’s, when the United States began its own era of prohibition, a thriving business erupted in British Columbia as the production and smuggling of alcohol into the U.S. became a prominent economic activity. In fact, many of the province’s richest families (particularly in Vancouver) obtained a significant amount of their wealth through their positions as rum-runners for their southern neighbour and there are some who compare the actions of this period to the cannabis growing and selling activities of the province today.
*Fun fact; although most Canadian provinces realized that prohibition wasn’t working within a few years, PEI remained a ‘dry’ province until 1948.