Brewing Monopoly in Ontario: Northern Breweries Ltd.

Soo Falls Brewing Company, Sault Ste Marie, 1932. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries
Soo Falls Brewing Company, Sault Ste Marie, 1932. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries

Northern Breweries Ltd. was a Canadian brewing company founded in 1907 by the Doran, Mackey, and Fee families. Located in Northern Ontario the company played a significant role in many northern communities and the built history of these facilities are still being considered locally.

The company originally started in Sudbury as the Sudbury Brewing and Malting Co. in 1907.  They later expanded throughout Northern Ontario by purchasing Soo Falls Brewing Co in Sault Ste Marie in 1911, Kakabeka Falls Brewing Co. in Fort William in 1913, in 191 they established a division in Timmins, and in 1948 they purchased the Port Arthur Beverage Co.

Prior to 1960 each of these breweries operated under their independent names.  In 1960 they were amalgamated and became collectively known as Northern Breweries.  Each of these local operations have distinct community based histories but the Northern Breweries company as a whole also has a history that has implications outside of the communities it operated in.

From 1942 to 1992 the breweries eventually known as Northern Breweries had a monopoly on draught beer in Northern Ontario.  If you were at a bar in the North and asked for a pint you got Northern Breweries beer. The first 30 years of this monopoly was provided by an agreement amongst brewers and the LCBO.  The last 20 years of protection was mandated under Ontario provincial legislation.

The Second World War resulted in the protected Northern Ontario draught market. The Wartime Alcoholic Beverages Order limited brewery production and to limit transportation resources in May 1942, wide distribution of beer in Ontario and Quebec was prohibited. Specifically, the order proclaimed,

No brewer shall sell or offer for sale or deliver any draught beer, ale, stout or porter which has been brewed in any brewery in the Province of Quebec or in any part of Ontario lying to the south of the 46th parallel of latitude, to any retail liquor store or place which is situated in any part of Ontario lying to the north of said parallel of latitude.

A similar provision prohibited breweries north of the 46th parallel from selling to the south. This measure effectively ensured the protection of Doran’s draught market. When WWII ended the Wartime order ceased however brewers and the LCBO continued to respect the artificial line separating Northern Ontario from Southern Ontario brewers.[i]

This informal agreement was brought into question in the 1970s with the sale of Northern Breweries to Canadian Breweries Limited.  This sale fundamentally changed the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ and Southern brewers indicated new interest in selling in the North.

In 1972 Arthur Wishart authored “Report of the Inquiry Into the Brewing Industry, Northern Ontario by A.A. Wishart” on the daught brewing industry in Northern Ontario that looked at the economic and social impacts of opening the North to competition.  Brewing in the North came a point of public debate.  The report emphasized the geographic nature of Northern Ontario and the high cost of shipping draught beer to the North, suggesting that the Southern brewers had little to gain from Northern expansion.

The fact that in 1972 the Ontario government passed legislation that essentially made Doran’s Northern Breweries a monopoly in the North is somewhat unusual.  The main argument for keeping the monopoly was the need to preserve Northern Ontario jobs and the potential negative socio-economic that allowing draught competition would bring. It also highlighted the contributions from the North to Provincial and Federal coffers and Doran’s submission to the report emphasized the role of the brewer in Northern communities and its place as a good ‘corporate citizen.’ Ultimately the monopoly was preserved because the Ontario government was “committed to a policy of encouraging industry to locate in northern Ontario.” Regional development took precedence over free enterprise.[ii]

Even with the protected draught market Doran’s sales began to drop. Coinciding with this decline in sales, in 1977 employees of Doran’s Northern Ontario Breweries purchased the Company from Canadian Breweries becoming the first employee owned brewing company in North America. Under this new leadership the company began to market outside of Northern Ontario. In the 1980s craft brewing also developed in Ontario creating a whole new set of regulatory discussions on the provincial level.

By the 1990s Northern businesses wanted to offer a wider range of draught beer. Starting in 1991 licensees were able purchase draught outside of the North if they transported it themselves. In 1992 the draught market in Sudbury was opened to all brewers, the rest of Northern Ontario followed in 1993.

The 1990s saw the decline of Northern Breweries sales even further. A revival of the company was attempted in 2004 when it was purchased and rebranded by an investment group. But in 2006 Northern Breweries closed its doors for the last time.

Today, many of the communities which housed Northern Breweries buildings are considering how to preserve this part of their local labour history.  In Sault Ste Marie, Riversedge Developments purchased the historical ‘Brewery Block’ and is in the midst of tearing down parts of the building and working on adaptive reuse plans for other portions of the site. Right now the Soo Falls brewing stack still stands as a reminder to locals of the rich brewing history in Sault Ste Marie.

[i] Daryl White. “Draught, Development, and Discourse: The Northern Ontario Draught Beer Monopoly, 1972-92.” Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes 47, no. 2 (2013): 5-28.

[ii] Wishart, A.A. 1972. Report of the Inquiry Into the Brewing Industry, Northern_Ontario. by A.A. Wishart Q.C. n.p.: Toronto: : s.n, 1972., 1972.

Heritage Hide’n’Seek GeoTour

Parks Canada recently announced a Northern Ontario heritage GeoTour that combines geocaching and the history of the Northern Ontario region.  Details on the GeoTour were a bit difficult to locate initially, as the links provided in my local paper didn’t direct users to the correct site and the parks website has a number of geolocation based programs.

The Hide’n’Seek program includes 16 geocaches located as far south as Algonquin Park, as far north as the James Bay coast, and as far west as Fort Frances.  Given the vast distance between the geocahes it is fairly unlikely that too many people will visit all of them.  However, there are various clusters located around Thunder Bay, Sault Ste Marie, Sudbury and the Hwy 17 corridor which might be great stopping points for anyone traveling across the province. 

The historical details of the GeoTour are well written and often involve visits to Parks Canada sites and local landmarks.  For example, the Sault Ste. Marie Commerce cache includes a visit to the Francis Clergue plaque, the Nicolas Perrot plaque, and the Ermatinger House.  Each stop includes a description of the historical context and explanation of the impact of person or location of the development of trade and commerce in Sault Ste Marie.  Given that this GeoTour was created by Parks Canada it’s not surprising that locations of many of the geocaches encourage participants to visit parks or local heritage sites.

Overall, the GeoTour seems like a neat way to encourage the general public to interact with history in a new way.  The tour is educational, includes a number of interesting landmarks, and makes use of the growing abundance of smartphones.  The only potential downside to the tour is that there are significant distances between many of the caches.  It would be nice to see more caches developed throughout the region so that local participants could take advantage of more of the GeoTour without having to drive thousands of kilometers. 

Canadian History via Ian Tamblyn

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Canadian folk musician Ian Tamblyn in concert.  Ian’s music has a distinctly Canadian feel to it and a number of his songs recount moments in Canadian history.  Some of the historical topics he touched on last night were the CPR, the Franklin expedition, First Nation/Settler tensions, and exploration of the North. 

Earlier this year Tom Peace wrote a great post for Active History on the relationship of music and historical understanding.  The ability to learn about the past is definitely present when listening to Tamblyn.

Since it’s Friday, here is a bit of Ian’s music to celebrate the weekend.

Come On Over! Northeastern Ontario A to Z

May 10th marked the release of Come on Over! Northeastern Ontario A to Z by Dieter Buse and Graeme Mount, professors emeritus of Laurentian University. From September to November 2010, while developing the book Buse and Mount were featured weekly on CBC Northern Ontario Radio’s Morning North program discussing communities from their book.

Come on Over! features antidotes and histories from over 100 communities in Northeaster Ontario. Excerpts of the book can be viewed online here. Buse and Mount have managed to succinctly cover a range of material, have used approachable language, and provided reference citations for anyone looking to explore their sources in detail. It’s great to see Northern Ontario history being explored and discussed on a popular forum and appreciated by a range of people.

An official launch of Come On Over! will be held Thursday May 19th at the Art Gallery of Sudbury at 7 p.m.

The Porcupine Express

This week’s Northern Ontario historical photo focuses on Timmins and more specifically The Porcupine Express, circa 1915. In 1911, the Temiskaming & Northern Ontario Railway line was extended to South Porcupine. That rail line is currently known as Ontario Northland Railway. South Porcupine is now one of the many neighbourhoods which makes up Timmins.

Timmins is currently in the midst of celebrating four centennials. These celebrations have inspired a number of commemoration projects and local histories to be written. A concise history of mining in the area is one example of this commemoration.

Photo credit: The History of Timmins, The Early Years. This website has a number of photographs of Timmins and area from Library and Archives Canada and local collections.

Nippising Junction Public School

This week’s Northern Ontario Historical Photograph is of the Nippising Junction Public School in 1948. This one room school house was for grades one to four and serviced an area that is now part of North Bay, Ontario.

This photograph is from the Michael Oldfield collection held by the Nippising University Archive. The Archive has a number of interesting collections, including a well documented selection of panoramas. However, the local history website and a number local history projects were completed by the Centre for Community and Oral History which no longer exists.

Fort William Grain Elevator

This week’s Northern Ontario historical photograph highlights a part of Thunder Bay’s history. The photograph is of the CPR grain elevators in Fort William, circa 1920. Fort William, Port Arthur and outlying townships amalgamated in January 1970 to form Thunder Bay. Fort William was established as a trading community and was essential in the movement of grain and other goods across the North.

This photograph is from Library and Archives Canada and is part of the Topley Studio fonds, which includes a number of interesting photographs of Ontario (predominantly the Ottawa region) from 1868-1926.

Additional photographs of the Fort William grain elevator and a great collection of historical photographs of the Thunder Bay region and Northwestern Ontario can be found on The Gateway to Northwestern Ontario site.