POLITICS CHATTER: Governments, money, and the business of controlling Canada’s most lucrative “vices”
People & Places

POLITICS CHATTER: Governments, money, and the business of controlling Canada’s most lucrative “vices”

In which contributing editor Mark Bourrie takes a historical look at how various Canadian governments have alternately embraced — or forbidden — Canada’s most lucrative “vices”

As I write this column, I’m sitting on a couch in the nude, waiting for Jerry Springer to come on. That might seem immoral to some. Or even an attack on everything resembling human dignity. Depends, I suppose, if you’ve ever seen me in the flesh.

But there’s so many more reasons to be scandalized. I was driving down the road the other day and was rather shocked to hear an ad by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario pushing whisky. Yes, folks, move up to whisky. It opens so many doors for you.

Soon, the LCBO will start its Christmas blitz, reminding us to salt away lots of hard liquor for the holiday season. For several reasons, most going back to childhood, the association of Christmas holidays and lots of booze gives me the chills. I bet the folks who work at shelters for abused women and pick the human carnage off the roads shudder, too.

Earlier this fall, I had a cover story in Canada’s History magazine about a crusading minister who busted up illegal saloons along the Detroit River during Canada’s Prohibition until he went too far and gunned down the owner of a blind pig. Back then, government morality involved sending out armed vigilantes — some of them on the take from bootleggers — to keep people from indulging in their vices.

And we made sure we followed the U.S. in most of its puritanical silliness. Sometimes we even led the way. We banned marijuana in 1920, before almost every other country, including the States. (The government then forgot it had solved this non-problem and, in 1936, banned it again.)

Now the government pushes booze and, if you have a friendly doctor, will sell you pot. (If you don’t have a friendly doctor, the government has a place for you in Kingston.)

There was a time when the cops went after people who sold Irish Sweepstakes tickets, which were a complicated and strange lottery that raised money for an Irish hospital. In some back alleys, gangsters sold suckers tickets in numbers rackets, games in which chumps paid a small amount of money to pick a slate of numbers that might come up, say, in the daily race horse results.

In 1975, when the Montreal Olympics construction project was bleeding money, the Trudeau government came out with the Olympic lottery. Tickets were $10, about the daily pay of a minimum wage worker, and the prize was $1 million. That lottery was a winner, making the feds tons of money. The provinces eventually got into the act and, within a few years, muscled the feds out of the numbers racket. Now we have a whack of lotteries, plus scratch tickets. They’re all sucker bets. The chances of winning Lotto 6/49 are beyond the numerical comprehension of all but a handful of mathematicians. And the Lotto Max lottery is ten times harder to win.

But lotteries haven’t been enough. Now we have casinos and slots. The commercials for them show people having fun, like kids at a carnival. My few visits to them showed that the commercials lied. The grim clientele don’t look like they’re having a lot of fun. In fact, those places look like some kind of gaudy sweat shop for the elderly. Some slot joints know their clientele so well that they offer free dinners on the days the Old Age Pension cheques come out.

Some people would see this as progress, as we head toward the ultimate nanny state, one that gives us pills to make us happy when we’re sad and sends a hooker around to the house when we are lonely. Governments will fight as hard as any Mafiosi to hold onto these rackets.

This is a democracy, and people can vote out the government bootleggers, numbers runners, dealers, and pimps if people believe vices should be privatized.

But let’s at least be honest about it. Governments that fleece old people in casinos and try to expand the market for hard liquor have little right to moralize about addicts who need clean needles or to send out armies of cops every fall looking for people’s pot patches.

And if I want to kick back with a joint while I watch toothless hillbillies fight on Springer, I won’t be doing anything as bad as conning the poor out of their welfare cheques and egging on drunks at Christmas.