Examining Our Alcoholic Past

Next to caffeine and nicotine, alcohol is a favorite drug of Canadians everywhere and yet, like the cars we drive, most of us don't know anything about it. Sure, we know what we like but ask your average citizen anything about the differences between a lager and an ale, for example, or the history of alcohol and you'll get, at best, some half-remembered quotes from a Molson commercial.

The Museum Studies program at the University of Toronto is looking to change all of that with their end-of-term exhibition entitled Bottoms Up! A Spirited History of Drink in Canada. Appropriately housed at the Steam Whistle Gallery, this show delves not only into the boozy history of our nation but also focuses on health issues, the industry supporting the production of alcohol, aesthetics (a major factor when you consider that most people base at least their initial purchases on whether they like the label or not) and the culture surrounding our favorite beverages.

If you've ever wanted to find out exactly how the LCBO came to be the near-monopoly it is today, whatever happened to the stubby, or the hoops people used to have to jump through just to buy a bottle of whiskey, this is the place to go. Besides the timeline and informative displays, there are a number of artifacts to look at as well.

The posters demonizing alcohol (Plants watered with alcohol die? You don't say!) were just as outlandishly amusing as our anti-drug PSAs today but my favorite was the rather intimidating shot glass with measurements engraved on the side. Ladies got one ounce and gentlemen got two while three and four ounces were the exclusive domain of "pigs" and "jackasses," respectively.

I would have liked to see a more thorough debate centered around the liquor laws as they stand today but perhaps that's beyond the scope of this show. Amanda McFillen, a member of the curatorial team, pointed out that "the history of alcohol has been researched fairly extensively in the States but not as much in Canada. This [show] represents a chance for us to explore our own history." Considering that I haven't been exposed to all that much information myself, I'm somewhat inclined to agree with her.

Still, the prohibitionist mentality that lingers throughout Canada's legislation of alcohol consumption is troubling. Like a stale beer the day after a party, I happen to think that a fair number of 'em have worn out their welcome.

Why is last call at 2 AM? Why don't we lower taxes on alcohol? Why can't we order out-of-province wine directly from the source instead of having to go through the LCBO? Speaking of our "Licbo" why do some mom-and-pop grocery stores in the States have a better selection? Hell, why can't we buy alcohol at our local convenience store? Maybe my friends and I are all unrepentant alcoholics but I'm betting a lot of Canadians would like to see the laws behind these questions reexamined.

Even so, if you're under twenty-one, of poor character and a member of the First Nations, you couldn't have bought alcohol in 1927 but you can go to this exhibition and learn why, in some ways, we're much better off today.

Bottoms Up! A Spirited History of Drink in Canada, is at the Steam Whistle Gallery until April 2, 2007. All exhibitions are open free to the public, from Monday to Saturday, 12 PM to 6 PM and Sunday, 12 PM to 5 PM.

The Steam Whistle Gallery is located at 255 Bremner Blvd., south of the CN Tower.


Photos courtesy of Museum Studies, UofT. (Victory Celebration in Halifax, N.S. Grafton Park, 1944 [Kellock Commission, Library and Archives Canada, C-079571]).

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