La Prohibition

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Prohibition: The Golden Age of Bootleggers

Before Prohibition

With the advent of the Canadian Confederation, the Governments were faced with problems brought about by the dual social aspect of alcohol. Being both a commodity of choice for socialization for some and a nectar of immorality according to the values of others, it was difficult for political authorities to take a stand in this debate. In the face of these conflicting views and being aware of the number of failures in trying to prohibit the use of this beverage, the Canadian Government passed a bill leaving to the Communities the choice to prohibit or tolerate alcohol consumption. That is how was sanctioned the Canada Temperance Act in 1878 that gave the right to local governments to prohibit the sale of alcohol where a referendum demonstrated that a majority of citizens were in favor of this measure.

Such being the case, while the First World War was in full swing and that the temperance movements supported by believers of Christian morality were making themselves heard, the Governments had no choice but to opt for prohibitive measures. It is to this effect that an act prohibiting alcohol came into force in 1917 in New Brunswick and a federal act came into force in 1918.

Similarly, with the ratification of the 18th Amendment, the United States also entered in a prohibitionist regime in 1920. With the prohibition of alcohol in most parts of North America, alcohol smuggling networks flourished, which made Prohibition the golden years for bootleggers. "Bars are empty and basements are full." That was the situation in the Madawaska County which had acquired the reputation of being the "bootleggers' promised land" in the 1920's. In tact, astride a "wet" Quebec and a "dry" Maine while being at the same time the home of an important railway hub and portal of the Maritime Provinces, the county had become a popular route for alcohol smugglers. 

After Prohibition

Observing the failure of the attempts to prohibit the use of alcohol, the Government of New Brunswick fell into step with other Canadian Provinces in 1927 by nationalizing the commerce of intoxicating beverages. Therefore, alcoholic beverages were available in designated stores and controlled by the New Brunswick Liquor Control Board.

The repeal of the Prohibition did not mark the end of the temperance movements. In fact, the Sacred Heart League and Le mouvement Lacordaire continued their battle against the "demon" of alcohol. However, after having starting to weaken during the 1960's in a changing society where alcoholism was beginning to be perceived more as an illness rather than as a behaviour deviation, the said temperance movements disappeared in the Madawaska county during the 1970's. Nowadays, alcohol smuggling is talked about as regional point of reference, being one of the components giving the Madawaska county its identity.

In particular in the Saint-Hilaire parish, the Prohibition era has been recognized as a proof of this phenomena. In fact, a large part of the built heritage commemorates the importance of the prohibitionist era in the shaping of the community. For example, the popular story goes that the church and the rec-tory were built largely with the contribution of smugglers during the Prohibition era. 

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With the advent of the Prohibition, the demand for illicit spirits increased significantly. The production of this home-brewed spirit consisted in boiling in a still the product obtained from a mixture of water, sugar, yeast and other produce that had previously been fermented. A correspondent from the local newspaper Le Madawaska described the process in these terms:

[...] in a primitive sugar shack at the far end of a sugarbush, a somewhat sugary mixture, cereal malt, molasses, corn syrup is being fermented by adding some yeast; when completely fermented, the liquid is distilled in a still, large or small, to obtain a concen-trated alcohol.