Ontario Conservative Leader Tim Hudak is trying to redefine Ontario with his recent attack on the LCBO and proposal to privatize it. Hudak claims Ontario has grown up. He says we are all now adults that can keep tabs on our own drinking. A lot less government involvement is best, in his view. After all, our booze laws were a reaction to prohibition. Hudak links the LCBO to Elliot Ness, Al Capone and those tight Temperance League people. Let’s say good-bye to the LCBO (an agency built and refined by past Conservative, Liberal and NDP provincial governments). With a Hudak government in place good times are just around the corner.
What a misrepresentation of reality! Let’s clearly set out the historic context and reasons why the LCBO has become the respected global leader in the retail sales of spirits, wines and beer.
When the LCBO was established in 1927, Ontario had come through times that were marked by the effects of privately sold alcohol. It was made possible by a huge public outcry against private sales. Let’s take a close look at that history and context.
The Canada Temperance Act was passed in 1878. It provided an option for municipalities to end the privatized sale of alcohol, by plebiscite, to a prohibitionist scheme. A non-binding, federal referendum on prohibition was held in 1898 with 51.3 per cent voting for prohibition and 48.7 per cent voting against, on a voter turnout of 44 per cent. Prohibition had a significant majority in all provinces except Quebec which voted against. No general legislation was enacted as a result.
Even without federal government action, in response to public pressure against private liquor sales, Ontario passed a prohibition law in 1916. Alcohol use was widespread. During that period the elimination of alcoholic beverages made a difference. Jails emptied, since alcoholic-related offences had contributed to their large populations. Statistics indicated that by 1922 the number of convictions for offences associated with alcohol had declined from 17,413 in 1914 to 5,413 in 1921. Drunkenness cases dropped from 16,590 in 1915 to 6,766 in 1921.
In 1927, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario was established to enforce the regulation of alcohol sales. It was to assure sales in a controlled manner, regulated by society rather than by the private sector. Heady stuff indeed!
The LCBO was based on experiences drawn from everyday life. In the early 1900s, alcohol vendors located their carts near factories on paydays to provide quick access to workmen heading home with their “pay–packets.” Poverty, illness and the abuse to women and children was often the result of this boozed-up free-for-all. With few legal rights, women and children were left defenseless. Health problems also arose. Distilling alcohol is not simple so products could contain impurities causing blindness and brain damage.
This all took place during a period of huge societal change. With industrialization, people migrated from farms to cities. Women were a large part of this trend as urban work became available and mechanization reduced farm work. In the United States, the civil war had taken place resulting in emancipation. Expanded voting rights were being discussed everywhere. Women, though, were still prohibited from voting. .
In response, women pushed for legal protections and rights. Many focused on their disenfranchisement and the lack of regulation over alcohol sales. Their demands included better public health standards;, criminalization of men who physically punished their wives, and access to birth control. They felt legal protection in these areas would “protect family life”. The movements were church-based as women could easily gather at places of worship.
Women mobilized in large numbers. When arriving in cities, at railway stations or at carriage stops, women would seek out others wearing white ribbons. These “white ribbon women” helped their sisters by providing safe housing and job references with a strong political message. From these safe places women could seek clerical, domestic or home care work.
A card frequently circulated to impart their political message (using vocabulary safely within the sensibilities and values of the time) pictured strong and virtuous women surrounded by four men. One man was aboriginal while another was behind bars in a striped prisoner’s uniform. Another was pictured with a mental disability and the final man was illustrated inside a mental asylum. The card simply read: THE POLITICAL EQUIVALENTS OF WOMEN. That’s because these men, along with the woman, could not vote.
Another card featured a lighthouse sitting on a stormy shoreline. It read: BETTER TO BUILD A LIGHTHOUSE THAN TO STEER A LIFEBOAT. This message was directed at the need to pass liquor laws that would prevent abuse and domestic violence.
Women promoted their agenda vigorously and successfully. Their efforts resulted in laws that provided the right to vote and guidelines on the liquor trade. In Ontario, legislative restrictions to private liquor sales were put into law within a year of the enfranchisement of women (1916 and 1917 respectively).
The changes in Ontario from 1916 through 1927 led, over the decades, to our current system. Ontario had learned valuable social and legal lessons from its experience with the untrammeled ‘right’ of the private sector to peddle alcohol sales on its own terms. The public good had prevailed over commercial interests.
- Liquor was to be sold at “government stores.”
- Commercial advertising and signage would be restricted.
- Strict rules would apply to the age at which alcohol could be consumed.
- Purchase locations would be regulated and operated by government for the common good. Profits would go to fund public services and make up for the costs arising from alcohol use.
- To ensure quality standards the LCBO would operate a laboratory to test the products it sold.
- Stores would have good selection and prices, based on the size and buying power of the public system.
- LCBO employees would be professional, balancing service with social responsibility.
Today, in late 2012, Hudak is trying to turn back the clock. Let’s recall the history that links limits to liquor sales with the hard-fought rights of women. Let’s see the LCBO for what it rightfully is: a successful publicly-owned, commercial institution that balances alcohol use and society’s call for social responsibility.
We have a choice. Do we want to live in a province where we have effective and respected control over alcohol consumption through the LCBO? Or, do we just want to pay the cost of alcohol abuse through additional personal pain, taxes and tragedies all the while leaving it to the private sector to reap the profits?
Let’s think hard about the Hudak attack on the LCBO and his scheme to hand over a public enterprise to the private sector. The more people think about privatization, the less they like it.