Spirited disagreement: protesters swarmed Queen’s Park 74 years ago to oppose the sale of alcohol
Queen’s Park, home of Ontario’s parliament, has long been the site of rallies and demonstrations. Sometimes they are in response to provincial government regulations, such as last month’s trucker protest.
But in 1946, the Star published this photo of some 1,500 temperance advocates opposing the relaxing of restrictions, specifically a bill to legalize the sale of liquor in public houses (bars and cocktail lounges) in Ontario.
Prohibition against alcohol, which began in 1916, had been somewhat relaxed by 1927, when LCBO stores were first established. Further, 1934 saw the legalization of “beverage rooms,” where patrons could purchase, in any Ontario city with a population over 100,000, a single glass of beer to consume, while seated, sexes segregated.
“Beverage rooms could only sell beer,” says alcohol historian and Star contributor Christine Sismondo, “and we’re talking the worst, weak, watery beer that they served in tiny little glasses around four or six ounces at a time.”
This was the only option for public drinking in Ontario until 1947, when bars were finally permitted to sell liquor. “It is striking to think that you couldn’t drink a glass of whiskey in a bar from 1916 to 1947,” says Sismondo.
While there was much public resistance to the repeal of prohibition, many citizens were strongly in favour of tipple. In her PhD research on Toronto’s public houses, Sismondo stumbled upon a box at the LCBO archives labelled “Petitions to Close Women’s Beverage Rooms.” “There were a lot of Christian ladies, and some men,” Sismondo says, “who would write regularly to say these (places) are bad for children, destroying families and bringing about the end of society.”
But among these petitions, Sismondo discovered a 1945 letter by Toronto journalist Gordon Sinclair. “He’s writing to say we need cocktail lounges,” she says, “that beer should be sold in steins, not four or five tiny glasses at a time, and he’s making fun of the people who are saying that we can’t be trusted with hard liquor.”
Sinclair’s letter objects to the characterization of “vulgar guzzling” in beverage rooms and decries provincial restrictions: “Surely those sour-faced professional gospel shouters … the breed who oppose everything from A (for adultery and alcohol) to Z (for zest and zoot suits) … surely they are outmoded now.”
Sismondo admits she is somewhat sympathetic to the temperance groups. “The original intent was very much about protecting women from domestic violence,” she says, “and I think that there’s misogyny involved in making fun of them.” But her research also revealed that the protest movement was fuelled by “anti-immigrant and anti-modern sentiment,” which is why, she says, “I ultimately side with Gordon Sinclair.”