Punched Drunk: Alcohol, Surveillance and the LCBO, 1927-1975

LCBO Surveillance Technologies

Punch Cards, IBM & Statistical Analysis


Social Sorting and the LCBO

Fundamentally, the practice of sorting requires a means of differentiating one object from another. It thus necessitates a classification system — “a set of boxes (metaphysical or literal) into which things can be put to then do some kind of work” (Bowker and Star 2000: 10). In the case of the LCBO, the “boxes” were to be filled based on its prejudiced and stereotypical understanding of types of drinkers; the “work” at hand was to sort out those deemed unworthy of the permit privilege. Within these types of systems, classifications play key roles in building an understanding of objects and in providing for the analysis, comparison, and sorting of them. The classifications used and developed within a system not only represent social, political, and organizational agendas, but also act as a kind of social scaffolding on which social action is overlaid (Bowker and Star 2000: 102).

The first line of classification came through the liquor permits themselves — in tracking the purchases of all permit holders across the province. The LCBO used purchase records as a means of identifying those considered to be problem users, as well as those in need of selective prohibition due to their own inability to resist the immorality and abuse brought on by liquor. In this way the Board initially separated those considered worthy of the permit privilege from those who — based on racial or socio-cultural considerations — presented an overly risky possibility of intemperance, corruption, and wrongdoing.

The Board’s social sorting classification system and its subsequent means of perceiving/constructing individuals began with simple distinctions. Under the rubric of social sorting, the Board divided the population into five groups: (1) those who did not drink; (2) those who did drink but could handle the temptation to imbibe intemperately and impose self-control upon themselves; (3) those who did drink and required extra supervision to avoid temptation; (4) those who could not, or would not, exercise self-control; and (5) those who simply posed too great a risk — either to the Board’s reputation for promoting moderation and control or to the likelihood of exposing the Board to criminal or civil legal action — and thus should not be able to buy liquor at all. Each subsequent “sort” represented a perceived elevation in the level of associated risk. The Board applied strict classifications to place individuals into one of these categories a and differentiate how people should be treated and mediated as LCBO instructions and circulars made clear — depicting in different words the types of individuals to whom it restricted access to liquor (LCBO Circular no. 829, 1929, no. 1601, 1934).

The Board informed its employees of this classificatory distinction based on self-control, separating the second group, which could enact self-control, and group three, those who needed extra supervision to do so, from group four, the people who could not or would not control themselves. The technology of the liquor permit maintained these distinctions. In a 1928 circular the Board explained:

“Persons who cannot or will not exercise self-control and moderation in the use of liquor are hardly suitable as permittees, since they create prejudice against the law, for which they voted. The law was not designed to facilitate excessive and harmful indulgence. An abuser of the permit privilege prejudices the welfare of himself and dependents, sometimes in an extreme degree. Virtually he is, by his immoderation, a “knocker” of the law. Such cases are comparatively few, as it is estimated that those who abuse the permit privileges are not more than 5% and certainly less than 10% of permittees, but they are the cases for us to concentrate upon, with a view to bringing them to reason, or terminating their permits… the real addict should not have a permit at all” (LCBO Circular no. 497, 1928).

To maintain the validity of the liquor permit as an identifier of those capable of drinking in a temperate manner, LCBO staff and policing organizations scrutinized purchases within the permit book; in cases of intemperance, displayed through drunkenness, bootlegging, misspending of income, or other violations of the Liquor Control Act or LCBO regulations, they were to suggest the confiscation of the permit (LCBO Vendor’s Instructions 1927; LCBO Circular no. 333, 1928). The revoked permits were sent to head office (LCBO Special Instructions 1927: 6). However, people who had their permits revoked thus had no permits — stamped or otherwise — and the LCBO thus lacked a means of ensuring that those classified as “unworthy of the permit privilege” and in need of control retained this status and were barred from obtaining a new liquor permit.

<< The Interdiction Process
Unequal Application of Interdiction (1953-1975)
Social Sorting and the LCBO

Interdiction List History
The LCBO’s Cancellation List 1927–36

The Prohibited List 1929–65
Preventative Cancellations 1930–75
The Interdiction List (LCBO Action) 1965–75
The Identification of Listed Individuals 1927–75
Assessment and Analysis of Listed Individuals >>