There is perhaps no better way to legally distort reality than with alcohol. For some — OK, for many — it is the social lubricant that allows us to temporarily leave our issues behind, to inhabit what seems to be a more coherent reality. However, the temporary vacation that alcohol affords is elusive, difficult to control and expensive. A look back at the historical roots of alcohol reveals some interesting events that directly relate to the current state of alcohol in Canada.
Believed to have originated in the China, wine was produced at least 9,000 years ago using a fermentation process. Clearly related to the local geography and vegetation, this discovery was instantly popular. Wine became one of the region’s key tools of commerce. A thousand years later in Mesopotamia, beer was also first made. It is connected to early crop domestication and agrarian societies. There were likely other fermentation experiments taking place at the time, none that really caught on.
Used for various purposes such as rituals, medicine and sociability, alcohol has now infiltrated all parts of the world. With colonization, the global spread of alcohol was secured. There were new forms of alcohol introduced, and in some cases, such as North America, alcohol was introduced for the first time. In settler colonies, alcohol was actually an unofficial form of currency. Food, fur and other goods were exchanged for alcohol.
Aspiring to inebriation
As colonies continued to grow in numbers around the world, drinking came to hold various social meanings. To the upper classes, many people aspired to appear intoxicated as it was a social indication that they had money and could afford to get drunk. Drinking also became part of important bonding experiences and solidified friendships. Taverns were becoming popular gathering places where men were the primary clientele. Although women were allowed in such establishments, it was more common to find women working in taverns as opposed patronizing them.
A rather indulgent alcohol scene in North America was the social climate that initiated prohibition. In Canada, unregulated drinking came to an end during the First World War as the government prohibited the making and sale of all liquor that was not governmentally approved. This legislation appeased members of the temperance movement who morally objected to excessive alcohol use and had been petitioning the government to restrict alcohol use and sales for many years prior to this.
Prohibition officially ended in 1920, however, alcohol certainly did not disappear during prohibition. In reality, the sale and production of liquor merely went underground — sometimes literally. For instance, in the town of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, there are underground tunnels that can be toured today that were used to smuggle alcohol during the time of prohibition. These tunnels exist in Moose Jaw because they were actually built by Chinese immigrant workers who were working on the railroad and felt that living underground was preferable to facing the horrendously overt racism of that city.
The term moonshine also emerged during this time as it refers to alcohol that was made outdoors in the woods at night to avoid detection from the authorities. The end of prohibition ushered in a time of strict government control over alcohol which still exists today.
Although alcohol has a very temporal essence, it is clear that alcohol’s place in Canadian society is far from temporary. If anything, alcohol has established itself as a societal staple. Though prohibitively expensive, many people still find ways to drink. And it is interesting to observe that people are fiercely loyal to their drink of choice, to the extent that people’s favourite drinks begin to morph into part of their identity.