The Corner

We All Live in a Yellow Margarine

Kevin, Fred, I can’t claim the expertise of you chaps when it comes to margarine marginalia, but I thought I’d give you the northern perspective. At the behest of dairy manufacturers, margarine was banned outright in Canada from 1886 to 1948. Indeed, in the same period when Americans were getting bootleg liquor smuggled in from Canada, Canadians were getting bootleg margarine smuggled in from Newfoundland, not yet part of the Dominion of Canada. It’s not often I get the chance to type the phrase “bootleg margarine”, so I just thought I’d throw that in.

Americans may have a constitution full of rights to free speech and guns and whatnot, but, when the British colony of Newfoundland joined the Dominion of Canada, the Terms of Union made Canada’s the only constitution on the planet, as far as I’m aware, with a section on the right to margarine. From Section 46 of the 1949 British North America Act:


46. (1) Oleomargarine or margarine may be manufactured or sold in the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador after the date of the Union and the Parliament of Canada shall not prohibit or restrict such manufacture or sale except at the request of the Legislature of the Province of Newfoundland, but nothing in this Term shall affect the power of the Parliament of Canada to require compliance with standards of quality applicable throughout Canada.

(2) Unless the Parliament of Canada otherwise provides or unless the sale and manufacture in, and the interprovincial movement between, all provinces of Canada other than Newfoundland and Labrador, of oleomargarine and margarine, is lawful under the laws of Canada, oleomargarine or margarine shall not be sent, shipped, brought, or carried from the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador into any other province of Canada.

In exchange for this breach of the national margarine ban, the new province’s powerhouse marge manufacturer, the Newfoundland Butter Company, was obliged to change its name to the Newfoundland Margarine Company. The national margarine ban wound up at the Supreme Court of Canada and eventually the Privy Council in London in the landmark 1950 “margarine reference“, which removed federal jurisdiction over margarine. But provincial strictures on margarine remained for decades. Quebec’s ban on colorized margarine was not repealed until 2008. I spent many years in Quebec eating exotic brands of ivory-colored marge unknown to the rest of North America, and I came rather to enjoy its soothingly muted tones – to the point where I began to find butter way too yellow and, south of the border, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” and “I Can’t Believe It’s Not I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” and all the rest almost frighteningly yellow. I am no fan of state coercion in matters of butter-substitute coloration, but I confess to a slight pang of regret when the Quebec yellow margarine ban was overturned.

By the way, margarine derives its name from margarite, because of the pearl-like oil drops of margaric acid. It seemed fitting that it should also have a pearl-like hue.

Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.