Trigger Warning: This article contains mentions of alcohol and alcohol consumption.
The Vernon Hotel bar room, with patrons, circa 1895.
September 12, 1916
On this day (Sept. 12) in 1916, a public referendum was held in Vernon and across B.C. to determine whether or not prohibition would be implemented around the province. Three days later, the official results were all in; those in favour of prohibition had won with a 56.5% majority.
Contrary to popular belief, the Prohibition Act did not actually make drinking or manufacturing alcohol illegal, but instead prohibited its sale. Moreover, doctors and pharmacists could still purchase liquor for medical purposes from government-appointed vendors.
Local historian A.J. Hiebert completed an in-depth thesis in 1972 on the social and political impacts of prohibition’s arrival in the Okanagan, and a few of his findings are outlined here. For the full document, please visit https://royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/exhibits/living-landscapes/thomp-ok/prohibition/prohibition.htm.
Prohibition in Vernon
The results of the referendum in Vernon showed that 365 individuals were in favour of prohibition, while 332 were against is. Most, however, adopted a moderate response to the consumption of liquor.
For example, in an article published on November 21, 1913, the editor of the Vernon News discusses the importance of limiting activities like excessive drinking to uphold the city’s “high moral standards” but also cautions against “extreme and impracticable views.”
When prohibition officially came into effect in B.C. on October 1, 1917, it didn’t seem to actually cause too much of a stir among Vernon’s citizens, perhaps because the notion was not an entirely unfamiliar one.
Petitions in favour of banning the sale and manufacture of liquor had circulated around the city as early as 1891, although they never came to pass. Vernon’s Mayor from 1908 to 1909, R.W. Timmins, was also an outspoken prohibitionist, but dry laws were never implemented in the city during his time in office. A by-law was even passed by referendum in 1910 that ordered places that sold liquor to be closed between 11 pm and 6 am, and to keep their blinds up during these hours to allow the premises to be inspected.
Prohibition was difficult to enforce and ultimately encouraged crime and corruption (prohibition commissioner Walter Findley was even arrested in 1918 for trying to smuggle in a train-load of rye from Ontario) and the system was rescinded across the province in 1921.
Gwyn Evans, Research and Communications Coordinator