In the early 20th century, alcohol was blamed for many social problems, such as crime, public drunkenness, physical and mental abuse within the family, and poverty. As a result, the temperance movement, which called on people to abstain from drinking alcohol, gained ground in North America.
Temperance societies believed that if people stopped spending money on alcohol, many families would be able to improve their lives. In addition, the grain used in alcohol production would be used during the war for food instead. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union campaigned for a total prohibition on alcohol. Nellie McClung and Louise McKinney of the Famous Five were members of the movement.
Before and during World War I, the temperance movement led to the banning of alcohol in several provinces, including Alberta and Ontario. Bars were closed and selling alcohol became illegal. In 1918, under the War Measures Act, the federal government enacted Prohibition- laws against making and selling intoxicating liquor. The ban lasted until a year after the war ended.
Not all Canadians were happy with Prohibition, and a brisk illegal trade in alcohol developed. Criminals became rich selling expensive, illegal liquor to Canadians. Governments lost the income generated by alcohol taxes. By 1921, provincial governments began to repeal prohibition laws and replace them with government controlled liquor sales.
The United States Government had also introduced Prohibition, and the U.S. laws remained in effect well after Prohibition had ended in Canada. This created a profitable business opportunity for Canadian liquor companies, which looked the other way when their products were smuggled into the U.S.
Every year, “rum runners” transported about 45 Million litres of liquor into the U.S., often through remote land crossings or across lakes and rivers in boats. Small-scale smugglers often hid liquor containers in their clothing, in baby carriages, or in other ways. Larger-scale smugglers used fast boats or cars to bypass border checkpoints. Some Canadian rum runners, such as Rocco Perri and Emilio Picariello, developed reputations as larger-than-life “entrepreneurs.”
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The most infamous rum runner was Bensley Kerr of Hamilton, Ontario. Kerr was a pianist and plumber by trade and a man who did not like authority by nature. Hamilton was also home to the notorious mob boss Rocco Perri, who was the Canadian equivalent of Al Capone. Perri was one of the most charismatic individuals in the annals of crime and has the dubious distinction of making Hamilton—not Toronto—the head office for Ontario's mobs. Old Established distilleries and breweries expanded frantically during these years to supply the huge American market. In the process, Canada became one of the world's leading producers of distilled spirits, known the world over for the quality of our rye whisky. Men like Rocco Perri and Ben Kerr were the point men who connected the titans of the distilling industry with the bootleggers to the south.
Ben was an expert boatman and smuggler and personally shipped Canadian booze across lake Ontario in his speed boat. Like most rumrunners, Ben’s boat was armed with a machine gun Ben operated all around Lake Ontario, constantly trying to evade the US coast guard, police, and rival smugglers. One day, however, Kerr did not return. His body and that of his friend, Alf Wheat, were found weeks later washed up on the Lake Ontario Shore. The exact cause of his death remains unknown. His wife maintained that it was rival smugglers, while friends suggest that that an ice-field may have trapped his boat on the lake. Police made an immediate connection to Rocco Perri. Nothing was ever proved, but it seems likely that Perri arranged to have Kerr bumped off due to some bad business deal or other.