A documentary I watched recently about the rum-running trade from B.C. to the U.S. during the Americans’ major experiment with alcohol prohibition from 1920 to 1933 reminded me of home.
Criminal fortunes were made during that time, and some of the biggest and more luxurious homes in Vancouver and Victoria were built out of the vast quantities of money that was made by those willing to take the risk of smuggling booze.
It seems like ancient history to many, but such activities are still happening, although in decline, along the Burin Peninsula in Newfoundland.
For at least the last 100 years, people in that part of the province have been crossing the 12-mile stretch of ocean to St. Pierre and Miquelon to purchase cheap French booze and cigarettes and bring them back to Newfoundland.
The two small linked islands belong to France, and it always surprised me how few Canadians realize that we have a small piece of that European country so close to our nation’s shores.
St. Pierre and Miquelon, which has been in French hands since 1815 after numerous wars with England, is the only part of New France in North America that remains under French control.
But, despite the long years of war between the English and the French, the relationship between those on the islands and the nearby Burin Peninsula has been strong for generations.
The communities have long histories of fishing, and their lives have been crossing paths for decades in the waters off their shores.
St. Pierre and Miquelon had a 13-year economic boom when the Americans introduced Prohibition and it became a prominent base for alcohol smuggling into the U.S.
In fact, one local pub in St. Pierre has a hat prominently displayed that is claimed had belonged to Al Capone, the Chicago mobster who made his fame and fortune smuggling alcohol into his country, when he visited there to arrange deals for alcohol.
Those boom days died along with Prohibition, but the smuggling continued, albeit on a much smaller scale, between the Burin Peninsula and St. Pierre and Miquelon.
I remember as a young kid that almost every household on the Burin Peninsula would have liquor bottles and cigarette packages covered in French, and that it was a constant complaint from local government liquor stores (which were the only ones around at the time) that hardly anyone ever bought their booze from them.
In response, the RCMP began conducting frequent patrols of the waters between Newfoundland and the French islands to catch the smugglers but, as the smugglers were from their communities and their activities were beneficial to most of the population, the people of the Burin Peninsula would go out of their way to protect them.
In fact, the smugglers achieved a sort of Robin Hood status, and the people in the communities would call them on their radios when a police boat was spotted in the area and they would quickly get out of sight.
Of course, as the saying goes, you can’t fight city hall forever and the police brought in more patrols and bigger and faster boats to catch more of the smugglers.
There is a lot less of this illegal trade there now, but it has not been completely extinguished and it’s not uncommon to find French booze in the liquor cabinets of the local population even to this day.
That’s a story you won’t find in many history books.