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The Beginning of Drug Prohibition in Canada What's Past Is Prologue.

While the 1908 Opium Act was the first to impose criminal penalties for drug use and trafficking in Canada, it was quickly amended in 1911 to include morphine and cocaine within its provisions. Drug prohibition in Canada expanded greatly in the years that followed--in both the number of drugs that were banned and the severity of the punishments for violating the drug laws. Finally, this year there has been a small reversal of the prohibition ethic. This prompts the question of whether this is the beginning of a shift in our attitudes toward drugs ...


IN 2018, the Canadian government was in the process of legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana, partially reversing a policy of prohibition that began in 1923. While a 95-year-old law has an air of inevitability about it, the roots of drug prohibition in Canada rest on a number of factors that happened to coalesce in the early 1900s. These factors included a campaign against drugs--such as alcohol, the use of which was seen as a sign of immorality--and the anti-Chinese racism of the time. An additional factor was that of surplus labour, particularly Chinese labourers put out of work by the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885. So important was this issue that Canada's first bill to make illegal the trade in a class of drugs--the Opium Act of 1908-was introduced into Parliament not by the minister of justice or the minister of health but by the minister of labour. While a number of the reasons behind the adoption of the Opium Act have long since faded away, the precedent of prohibition as the response to certain drug use had been set.

Part of the reason certain drugs have been prohibited is that they have been determined to be a public health risk when used outside a controlled medical context. The risk posed by recreational drug use has obviously been to the human body, but it has also been seen as a threat to the body politic. In late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Canada, drug abuse was seen as a form of slavery. An individual and a society could only be truly free if they were not shackled to a dependence on drugs. Abstaining from drug use was everyone's moral obligation.

The use of moral arguments to dissuade people from using a particular drug (alcohol) was the mission of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the first Canadian chapter of which was formed in Owen Sound, Ontario, in 1874. The WCTU was many things, including an advocate for women getting the vote, but, as the name implies, it challenged people on a religious basis to be responsible for their personal health and morality through self-control, including abstaining from drug use. If the human body is considered a temple of God, then the intake of alcohol and other drugs poisons this temple. This poisoning was not only at a physical level but also at a moral and spiritual one. Such was the strength of the temperance movement that the prohibition side won a national plebiscite in 1898, although alcohol was not generally banned by the provinces until the First World War. Still, a strain of the desire for moral uplift can be seen in the desire to ban not just alcohol but other drugs like opium.

WHILE a desire for self-improvement played a part in Canada prohibiting certain drugs, so too did racism. At least since the 1858 Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, workers from Asia, particularly China, had come to Canada to fill a certain niche in the labour market. Costing about half as much as native-born workers, Asian labourers often did the dirty, difficult, and dangerous work that Canadians would not. Around 15,000 Chinese labourers helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway, and it is estimated that about 600 were killed in the process. (1) Even before the transcontinental link was completed, however, a Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration was established to investigate the possibility of limiting the number of Chinese entering the country. Hearing almost no Chinese witnesses, the commissioners recommended the imposition of a $10 "head tax" on each Chinese person wanting to enter Canada. In 1885 Parliament imposed a $50 head tax on Chinese immigrants to Canada, an amount that rose to $500 in 1903. In 1923, Parliament simply prohibited Chinese immigration to Canada.

One of the reasons the Chinese were not welcome was the perception that opium smoking was widespread in various Chinatowns. Given that the British Empire had forced opium on China in two Opium Wars, and that the use of laudanum and other drugs was widespread in Canadian society, it was with rank hypocrisy that native-born Canadians condemned the Chinese for their opium habits. Nonetheless, opium smoking was seen as a kind of sickness that had infected an inferior culture, and it was argued that efforts were needed to keep that sickness from spreading. The physical separation of Chinatowns from the wider society was considered another sign that, as the royal commission concluded, the Chinese were a "nonassimilable race." This gulf between the races sets the context for the finding in the report that "the use of opium was a pagan habit incompatible with the way of life of a Christian nation." (2) The rhetoric was about the physical and moral health of white society being threatened by the unknown "other."

Anti-Chinese feeling became violent on February 24, 1887, when a mob of white workers destroyed the shantytown of Chinese workers--each paid approximately half the wage of a white worker--who had been hired to clear much of what today is West End Vancouver. The rioters ran hundreds of workers out of town. (3) The connection with labour is also seen in the creation of the Asiatic Exclusion League in Vancouver in August 1907 under the auspices of the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council. Its stated aim was "to keep Oriental immigrants out of British Columbia." The Vancouver member of Parliament, Robert George Macpherson, warned that unless Asian immigration was curtailed, "the inevitable result of this great influx of the yellow race will be the retreat of the white race already here." (4)

The Asiatic Exclusion League played a leading role in Vancouver's most infamous race riot in September 1907, a riot that led to Canada's first drug prohibition law the following year. On September 7, 1907, the league organized a parade of thousands to march on City Hall, protesting what was seen as a flood of Asians into Vancouver. The parade banner read "Stand for a White Canada." With its fury stoked, the mob proceeded to ransack Vancouver's Chinatown but met more resistance when it moved on to Japantown. Fortunately, most of the damage was to property, and no one was killed.

Following the riot, the federal government appointed the deputy minister of labour (and future prime minister) William Lyon Mackenzie King to head a commission to inquire into the "Losses Sustained by the Chinese Population of Vancouver, B.C., on the Occasion of the Riots in That City in September, 1907." Following hearings in Vancouver, Mackenzie King recommended that claimants be compensated for their riot-connected losses, but he called attention to a claim made for $600 by each of two opium manufacturers on account of loss of business for six days. Mackenzie King professed to be surprised by these claims and by the fact that the only legal restriction on manufacturing opium in the city of Vancouver was the need to purchase a licence. Having toured both facilities, he was astounded at how profitable they were. He balked at the Government of Canada making good the losses of an industry "so inimical to our national welfare." (5) He felt it to be his duty to recommend that Parliament eliminate the opium trade, an "evil which is not only a source of human degradation but a destructive factor in national life." While speaking to the Vancouver Daily Province on June 3, 1908, King made clear his intention to go beyond determining compensation when he said: "We will get some good out of this riot yet."

The issue for the deputy minister of labour was not, in fact, about labour but, rather, about such things as the place of foreigners in Canadian society and the use of drugs by those foreigners. He was so keen to destroy the opium trade that he presented to Parliament another report entitled The Need for the Suppression of the Opium Traffic in Canada only a week after his compensation report. In this second report, Mackenzie King called for measures to "wholly eradicate" the evil of the opium traffic and its "baneful effects." His report raised the alarm as to the spread of opium use beyond the practice of Chinese men. He quotes a local newspaper which talked of the "ugly and horrible evidence of the dire influence which the opium traffic is exercising among the ranks of British Columbia womanhood." He concluded that "To be indifferent to the growth of such an evil in Canada would be inconsistent with those principles of morality which ought to govern the conduct of a Christian nation." (6) MacKenzie King echoed the 1885 royal commission in drawing a clear demarcation between the opium-smoking habits of a "pagan" nation and the sobriety of a Christian one.

Mackenzie King's report landed on receptive parliamentary ground. On July 10, 1908, Minister of Labour Rodolphe Lemieux introduced Bill 205, an act to prohibit the importation and sale of opium for other than medicinal purposes. Passage through Parliament was so swift that royal assent to the bill was granted on July 20, 1908. The mood of Parliament was summarized by a statement accompanying royal assent, which said that "The physical and mental degradation following from the too free use of opium have long been recognized, and efforts have been made in all countries boasting of advanced civilization to stamp out its use." (7)

While the 1908 Opium Act was the first to impose criminal penalties on drugs in the country, it was quickly amended in 1911 to include morphine and cocaine within its provisions. Drug prohibition in Canada has since expanded greatly in both the number of drugs that are banned and the severity of the punishments for violating the drug laws. Finally, in 2018 a small reversal of the prohibition ethic has been seen with the legalizing of marijuana possession under certain conditions. This prompts the question of whether this is the beginning of a shift in our attitudes toward drugs.

This would not be the first time Canada has reassessed its position on drug use, as it spent decades deciding how to respond to the negative effects of alcohol use. As with opium in 1908, prohibition was the favoured approach to alcohol by provincial governments, mainly starting in the First World War. But by the 1920s most of those governments had repealed their prohibition laws. The reasons for repeal included the widespread flouting of the law, the fact that prohibition contributed to the expansion of organized crime, and the unregulated quality of "bootleg" liquor, which could have serious health effects, including causing blindness. The new mantras became those of moderation and government regulation.

ARE we about to leave behind drug prohibition in the same way that we discarded the ban on alcohol? It is impossible to say because, as with opium, "the decision [to ban marijuana] was made without any obvious scientific justification or even any real awareness of a social problem." (8) Over a hundred years ago, the politicians of the day, with William Lyon Mackenzie King in the vanguard, determined that Canadian law should treat drug users as lawbreakers before they are treated as those in need of medical help. We live with the consequences of that decision to this day, carrying out our drug laws through inertia mixed with ignorance of their origins. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: "... we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

ROBIN MACKAY works as a legal counsel for the Military Police Complaints Commission of Canada. He has had a lifelong interest in history and, more particularly, the manner in which it can inform our interpretation of the present. He would like to thank Colleen Edwards, without whose unstinting efforts this article could not have been written.


(1) "Canadian Pacific Railway," The Canadian Encyclopedia, revised January 24, 2018.

(2) Report of the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration, Report and Evidence, 1885, Library and Archives Canada.

(3) Jesse Donaldson, "Remembering Vancouver's First Race Riot," The Tyee, March 1, 2013.

(4) John Mackie, "This Week in History: 1907-The Asiatic Exclusion League is formed," Vancouver Sun, August 21, 2017.

(5) William Lyon Mackenzie King, Losses Sustained by the Chinese Population of Vancouver, B. C., on the Occasion of the Riots in That City in September, 1907, Ottawa, June 26, 1908.

(6) William Lyon Mackenzie King, The Need for the Suppression of the Opium Traffic in Canada, Ottawa, July 3, 1908.

(7) House of Commons Debates, 10th Parliament, 4th Session, Vol. 7 (July 20, 1908), p. 13592.

(8) Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs (Le Dain Commission), Ottawa, 1973.

Caption: Blatantly racist cartoons like this one were common in early twentieth-century Canada, depicting Chinese as opium users and traffickers.

Caption: Emily Murphy's very popular book The Black Candle (1922) helped stoke the moral panic about drugs, including the "new menace" of marijuana, which was banned in Canada a year after the book's publication.

Caption: Above and previous page: aftermath of the 1907 Vancouver riot

Caption: This cartoon was published just two weeks before the 1907 riot, with the caption: "The same Act which excludes Orientals should open wide the portals of British Columbia to white immigration.

Caption: OPPOSITE: William Lyon Mackenzie King in court uniform as minister of labour, 1910.
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Author:Mackay, Robin
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Dec 22, 2018
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