Sobering Dilemma: A History of Prohibition in British Columbia

Sobering Dilemma: A History of Prohibition in British Columbia, by Douglas L. Hamilton

Sobering Dilemma

A History of Prohibition in British Columbia

by Douglas L. Hamilton

with an Introduction by Jean Barman


  • Autumn 2004
  • ISBN 978-1-55380-016-3 (1-55380-016-8)
  • ebook ISBN 978-1-55380-092-7
  • 6″ x 9″ Trade Paperback, 224 pages
  • History, Prohibition, British Columbia

Does drug prohibition work? There are many governments, police forces, jailers and drug testers who say it does. Prohibition is the favoured choice in dealing with intoxicants in the world today. But how well does it stand up to the test of history — in particular, our own history in British Columbia? The province has seen two harsh liquor prohibitions: first on its Native population from 1854 to 1962, and second, on the entire population, during the 1917-1921 period.

Sobering Dilemma examines both, touching on the province’s longtime fondness for alcohol and the social conditions which encouraged toleration of heavy drinking. The prohibition movement reached its peak during the 1916 “Purity election” which combined a provincial election with twin referendums on women’s suffrage and alcohol prohibition. The liquor referendum results were shamelessly manipulated by both sides, but prohibition was finally imposed in October 1917.

Douglas Hamilton has examined the classified files of the Provincial Police at BC Archives and shows how British Columbia’s experiment with prohibition soon degenerated into a hopeless morass of corruption, scandal, favouritism, class conflict, freelance informants, bureaucratic ineptitude, and racism.

“An engaging account of why some British Columbians have been willing to control the rights of others to drink beer, wine or spirits. Racism, moral certainty, fear of drunkenness — they’ve all played a role in prohibiting, regulating and demonizing liquor. Sobering Dilemma reminds us of the dangers of smugness in thinking that we have the answers on behalf of others.”
— Jean Barman

Sobering Dilemma is a richly researched and colourful story of an under-represented chapter of British Columbia history. Beautifully written, this book is a joy ride from beginning to end.”
— Wendy Wickwire, Department of History, University of Victoria

Sobering Dilemma is much more than a history of prohibition. It is a lively tale of drinking, prosecution, and persecution. The secret files of the BC Provincial Police are particularly fascinating. At times you will shake your head in disbelief about our colourful liquor past.”
— Dr. Robert A. Campbell, author of Sit Down and Drink Your Beer: Regulating Vancouver’s Beer Parlours, 1925-1954