1909 Reduction Referendum

By Jamie Bradburn, originally published September 1, 2010

When bars were on the ballot

While Torontonians have cast their ballots for their municipal representatives in the fall for the past few decades, a century ago voting day coincided with the start of a new year. January 1 is often associated with drinking (or one’s recovery from one tipple too many), and alcohol was top of mind for many voters on the first day of 1909 thanks to a question on the ballot regarding a bylaw that would reduce the number of licensed establishments one could enjoy a boozy beverage from 150 to 110. Would the upstanding citizens of Toronto mark an X, as temperance proponents hoped, in favour of protecting public health and morals?

Temperance forces, led by local ministers and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, had lobbied to reduce the number of licensed venues in the city for several years. A bylaw almost came into effect in 1908, until courts killed it on a technicality. Proponents of the new ballot question, backed by most of the city’s Conservative-leaning papers, felt the fewer opportunities for men to fall to temptation, the better. As the Evening Telegram outlined in its pre-election editorial, “LICENSE REDUCTION will deprive at least 40 bar-rooms of their present power to form the habits of men and boys who drink when OPPORTUNITY TEMPTS THEM, because they cannot walk the streets without being waylaid by the attractions of the bar-room.”

Toronto World, January 1, 1909

Lined up behind the anti-reductionists were the Liberal-leaning papers, especially the Globe and the World. In its New Year’s Eve editorial, the Globe felt that the issue could be settled by not burdening saloons with the need to provide accommodations because barrooms should be totally separated from the hotel business. The Worldwas troubled by the lack of any compensation for the forty unlucky license holders once their livelihood was removed from them. Other anti-reductionists argued that the growing city deserved an appropriate percentage of bars and that cutting the number of bars would cut into the city’s growing convention trade and its thirsty clientele used to other locales where alcohol flowed more freely.

Children were tossed into the fray when a parade of Sunday school students was used to promote the reductionist cause. Youngsters carried banners that bore slogans like “The Barrel or the Boy?” and “Don’t Kill Toronto.” Exploitation of children for political gain did not seem to bother the reductionists.

The battle reached its peak two days before the election. Anti-reductionists held a standing-room-only meeting at Massey Hall on December 30 that included speakers from both sides of the issue. The crowd waiting to get in was so thick that an overflow meeting was held at another venue. What went down at Massey Hall that evening was described by the News as:

…[t]he biggest and worst meeting in the memory of Toronto. For over an hour the meeting was in the hands of the seething mass of humanity which packed the great building to its doors. The throng, almost evenly divided on the question as issue, refused to hear the speakers. They hissed, they booed, they groaned and on one occasion broke into riotous song.

Trouble began during a speech by J.H. Kennedy, president of the Trades and Labor Council, who based his opposition on the number of jobs that would be lost if reduction passed (“We trade unionists believe that license reduction will injure both the commercial and industrial progress of the city.”), an increased crime rate as observed in “dry” locales like Owen Sound, and a fear that illegal bars serving poisonous homemade hooch would arise. As Kennedy spoke, pro-reduction city controller F.S. Spence strolled onto the platform and was feted with a loud ovation. Kennedy attempted to resume his speech but cries of “Oh! Oh!” and “MISTER SPENCE!” rang throughout the hall, while Spence’s female supporters waved tossed, handkerchiefs and any other easily accessible pieces of apparel. Kennedy tried to dampen the spirits of his opponents by noting “I didn’t know that our temperance friends were such a gang of disturbers. You’re going to make hundreds and thousands of votes for us.”

As jeering increased, meeting chair A.R. Boswell tried to restore order, indicating to the reductionists in the audience that “as much time as you have cut off our speakers, we’ll have to cut off your friend Spence.” The next speaker, anti-reductionist lawyer James Haverson, tried to assert calm by noting both sides had the right to speak, though he noted, “I doubt whether it’s well in one building to have half the people thinking one way and the other half thinking the other. In theory it’s good, but in practice it seems to be bad.” The jeers continued.

When Spence’s turn to speak arrived, the anti-reductionist half went into jeering mode. Spence failed at several attempts to present his issue, while the speaker set to follow him, anti-reductionist lawyer A.W. Wright, stormed off the platform. Boswell tried in vain to re-establish order, asking the audience to “behave like decent citizens. I don’t think it’s fair that this meeting should be broken up. It’s a great meeting.” Massey Hall building manager Stewart Houston rushed to the stage to echo Boswell’s pleas for calm, which were effective until Spence attempted to carry on. By this point, much of the crowd had had enough and rushed to the exits (some of which were blocked) or threw paper from the galleries. Wright made a brief return and indicated that in the name of fairness, he would not speak until Spence was allowed to finish. When the crowd continued to be rowdy, an exasperated Boswell asked if there were any police in the audience who could step up to keep order. Calm never quite returned and the meeting broke up an hour earlier than anticipated. Many of the anti-reductionist speakers made their way to the overflow meeting, where the main disruption was an acknowledgement that devout temperance activist Carrie Nation may have been in the audience.

Toronto News, December 31, 1908

Election day saw both sides of the issue encouraging their supporters to get to the polls despite cold weather. The Mail and Empire observed that:

[t]hroughout the day numbers of carriages and automobiles were to be seen moving about the streets. They were not the conveyances of New Year’s callers, for the most part, but the vehicles chartered by rival interests to carry their partisans to the polls. The fact that the by-law to reduce the number of liquor licenses was before the electorate, induced a large number of ladies to exercise the franchise on one side or the other.

That evening, crowds gathered outside all of the downtown newspaper offices to watch displays of the results on election night. Mayor Joseph Oliver won reelection with three times as many votes as his nearest competitor, while temperance forces ensured that pro-reduction candidates won most of the council seats, though Spence lost his position on the Board of Control due to his involvement in a scandal over the building of new electrical power sources. Many reduction supporters gathered in the long-gone Cooke’s Presbyterian Church on Queen Street to watch the vote on their pet issue. The Mail and Empire, who determined that “the fight was a clean one on both sides,” provided extensive coverage of that gathering. The crowd was initially upset when the early downtown results showed support for keeping the bars open, but cheers grew as the outer wards voted in favour of reduction, which eventually carried by just under twelve hundred votes. The chairman of what became the victory party remarked that “the moment the border line was crossed between the non-English-speaking citizens and the enlightened Canadians who had the benefit of education along higher moral lines, then the returns showed a striking divergence.”

The “enlightened Canadians” of the temperance movement built on the momentum of their victory and pressed for further restrictions on alcohol over the next decade until the entire province enacted prohibition in 1916. The decade-long attempt to ban booze proved a failure, with a slow loosening of restrictions underway by the mid-1920s. The sway of groups like the WCTU faded away and Torontonians gradually relaxed and enjoyed their drinks without the constant threat of a moral guilt trip.

Source materials: editions of the Evening Telegram, the Globe, the Mail and Empire, the News and the World published between December 31, 1908 and January 2, 1909.

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