The remarkable true story of the fight to outright ban margarine in Canada

Excerpt: Butter’s lesser sibling had a rocky introduction into Canada, as revealed in the book Booze, Cigarettes, and Constitutional Dust-Ups

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The story of margarine dates back to the mid-1800s in France and includes an interesting tale of Canadian interprovincial trade. Food shortages, especially for edible fats, stimulated a 19th-century search for butter substitutes. A French scientist by the name of Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès conceived of a palatable substance that could serve as an alternative. His process combined heat, pressure, beef fat, and a type of salt to produce an oil that could be churned with milk, water, and yellow colouring. It didn’t have the mouth-watering richness of butter, but it helped the French soften stale bread in their time of need. It is ironic that the nation with the highest per-capita consumption of butter in the world, and whose cuisine relies heavily on the dairy product, should invent its lesser sibling.

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Production of the spread in the United States grew quickly. In 1886, only 17 years after its initial invention in France, 37 plants in the United States manufactured oleomargarine, as margarine was then called. This same growth in its manufacture had not yet occurred in Canada, and certain politicians wished to take advantage of this lag. In 1886, Member of Parliament Thomas Sproule argued: “so far as known, (oleomargarine) is not now manufactured in the country; and there is no time that you can deal so well with such a matter as before vested interests are established.” Sproule wanted to ban the substance before commercial production could even begin in the young confederation.

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Margarine had caused an uproar in Canada on account of its artificiality and the potential for consumer deceit. In 1884, the British Columbian, a newspaper in New Westminster, reported that a New York health inspector had been sold margarine that shopkeepers had advertised as butter. Commenting on this affront, the British Columbian wrote that “it is manifestly unfair that a man should keep paying high prices for refined grease when he believes he is getting good dairy produce.” Popular belief held that margarine was a threat to public health. In a House of Commons debate in 1886, John Wood, Member of Parliament for Brockville, Ont., captured the mood about public safety concerns that many in the house had already articulated that day: “If it is a fact … that oleomargarine is a dangerous article of food, it becomes our duty, not alone to regulate, but to prohibit its importation.”

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Though the consumer deception and risks to public health may have genuinely concerned politicians at the time, protection of the Canadian dairy industry was a key driver of the movement to prohibit margarine. Canadian politicians freely admitted the adverse commercial consequences for dairy farmers as justification for a ban. In that same House of Commons debate in 1886, Sproule argued that the sale of margarine harmed the bottom lines of Canadian farmers: “the existence of [oleo-margarine] detracts from the profits of the agriculturalists of this country, who represent a very large number of people.” Wood also noted how it was a competitive threat to butter and the dairy industry.

The proposal to restrict margarine was brought before the House by George Taylor, member of Parliament for Leeds, Ont., where dairy farming was a dominant industry. In 1871, an agricultural census showed that nearly every farm in the county had a portion of its business involved in the manufacture of butter. Indicative of dairy’s role in the county’s economy, Leeds at that time produced the most cheese of any county in Ontario. In 1892, 76 factories in Leeds produced $807,000 worth of cheese, amounting to approximately 10 per cent of Ontario’s cheese output for that year.

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Shortly after the May 1886 House of Commons debate on margarine’s prohibition, the federal government enacted a total ban on the spread, which would last until 1949. Margarine thus became an illicit substance. Protection of the consumer and of the dairy industry were both cited as justification. In the 1920s, Alan Neill, a member of Parliament from British Columbia, continued the line of argumentation made by members in 1886, contending before his colleagues in the House of Commons that “oleomargarine is not a substitute for butter. It is a deceptive counterfeit,” and that Canadians were entitled to protection from the substance in the same way “that a man says he is entitled to when he finds that his house has been broken into and he claims the protection of the law.” On account of federal legislation, butter faced no competition from margarine until the middle of the 20th century, aside from a brief interlude between 1917 and 1922 in response to wartime conditions.

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After World War II, the Supreme Court of Canada had something to say about the 1886 law that had instituted a nation-wide margarine ban. Dairy was still an important industry in Canada. Approximately $400 million of dairy products were produced every year, including $150 million of butter. In 1949, this would have amounted to nearly one-third the value of all agricultural output in Canada. Though the industry played a critical role in Canada’s agricultural economy, one justice noted how Canada was at that time the only “important” country that prohibited the importation, production, and consumption of margarine.

The Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had the power to ban the importation of margarine because the constitution gives Parliament jurisdiction over trade and commerce. However, the court also declared that the federal government could not use its constitutional authority over criminal law in Canada to prohibit the domestic manufacture, sale, and possession of margarine. Ottawa could keep Canadians from bringing margarine across the border with its trade and commerce power, but it had no power to stop them from making it in their basement or spreading it on toast. Rather, it was up to the provinces to clamp down on the substance if they so pleased.

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The dairy industry turned to provincial governments, refocusing their lobbying efforts to achieve the same protection that the federal law had provided. It worked. Two provinces, Quebec and Prince Edward Island, adopted policies of full-blown prohibition until 1961 and 1965 respectively. The other provinces began requiring that margarine be coloured differently than butter. The purpose of this policy was not only to allow consumers to easily distinguish the appearance of margarine from butter, but also to attach a negative stigma to margarine and emphasize its unnaturalness. Colouration policy found precedent in the United States. Certain states went farther than others; at one point Vermont and New Hampshire required that margarine be coloured pink.

The U.S. federal government had also participated in a campaign against margarine. Congress used its federal taxation powers to essentially coerce margarine manufacturers into producing colourless and unappetizing products. In 1902, Congress amended its 1886 Olemargarine Act to tax coloured margarine at a rate of 10 cents per pound (equal to $3.00 today, accounting for inflation), as compared to 0.25 cents per pound for its uncoloured counterpart. This massive surcharge made coloured margarine just as costly as the less-expensive grades of butter. Provincial regulators across Canada, like their counterparts south of the border, did what they could to make margarine as unappealing as possible to defend butter’s market share.

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Though most provinces allowed their butter colouration policies to lapse in the 1970s, Quebec reinstituted its War on Margarine in 1987 with a prohibition of coloured margarine. During the 1980s, Quebec regularly produced nearly half of Canada’s entire output of butter. Dairy products such as butter and cheese were Quebec’s main agricultural yield at the time, constituting 34 per cent of its total value. The provincial rule required that margarine in Quebec take on a distasteful white appearance, akin to lard.

In 1997, margarine producers took the Quebec government to court, alleging in part that the margarine measures violated section 121. The Quebec trial court upheld the colouration policy, ruling that the measures related to commercial activities taking place wholly within Quebec, and that any interference with interprovincial trade was merely incidental.

There is almost no clearer case of protectionism than the Quebec prohibition against coloured margarine. The powerful Quebec dairy industry had gained legal insulation from competition through the legislative process. However, a willingness to insulate our dairy industry from some of the open market’s ravaging forces is also a part of Canada’s culture and identity. It is a compromise that Canadians have accepted to ensure that rural farming communities retain their vitality, and to keep dairy a part of Canada’s agricultural industry.

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The margarine fight did not end at the Supreme Court, however, as Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan would take Quebec to task under the Agreement on Internal Trade (AIT). Strife amongst Canada’s agriculturalists spelled another domestic trade battle.

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The majority of vegetable oil consumed in Canada comes from two oilseeds: canola and soybean. Canola, which has captured approximately 45 per cent of Canada’s margarine market, is a particularly important farm product for the prairie provinces. In 2004, the year that the trio (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba) filed suit against Quebec under the AIT, they produced over 98 per cent of Canada’s total canola output, valued at $2.1 billion. This figure constituted nearly 11 per cent of total farm output value for those provinces in that year. In launching the AIT dispute, Canada’s breadbasket was on a mission to expand the market for one of its most prized agricultural products. The case of Quebec – Coloured Margarine was a civil war between western Canada’s farmers and Quebec’s dairyers: canola versus cows. In the crosshairs was that Quebec measure that required margarine to appear colourless. The dispute panel concluded that butter and margarine were “like” one another. Because the two were like, and because Quebec discriminated against margarine which chiefly hailed from out of province, Quebec was found to have violated the AIT’s non-discrimination obligation.

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With the AIT decision, the internal trade dispute adjudicators called for a halt on the spread of the spread’s second-class status. Quebec – Margarine was important for curbing the discriminatory treatment afforded to margarine in Quebec.

The war between butter and margarine that raged between Canada’s prairie provinces and Quebec in the legal setting of the AIT is a microcosm of the regional rifts that pervade the country’s historical narrative. In particular, it speaks to a tradition of antagonism between western and eastern Canada on national economic policy. Whether over market access for canola, pipelines to transport bitumen from the oilsands, Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program, or Sir John A. Macdonald’s national policy tariffs, conflict between the economic and political interests of its regions threads through the Canadian story.

Excerpted from Booze, Cigarettes, and Constitutional Dust-Ups by Ryan Manucha, Chapter 11 ‘Margarine Meltdown’ (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022)

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