The settlement of the Canadian interior, from the time of the earliest French occupation, witnessed a mark increase in the production, consumption, and trade in spirituous liquors over customary European standards. The retarding effect upon the development of the colony and the devastating effect of the trade among the native population was recognized by the French governors, who attempted to counter the trade with heavy taxation, prohibitionary laws, and even the establishment of Canada’s first brewery to encourage the substitution of beer for hard liquors. Under British rule prohibitionary laws were introduced regarding the sale and consumption of liquor among the natives but the number of taverns and distilleries continued to proliferate at an alarming rate throughout Upper Canada. Whiskey came to be regarded as indispensable as fortification against the climate and as an aid to carrying out the hard tasks that filled a settler’s daily routine. In reaction against the attendant ills and increasing preoccupation with liquor in the community the earliest temperance societies were formed in the 1830’s. By 1840 some 91 societies were able to meet in convention and report a membership of 13,618 among the newly united provinces of Upper and Lower Canada (Peck 6).
Fraternal temperance societies first made their appearance in Ontario in 1848 with the establishment of a chapter of the Order of the Sons of Temperance in Brockville. The fraternal orders flourished and were joined by women’s groups under the banner of the W.C.T.U. in the 1870’s and ‘80’s. Their growing numbers and influence led to a change from the traditional emphasis on pledge-signing towards a growing sentiment for legislation that would reflect the spread of reform values. A prohibitionary law of limited effectiveness, known as the Dunkin Act, was introduced in 1864, and largely encouraged the call for sterner measures.
In 1875 a convention for prohibition workers was called for by 16 members of the House of Commons to consider whether public option was such as would be sufficient to sustain a prohibitionary law, and if so, whether Parliament should be pressed for immediate enactment of such a law. 285 delegates meeting in Montreal called for compete prohibition as well as recommending the establishment of a “union organization to be known as the Dominion Prohibitionary Council, to be composed of 25 members and distributed among respective provinces as follows: Ontario, eight; Quebec, six; Nova Scotia, four; New Brunswick, four; Prince Edward Island, two; Manitoba and British Columbia, one.” (Spence 116).
An interim council was appointed which met with sympathetic members of Parliament in Ottawa on February 16 and 17, 1876. It was here decided to form a national council to be called the Dominion Alliance for the Total Suppression of the Liquor Traffic, retaining as officers those of the interim council: Senator Alexander Vidal, President; Thos. Gales, Secretary; and Robt. McLean, Treasurer. In the interests of streamlining the national organization over the following four years provincial temperance organizations dissolved to be reconstituted as branches of the Dominion Alliance.
In the Constitution the Alliance uncompromisingly declared its purposes to be “to call forth and direct enlightened public option to procure the total and immediate suppression of the traffic in all intoxicating liquors as beverages, and to unite all churches and temperance and moral reform organizations in judicious effort for the attainment of this end” along with seeking “the election to all legislative and executive political positions of representatives who are known, avowed and trustworthy supporters of the principles and methods of the Alliance.” The Council of the Alliance was to serve as the “bond of union” between the provincial branches.
The first major victory for the new Alliance was the introduction of a bill in the Senate by then Secretary of State R.W. Scott on March 18, 1878, the basis of which was a measure drafted and submitted to the Government by the Alliance Council (Spence 122). The bill was presented to the House of Commons, and after several amendments made law on May 8, 1878. The Canada Temperance Act, popularly known as the Scott Act, provided for Local Option, operative on the county and city levels by majority vote. Though more effective than the Dunkin Act, difficulties in enforcement and interpretation would lead to controversy that would range in various parts of Ontario well into the 1940’s.
Policy of the Ontario Branch of the Alliance was determined at an annual convention and its enactment supervised by an Executive Committee meeting 3 to 4 times annually. Activities were conducted by a Managing Committee overseeing Finance, Campaign, Publications, Legal and Law Enforcement subcommittees. During the period of C.T.A. Local Option campaigns a permanent staff consisted of the General Secretary, Office Manger, Editor of the “Pioneer” (the official Alliance periodical), Business Manager of the “Pioneer” and six Field Secretaries. Fund-Raising and proselytization were combined in Field Day services, in which speakers of the Alliance occupied the pulpits in a chosen area, followed with a collection for temperance work.
Despite its claims of national leadership the Ontario Branch gradually became synonymous with the Alliance as a whole. No independent office was established for the Council and the Secretary of the Ontario Branch served as Alliance Council Secretary. After 1901 connection with the other provinces seems to have lapsed (with the exception of Quebec), with the Council in a period of inactivity. The Sectary of the Ontario Branch, the Rev, Ben H. Spence, continued to act as Council secretary and brought matters to a head in 1920 by issuing a convention call at the same time as the newly formed Dominion Committee on Liquor Legislation (organized by the Secretary’s brother, Francis Stephens Spence, himself a Secretary of the Dominion Alliance until his resignation in 1970). On receipt of this call representatives of the temperance movements active in the four western provinces met in Regina and formally repudiated Spence’s claims to leadership, stating that it was “impossible for these provinces to recognize the Dominion Alliance as in anyway representing the temperance movement in Western Canada.” (Anon.). A.J. Irwin, a later secretary of the Ontario Prohibition Union commented that the Council “was kept in a sort of paper existence by Mr. Spence for certain reasons more or less personal.” (Irwin).
With the introduction of the Ontario Temperance Act in 1916, a sweeping war-time piece of prohibitionary legislation, the permanent staff of the Alliance was reduced by 60%. The Ontario Temperance Act was retained by referendum in 1919, this initiating the post-war period of prohibition. Although sale of liquor was now banned in Ontario, it remained possible to privately import it from Quebec. In the debate regarding a proposed referendum to close this loophole, the Alliance, led by Rev. Spence, broke openly with its colleagues in the Ontario Referendum Committee under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. A.S. Grant. The split occurred with such rancour as to lead to dissatisfaction with Spence’s leadership and the discredit of the Alliance among embarrassed prohibitionists.
From 1920 to 1922 the Dominion Committee on Liquor Legislation gathered the support of the major provincial temperance groups and church social service departments, thus undercutting the foundations of the Alliance Council. In 1923 the Committee adopted a new name and constitution as the Canadian Prohibition Federation. The Federation encouraged leading members of the Alliance to form a more representative organization capable of unifying prohibition forces in Ontario. A Committee of Ten was formed which recommended the establishment of an organization to be known as the Ontario Prohibition Alliance (later Union) as the successor to the Ontario Branch of the Dominion Alliance. This was approved at Convention in Toronto on Jan. 29, 1924. The Rev. Spence continued as Secretary of the Council of the Dominion Alliance, making several approaches to the Canadian Prohibition Federation regarding unification. A committee was set up and produced a Constitution acceptable to both parties in 1926 but ultimately no action was taken. Without dissolving the Alliance Council., Mr. Spence set up a new Dominion Organization known as the Canadian Prohibition Bureau and applied for recognition of this organization as a unit of the Canadian Prohibition Federation in 1927. Again no action was taken. This was effectively the fight under the banner of various organizations until his death in 1960 at the age if 92.