The Margarine Wars


When most Canadians think of bootlegging, they think of booze, Al Capone, and the Moose Jaw tunnels. But the most controversial banned substance north of the 49th was not hooch, but your grandma’s favourite spread – margarine.  

Margarine was banned in Canada from 1886 until 1948. Who knew that (dairy) lobbyists were already working in the late 1800s. Only the First World War was disruptive enough to break the ban.

The controversy over what you could spread on your morning toast was not a fringe issue. In fact, it nearly prevented Newfoundland from joining Confederation. The Newfoundland Butter Company, which – you guessed it – made margarine, had been supplying black-market marge to Canadian consumers allured by its low price. To join Confederation, the Newfies had to promise to stop their margarine-running. They would only agree to the compromise when they were allowed to continue producing margarine for Newfoundlanders to enjoy.

In 1948, the Supreme Court put the federal ban out to pasture when they decided that the choice to legalize margarine should fall to provincial legislatures. An angry dairy lobby quickly changed tactics and began targeting what they saw as the key to margarine’s success: its buttery yellow colour. 

Margarine in its natural state is a stark white, like lard. Yum (Not). Margarine producers were dying their product to make it more appealing to consumers. The dairy lobby offered a less generous explanation – that companies were trying to dupe consumers into buying an inferior product when what they really wanted was butter.

Those who have run afoul of the dairy lobby have not fared well and provincial legislatures bowed to the pressure. New provincial legislation banned selling dyed margarine or required it to be a brilliant, unnatural yellow.

Margarine producers did not take the setback lying down. They introduced packaging that contained a dye tab that could be kneaded into the margarine when the purchaser brought it home. (Parli’s esteemed publisher, being of a certain age, has many fond memories of carrying out this happy task.)

Consumers were not impressed. They wanted margarine, they wanted it to be yellow and they certainly did not want to dye it themselves. In what may be one of Canada’s most bizarre ­– or at least niche – protests, homemakers in Ontario took to the streets in a march on Queen’s Park, dye tabs and mixing bowls in hand.

The margarine march succeeded and all provinces, except Quebec, gradually lessened restrictions on margarine throughout the 1960s.

The fraught days of margarine bans may to be behind us, but the ban on coloured margarine continued in Quebec – home to half of the country’s dairy farms – until 2008. Big Margarine only succeeded in ending the ban by challenging the law using NAFTA.

As for dairy farmers, they continue their struggle to preserve the sanctity of dairy, including railing against companies who use the word “milk” to describe plant-based alternatives.

How long can they keep up the fight? At least until the cows come home.

Image Source: Creative Commons

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