From bootleggers to the SAQ — how Prohibition shaped the way Quebec drinks

·6 min read

By the time the teenager from faraway Quebec stepped off the train in Chicago, Al Capone was already building one of the largest clandestine trafficking operations in North America.

It was 1920. Paul Lafrenais wasn't yet 20 years old when he left Lévis — his hometown on the south shore of Quebec City — in search of adventure, yes, but also to avoid the local constabulary after a bank robbery gone awry.

"Lévis was a small place, with 10,000 residents, you couldn't keep a secret for very long. So he left," said Lafrenais's nephew, Dan Gosselin.

The timing was impeccable: Lafrenais arrived in the United States the same year a constitutional amendment banning the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol went into effect.

As a youngster, Gosselin would sit at his uncle's kitchen table, in the old house he bought upon returning home, on Côte du Passage. He would listen to Lafrenais recount his escapades delivering crates of moonshine across the border to Chicago.

Those tales are compiled in a 2018 book Gosselin wrote called Frenchie, in honour of the nickname Lafrenais carried during his time in the Windy City.

Submitted by Dan Gosselin/Personal archives
Submitted by Dan Gosselin/Personal archives

Looking back, Gosselin said Lafrenais "never talked about the things he did with pride. The only thing he was proud of is that he was never arrested."

While digging through archives and hunting down documents to support his uncle's claims, Gosselin became immersed in a chapter of Quebec history he knew little about: the province's unique position during North American Prohibition. It was the only Canadian jurisdiction to forgo a complete ban on alcohol.

Historian Laurent Busseau said the decision made by the Quebec government to grab control of alcohol sales, rather than banning them, proved to be a lucrative one.

In 1898, the federal government held a referendum to ask voters whether they wanted a countrywide ban on alcohol. While 51.3 per cent in the rest of Canada voted in favour of Prohibition, 81.2 per per cent in Quebec voted against.

Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier didn't press the issue any further, leaving the provinces to draft their own legislation.

Quebec's landed ten years later. In early 1918, Premier Lomer Gouin opted for a compromise following a vigorous lobbying campaign from the brewing industry.

Driving for Capone

Beer, cider and wine remained legal, and could be sold in restaurants. Hard liquor would only be sold at the Commission des liqueurs, which came into being in 1921. The proposal sailed through by way of referendum in April of 1919, as the U.S. traveled the opposite path.

"It brought in a lot of revenue that Quebec was able to invest in social programs and to build roads — Quebec definitely benefited from Prohibition," Busseau said.

It still does, in a way. The Commission des liqueurs eventually became the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ). In 2019, the SAQ brought in net earnings of $1.146 billion to the Quebec government.

The province also escaped much of the violence and organized crime that escalated in the U.S. during the 1920s, said Busseau, despite its direct role in providing millions of litres of alcohol to thirsty Americans thanks to the efforts of young men like the teenager from Lévis.

Lafrenais worked in warehouses in Chicago and ran deliveries across the border, loaded with bottles of counterfeit hooch.

Gosselin was only five years old when his uncle first told him he had also worked as a driver for a certain Al Capone.

AP File Photo
AP File Photo

"The name meant nothing to me at the time of course," said Gosselin. Capone ruled over organized crime in Chicago between 1925 and 1931, and became one of the most infamous gangsters in American history.

Despite his success with Capone's crew, and despite earning gargantuan sums of money, Lafrenais decided to return to Quebec after eight years in the Windy City.

"His nerves were shot, he could no longer stand it," said Gosselin.

Back in Lévis, Lafrenais used the lessons he'd learned in Chicago to build his own empire.

Even though Prohibition had never formally been proclaimed in Quebec, the temperance movement had enough of a toe-hold that the possibilities were endless for an experienced bootlegger.

So Lafrenais used taxi driving as a front for his deliveries.

Tourism haven

Not only did Prohibition benefit the illicit alcohol trade, it also provided a source of steady income for legitimate businesses that wanted to attract American tourists.

The Eastern Townships region, with its close proximity to Vermont and Maine, became a prime location for Americans in search of a good meal they could wash down with a beer.

But tourists weren't necessarily after alcohol — Hollywood films, which were banned in certain states, were screened in restaurants like the Selby Lake Inn in Dunham, said Busseau.

Collection Historien sans Frontière 2010 /Historical Richford Society, Vermont
Collection Historien sans Frontière 2010 /Historical Richford Society, Vermont

"There was this cultural renaissance in Hollywood at the time. Movies starring women — that were pushing boundaries — and they weren't being screened in many States," he said.

While some businesses were able to make a buck while abiding by the law, others continued to sell hard liquor.

Busseau says there were codes to let customers know. For example in Sutton, people knew to look for businesses that sold "soup".

Others decided to make their cash on the border, in some instances literally.

That was the case for Lilian Miner, who opened Queen Lil's Palace in 1911. The legendary establishment was perhaps better known as the Palace of Sin.

The hotel, which in actual fact was a brothel and tavern, straddled the border between Glen Sutton and Vermont.

Collection Historien sans Frontière 2010/Historical Richford Society, Vermont
Collection Historien sans Frontière 2010/Historical Richford Society, Vermont

"It was a gold mine, because customers could come in through either door," said Busseau. The handy location also allowed Miner and her staff to evade police, whenever they showed up, by escaping to the other country.

While Quebec didn't have formal Prohibition, the 1864 Canada Temperance Act — later known as the Scott Act — allowed Canadian municipalities and counties to hold referendums to determine whether they were to be wet or dry.

Many didn't choose a camp until the First World War. But by 1918, fully 90 per cent of municipalities in Quebec were dry — including Trois-Rivières, Verdun, Sainte-Agathe and, as Lafrenais would later exploit, Lévis.

The last speakeasy?

Regions like alcohol-free Charlevoix saw a major proliferation of speakeasies — clandestine taverns where people could enjoy a drink but had to talk softly, so as to not attract scrutiny and unwelcome law enforcement attention.

Johanne Brassard owns what may be one of the last real speakeasies in the province, located in a building that was used to sell alcohol illegally in the 1930s.

La Maison du Bootlegger, in La Malbaie, was named after the black market traders, who carried the precious bottles inside their boots. It still attracts tourists from around the world.

"You can really feel the atmosphere when you walk in, just because it was always a party place," said Brassard, who purchased the building in 1996.

The original house was bought in the 1930s by a rich Pennsylvanian named Norie Sellar.

Submitted by Johanne Brassard
Submitted by Johanne Brassard

Sellar created a maze of corridors and hidden rooms where he could hide his customers while they played a game of illegal poker. Trap doors also allowed bootleggers to discreetly hide bottles inside walls, where staff would pick them up the next morning.

Brassard keft the infrastructure intact when she bought the building in 1996. She said interest in the Prohibition era is definitely still there — in a typical year she welcomes more than 17,500 people.

"Every time they come here, they can't get over it. You can hear them get off the bus and yell 'Yeah, the Bootlegger'," she said. "It's like they're at Walt Disney [World]."