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Open Mic: Looking at the history of Vancouver’s alcohol-fueled underbelly

Wednesday 03rd, September 2014 / 15:05
By Sean Orr

Our puritanical past

Illustration: Danielle Jette

Illustration: Danielle Jette

VANCOUVER — Before heroin, before crack, before meth, the social scourge de jour in Vancouver’s DTES was good ol’ John Barleycorn. Booze. Although modern Vancouver was founded around a Gastown saloon, it quickly embraced a puritanical conservatism that has had lasting effects on the town labeled with the epithet No Fun City.

Reading editorials from the ’50s, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the prosaic “DTES is a war zone that needs to be cleaned up” opinion pieces of today. Without delving into didactic class-based explanations, or the legacy of city building that created the East-West rift that is so palpable today, we need only quickly skim the history of our relationship to alcohol to understand the current dismal, albeit improving, state of affairs in Vancouver today.

It’s no great stretch to assert that if you control alcohol you control the working classes, especially in the resource-dominated beginnings of early British Columbia. Just as Canada’s very first drug law (opium) was a measure to control the Chinese population, so too were its liquor laws. It’s why it’s virtually impossible, unless you are the Donnelly Group or Adelphia, to get a 3 a.m. liquor license. These licenses were “grandfathered,” which is a cute and cuddly way of saying prohibition never really ended.

It’s why there are no off-sales between the Lamplighter (Vancouver’s oldest pub) and The Astoria. It’s why up until 2010 it was actually illegal to serve an imperial, 20oz pint in B.C. and why when you order one, you’ll get anywhere between 14oz and 20oz. It’s why we have the highest alcohol prices in Canada. It’s why you probably have to order food if you’re having a drink at your favourite bar, which is probably actually a restaurant. You can’t dance either, unless the place you are drinking at is actually a “cabaret.”

You can’t ship wine from B.C. to Alberta according to a prohibition-era law. If you are throwing an event, like say, oh I don’t know, the fucking Olympics, you can’t serve your home country’s libations without buying them first through the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch. Up until 1986, you couldn’t even drink on a Sunday. It’s why your favourite dive bar might actually have two entrances — one regular entrance (for men) and one for ladies and escorts. Because, you know, a lady who goes to a beer parlour by herself is probably a prostitute.

I don’t want to bore you with personal anecdotes; we’ve probably all been to Europe or Quebec or Moose Jaw or anywhere else, save maybe Salt Lake City, with a more mature attitude to liquor than “The Best Place on Earth.” That being said, I remember drinking in a Dallas bar called the Bottle Shop. Full of bottled craft beers, I was baffled to learn that after putting back two or three bombers, I could then take three or four more “to go.” To fucking go!

So, how has this social control worked out for us? When the VPD closed liquor stores during the Stanley Cup final in 2011, the paroles acted like children because they were treated like children. How’s that special Granville Entertainment District working out? Even when the government tries to relax the laws they still botch it. The recent attempt to institute a happy hour went horribly wrong. Because the bureaucrats implemented minimum pricing, which meant that a place like the Ivanhoe actually had to raise their prices just so they could advertise drink specials! And because they set the minimum price of pints to five dollars, it’s actually cheaper to buy pitchers. It’s even cheaper to pound a six-pack in the alley. That’s probably where I’ll be if you’re ever looking for me.

Local loudmouth Sean Orr is a regular contributor to BeatRoute. He also writes the incomparable Tea & Two Slices column for Scout Magazine and is the frontman for local hardcore outfit NEEDS.

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