A Brief History of Vancouver Island Drinking

June 28th, 2019

Enjoying a good drink or two on Vancouver Island has long been a popular pastime, and while such imbibing often comes in the form of sampling some of the island’s excellent local brews, at times, things have gotten a little out of control.


In 1853, Sir James Douglas, Governor of Vancouver Island and the Colony of British Columbia, set in motion the first provincial legislation that controlled liquor wholesale and retail distribution on the island. Whereas before businesses had essentially had free rein, they were now required to have licenses for liquor sales. Previously, saloons had been allowed to stay open 24 hours a day, and the amount of alcohol British Columbians consumed was about twice the national average. BC was one of the “wettest” provinces in Canada.


This new legislation, however, failed to enact much change in the drinking habits of Vancouver Island dwellers, or indeed, British Columbians at large. The province’s love of the drink took especial effect when, in 1868, Victoria was named the capital due at least in part to an MLA’s drunkenness at work.


During the late 1860s, the debate about where the province’s capital should be had been gaining serious steam, with about half of the MLAs favouring the capital remaining as New Westminster and the other half calling for its relocation to Victoria. The fateful moment came when, after about two years of hot-headed arguing, the MLAs gathered to debate the matter once and for all. Unfortunately for New Westminster, that city’s representative, William Franklyn, was a man who, as Helmcken once put it, “liked a drop of the creature.” It was, in fact, considerably more than a drop that he imbibed that fateful afternoon, just prior to giving his speech.


Awkwardly comparing the Fraser River to the Hooghly in Kolkata, and not in a flattering way, Franklyn proceeded to fall easy prey to a prank. After he had finished reading the first page of his speech, William George Cox, who supported Victoria, moved the page back to the top of the pile, and Franklyn began again from the beginning. The drunken MLA read and re-read that first page several times before becoming confused, and by the time he realized what was up the room was erupting with laughter.


By the early 20th century, particularly after the drinking problems brought home with the close of WWI, this high level of alcohol consumption was becoming a more prominently addressed concern. With the arrival of Prohibition in 1917, there was officially no drinking at all on Vancouver Island, or the province of BC, although illegal sales continued and even thrived. In perhaps the most startling example of this double standard, Walter Findlay, a member of the People’s Prohibition Association, a man who became known for his sharp condemnation of the evils of alcohol and was named Prohibition Commissioner, was himself thrown in jail for bootlegging less than a year after taking this position.


The consumption of alcohol clearly wasn’t going away anytime soon. And only three years after the advent of Prohibition, liquor was back on the legal markets. Today of course, the island is known for its many craft breweries, wineries, distilleries.

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