On September 15, 1916, the government of Sr. William F. Hearst passed the Ontario
Temperance Act, which prohibited the sale or service of alcoholic beverages, except by
wineries, which, as a consequence, flourished.
Under the Act, possession and consumption in a dwelling house was permitted but all
bars and liquor stores were closed for the duration of World War I. Tony Aspler’s
delightfully-written 1999 book, Vintage Canada, in part, a history of the nation's wine
industry that erupted out of the Temperance Act, reports that the Act also allowed sales for
sacramental, industrial, artistic, mechanical, scientific and medical purposes.
Medical doctors could and did, prescribe straight liquor to patients for purchase through
drug stores. Turn-of-the-century Canadian scholar and writer Stephen B. Leacock
summed up the social situation with the humorous observation that ‘to get a drink during
Prohibition it is necessary to go to the drug store . . . and lean up against the counter
making a gurgling sigh like apoplexy. One often sees these apoplexy cases lined up four
Hearst was a 44-year-old lawyer from Sault Ste Marie when he was elected a
Conservative Member of the Provincial Parliament in 1908. A leading spokesman for
northern Ontario, he entered the Cabinet of Sir James P. Whitney as minister of lands,
forests and mines in 1911. On the death of Whitney in 1914, Hearst succeeded him as
Premier. A strong supporter of the war effort, for which he was knighted in 1917, Hearst
enfranchised women, established a department of labour and authorized construction of
the Queenston hydroelectric plant, the largest in the world when it opened in 1921,
establishing Ontario Hydro as the province's primary producer of electricity.
In preparing for my book tour and speaking engagements in Ontario in summer 2006, I
focused on several fine historical details of the story of Canadian landscape artist Tom
Thomson’s drowning in Algonquin Provincial Park’s Canoe Lake on July 8, 1917, I knew
about but did not fully include in the book. This particular detail is especially intriguing
because of the likely role of alcohol in Thomson’s death and because of two entries in
the daily journal of Algonquin Park Ranger Mark Robinson that last spring. This essay will
closely explore the implications of what Robinson wrote in light of prohibition.
Most of the contemporary biographies of Tom Thomson tell one of two stories about a
drinking party at the cabin of George Rowe the evening of July 7, 1917, attended by,
among others, Shannon Fraser, Martin Blecher, Jr., and Tom.
William T. Little’s book, The Tom Thomson Mystery, published in 1970 said, without
naming his sources, “That night as on numerous others, there was a modest amount of
drinking.” Little said Blecher and Tom exchanged insults over the war and “were actually
prevented from coming to blows only by the good-natured efforts of the guides.”
In her interview in early 1977 with Algonquin Park biologist Ron Pittaway, Mrs. Daphne
Crombie said Annie Fraser told her a different version. “Tom and George and another guy
had a party,” she said. “They were all pretty good drinkers. Tom as well. They went up and
had this party. They were all tight.”
Mrs. Crombie went on to speculate that Tom and Shannon Fraser got into a fight over
money Fraser owed him, during which “Shannon hit Tom, knocked him down by the fire
grate, and Tom had a mark on his forehead. . . .Tom was knocked out completely by this
On July 19, 1917, Robinson made the following entry in his daily journal: “I have received
instructions this morning to have Mr. S. Fraser have no more booze come in. Also to have
a plan and lease of his house prepared at once to be submitted to the Department of
Lands, Forests, and Mines.”
These instructions suggest that the rowdy Saturday night drinking party and Tom’s
drowning drew the attention of Park Superintendent George W. Bartlett and, likely, others
in the provincial government, to Shannon Fraser, and his wife, Annie, owners of the
Mowat Lodge, where Tom had a room when he drowned.
The entry certainly indicates that Robinson knew liquor could be obtained from the
Frasers and that he had been ordered to crackdown on them. The only means of
transporting liquor into the Park was by train and Robinson, presumably, following
instructions, began inspecting all shipments bound for the Mowat Lodge.
The importance of this entry to an understanding of the heavy influence of alcohol on
events preceding Tom’s drowning is highlighted by a earlier entry Robinson made in his
journal on June 30, 1917.Robinson said that he visited trains at Canoe Lake “and looked
over three barrels of beer (2.5%) for Martin Blecher. Passed it as okay. It being for
personal use.” (Emphasis added.)
Martin Blecher, Jr., was a notorious alcoholic. However, allowing the delivery of three
barrels of beer for his personal use over the summer season seems absurd. Obviously,
enforcement of the Temperance Act was lax in Mowat, a settlement of 150 residents in
1917, perhaps doubling during the tourist season, where Fraser was a central figure, as
lodge owner, postmaster and Western Union manager. Therefore, Robinson might have
been earlier willing to look aside as liquor and beer shipments arrived destined for the
Tom Thomson, too, was known as a heavy drinker. Some guides and other residents of
Mowat thought alcohol played a role in his drowning. His likely supplier of liquor certainly
was the Mowat Lodge. Rumors such as these and a booze-fueled fight at Rowe's cabin
on July 7, 1917, may have been reported by Robinson to Bartlett, who responded by
ordering the crackdown on liquor shipments.
Robinson's dairy includes a page of scribbled notes describing what was found in
Thomson’s canoe and at the dock following the drowning.
statement by Charlie Scrimm
took with him Small tin Pail 3 Pints
1 lb of rice
1 can of sugar about 1 lb
flour 2 lbs 1/2 dozen potatoes
small frying pan split bamboo fishing rod
Reel line etc Landing net
Was Robinson describing the size of the small tin pail or was he trying to accurately
report in an exquisitely ambiguous manner the fact that Thomson took with him 3 pint
bottles of liquor? As discussed in another essay here, Robinson was not above doing so.
The note's lack of a period or comma caught my eye. Curiously, he describes the pail's
size as small and then adds 3 pints. Moreover, nobody would be surprised if Thomson
put three bottles of booze on ice in a small tin pail for his fishing trip that afternoon.
I could not confirm in my research whether or not the Hearst government’s enforcement
of the Temperance Act dried up the supply of alcoholic beverages in Mowat. However, in
Ontario's 1919 general election, with a referendum on prohibition on the ballot that
passed, a farm lobby group, the United Farmers of Ontario, shocked the nation by
defeating Hearst’s government, in part because he lost the “wets” without getting the
entire “dry” vote. Prohibition was ended in Ontario in 1927.
Booze and Tom Thomson