One of Alberta’s last dry communities could soon see pours of alcohol

One of Alberta’s last dry communities could soon see pours of alcohol

by Sue Jones
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Raymond, a close-knit agricultural community about 250 kilometres southeast of Calgary, has been dry since it was founded in 1903. These days, you can drink in town, but you just can’t purchase alcohol there — yet.

Sheva Whitehead Richard Kiddle

Sheva Whitehead, left, lives in Raymond and wants to see it grow to embrace serving alcohol in restaurants in town. Raymond historian Richard Kiddle says the town was founded on the values of prohibition. (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC)

About a half-hour’s drive from Lethbridge, Alta., is the town of Raymond, a community known for the accomplishments of its high school sports teams, its religious traditions and as the home of the first stampede rodeo in the country.

On a cool, spring evening, locals trickle into the Raymond Senior Centre located just off the town’s quiet main street. The crowd has come to debate an issue long-decided in other parts of the country: should restaurants in town be allowed to serve alcohol.

Following an address from the town council, there are warnings of the dangers of imbibing; there’s concern for the youth. Some say it’s not a big deal — it’s the 21st century, after all. Others, like Chonita Sims, want no part of a town that serves its people liquor.

“I feel like if we’re going to open this door, we can never close it again.”

What’s clear is that the discussion goes beyond whether or not to serve booze; it hits at the southern Alberta town’s very identity.

Town Of Raymond Theatre Library

The town of Raymond is home to about 4,200 people. (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC)

Raymond, a close-knit agricultural community about 250 kilometres southeast of Calgary, has been dry since it was founded in 1903. These days, you can drink in town. You just can’t purchase alcohol there.

The public engagement session among town council and townsfolk last week was the second of its kind in recent weeks.

It’s not the first time the debate on alcohol has come up in the town’s history, but it could be the first time it leads to anything changing.

When Alberta’s prohibition ended in 1924, some municipalities voted to maintain the ban on liquor stores and other licensed establishments. That included the area around Raymond.

Raymond Pioneer Museum

Kiddle, who is the president of the Raymond and District Historic Society, stands next to the likeness of several of the settlers in the area at the Raymond Pioneer Museum. (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC)

Now, that prohibition could end in the town due to a combination of changes in provincial rules and an appetite among a couple of local restaurants to begin serving alcohol.

The town says it would consider class A liquor licences only, meaning a food-first restaurant where minors are allowed.

Town council wants to hear from the people of Raymond before it votes on whether to amend their land use bylaw to allow for a licensed restaurant.

Why prohibition stuck

Raymond’s long-time dry status has been rooted in three things: lingering prohibition laws in the area, restrictions attached to land titles in town and deeply held community beliefs.

After the end of prohibition across the province a century ago, municipalities were allowed to weigh in on the topic through what was called local option votes.

“It fell to local areas to decide for themselves if they wanted to petition for local option vote,” said Sarah Hamill, an assistant professor of law at Trinity College in Dublin, who has studied Alberta’s prohibition laws.

Depending on the outcome of the vote, a community would either stay dry or not. Raymond opted to remain dry under prohibition until June 2020. That’s when the last of those old prohibition laws were scrapped by the provincial government under an omnibus bill.

“Raymond is no longer a community that’s prohibited, but it’s just a community without licence,” said Kurtis Pratt, chief administrative officer with the town.

The nearby towns of Cardston and Magrath are also gradually making changes to allow alcohol to be served. The village of Stirling, northeast of Raymond, still abstains from alcohol sales.

A man named Jesse Knight

Even though the blanket ban on serving alcohol and liquor stores has been removed, other restrictions, older than Alberta’s prohibition, remain.

When the town of Raymond was created, a wealthy silver miner named Jesse Knight gifted much of the land that now makes up the town, said Richard Kiddle, president of the Raymond and District Historical Society.

“[He] was encouraged by the church to come up and share his resources and establish in the area up here,” said Kiddle.

Indeed, religion is an important part of the story.

Jesse Knight Land Titles Act

A copy of the Land Titles Act from 1894 and a photo of Jesse Knight, a major benefactor to the town of Raymond, at the Raymond Pioneer Museum. (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC)

The people who built the town of Raymond were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said Kiddle, a member of the church himself.

He says abstaining from drinking alcohol was a part of the “code of conduct” in Raymond.

“It was something that they … wanted to carry on for their families, the same tradition, and hopefully that their children and families would abstain as well,” he said.

Knight built the sugar beet factory in the area and, over time, his holding company acquired thousands of hectares of land in the area. When he eventually left land to the town, he attached restrictive covenants.

The phrasing varies but an example from 1894 read that “no building, tent or erection … shall at any time be used or occupied as a place wherein intoxicating liquors are sold, traded or bartered whether by licence or otherwise.”

Those covenants still exist on a majority of the land in Raymond. Town council plans not to have them removed. They say it would be a lengthy and expensive process.

Rather, they would consider liquor licence applications only on land not under that protection.

‘It’s not a dry town’

Now, Raymond is at a crossroads.

Gillian Eaves attended last week’s public engagement session on licensing alcohol. She grew up in Raymond and now lives in Stirling. Her business, Cowboy Bistro, is one of the local establishments intending to seek a liquor licence.

She said she doesn’t want the town to have a liquor store or a bar but wants restaurants to be able serve alcohol, adding “we just want inclusivity.”

Eaves says people get passionate about the town’s heritage and “dry status” but that, actually, people will still imbibe.

“This is not a dry town. I grew up here,” she said with a laugh.

Chonita Sims Kelly Jensen

Chonita Sims, left, is opposed to the idea of licensing restaurants to serve alcohol in town. Town Coun. Kelly Jensen says Raymond is more than its stance on liquor. (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC)

Sheva Whitehead, who has lived in Raymond for two decades, told the same public session that she loves her town but wants to see it grow beyond its dry identity.

“Raymond is a really awesome town, but we kind of have this bubble mentality,” she said.

On the other hand, Chonita Sims doesn’t want to see alcohol sold here. In fact, it’s one of the reasons she moved to Raymond decades ago.

“That has been our culture, our heritage, and I really don’t want to lose that. It is a drawing point for people to our community,” she said.

Coun. Kelly Jensen, who has lived in town for nearly four decades, says it’s a contentious issue in town because it’s tied to people’s personal values and personal experiences with alcohol.

For her, Raymond’s appeal doesn’t lie in its alcohol-free stance but in its strength of community. It’s a place, she says, where people feel safe having their kids play, wander and walk to school.

“I think the biggest thing is the fear of the unknown, fear of change.”

CBC Calgary has launched a Lethbridge bureau to help tell your stories from southern Alberta with reporter Jennifer Dorozio. Story ideas and tips can be sent to [email protected].

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