Workshop Spotlight: Tale of Two Cities

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Prohibition in Toronto and Montreal

The Academy workshop, “Tale of Two Cities”, is a unique collaboration between two “third age” organisations, our own ALLTO and the MCLL (McGill Community for Lifelong Learning). Facilitated by Lorne Huston in Montreal and Andris Rubenis in Toronto, the Zoom sessions have featured a shared presentation by each city, with each presentation followed by general discussion. Common themes have been sought to allow comparison and contrast of viewpoints and history in the two cities. A session in Winter 2023 featured two topics related to 1920s prohibition: Little Burgundy, presented by Bruce Macleod in Montreal, and Prohibition in Ontario, presented by Laura Tyson in Toronto.

Little Burgundy in Montreal

Little Burgundy was a neighbourhood in the southwest of Montreal which, from the 1920s to the 1950s, was an impoverished but culturally rich area of the city. South of the tracks both geographically and metaphorically, and close to both Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railway stations, it was home mainly to Black American and Caribbean immigrants, many of whom worked on the railways.

Prohibition in the 1920s made Montreal a North American place where you could have a good time. Jazz bars like the Café St-Michel and Rockhead Paradise became iconic destinations. Rockhead Paradise, founded in 1928 by a former railway porter named Rufus Rockhead, was a landmark in the neighbourhood with multiple floors and a mezzanine, all with bars that did a roaring trade. The jazz clubs served a mainly Black clientele, but became so famous that they became a weekend destination for tourists seeking music and booze. Little Burgundy became in some ways a “Harlem North”.

The list of musicians included a “Who’s Who” of American jazz artists, but Little Burgundy also became an incubator for Canadian talent including Oliver Jones and, most notably, the brilliant Oscar Peterson. Bruce showed a number of excellent and evocative National Film Board video clips of the neighbourhood and residents reminiscing, but the highlight was a brilliant duet between Oscar and Oliver, late in their careers, at The Montreal Jazz Festival.

The 1960s brought change to the jazz clubs and the neighbourhood, driven by the Quiet Revolution, Jean Drapeau’s mission to clean up Montreal which demolished large sections, crosstown expressway development, the decline of the railways, changes in musical tastes, and the advent of television.

Today, Little Burgundy exists mainly as commemorative plaques and guided tours. The big jazz clubs are gone, replaced by smaller venues scattered through the city. The Montreal Jazz Festival is the biggest in the world and an outstanding event but, despite the name, is so eclectic in its musical selection that “jazz” is something of a misnomer.

Prohibition in Ontario

Laura Tyson presented a number of slides, including photos and cartoons, illustrating the effects of prohibition in Toronto and other parts of Canada. The Ontario Temperance Act was in force from 1916 to 1927; by contrast in Quebec, temperance was enacted and repealed in the same year, 1919. Prohibition was meant to save society but instead provided opportunities for bootleggers and other racketeers, including the Whisky King and Bessie the Bootlegger, described by Laura.

The discussion that followed included recollection of the sometimes-not-quite-legal history of Seagrams and Gooderham & Worts, the good old days of buying LCBO alcohol unseen in brown paper bags, wet and dry towns, and “Toronto the Good” with its Sunday laws which extended well into the 1970s.

Don Plumb

Updated February 21, 2023