Living Next to an Elephant
by Richard Ellis
Pierre Elliot Trudeau is widely quoted as saying that living next to the United States is like sleeping with an elephant. Canada is conscious of every grunt and twitch.
It is unlikely that PET had libraries in mind when he addressed the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in 1969, but his remark remains resonant. The U.S.-Canada border is long, for the most part undefended and porous, so it should not come as a surprise that the battles in the United States over books and reading have crept into Canada.
Canada is not the United States, of course, and Canada has its own traditions of conflict over the freedom to read. The CFLA–FCAB Intellectual Freedom Challenges Survey has reflected that tradition since 2006, and the first part of this report deals with the situation in Canadian libraries, largely public libraries, in the year since the last report. It will then move on to the twitches and grunts.
In the period under review (September 1, 2021–August 31, 2022), there were 55 challenges, an increase from 46 last year. Forty-six were to books, four to movies or DVDs, and five to library services or programs. Challenges were reported primarily by public libraries, only a single complaint was reported by a post-secondary institution, and none was reported by a school library.
Honours of sorts go to Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier and to Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe. Each title was challenged three times. This is the second year that these two titles were the most challenged works. Runner-up this year, with two complaints, was There Is No Difference by Peter Best. All three titles were retained in their collections. All other complaints were one-offs.
All three complaints regarding Irreversible Damage were made early in the reporting period, possibly indicating a declining interest in the title. Gender Queer appears to have legs in school libraries. But There Is No Difference is a Canadian title that deals with a Canadian situation: the state of Indigenous peoples. (Full title: There Is No Difference: An Argument for the Abolition of the Indian Reserve System and Special Race-based Laws and Entitlements for Canada’s Indians). The two complaints about this title occurred toward the end of the reporting period and perhaps warn of what is to come.
Again, this year, children’s and young-adult literature played a significant role in the complaints. Juvenile fiction and picture books combined to represent 36%; teen fiction and graphic novels, all aimed at the young-adult audience this year, added a further 20%. Slightly less than a quarter of all complaints dealt with the adult categories of fiction, non-fiction, or movies and DVDs.
Five of the 10 picture books were challenged because of their depictions of Indigenous people, four involved stereotypical illustrations in works originating in metropolitan France, and one (My Nana and Me by Irene Smalls, 2005) used the term Eskimo. Of the remaining five picture books, It Isn’t Rude to Be Nude by Rosie Haine was challenged for its “explicit sexuality,” while three others were judged to be inappropriate on other grounds. The line between picture books and juvenile fiction is not always clear because early reading books are heavily illustrated, but the same concern for the representation of Indigenous peoples is apparent in this group as well. Six of the 14 titles were contested for that reason, and half of those originated in metropolitan France.
Canadian sensitivity to issues raised by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is also evident in the move by Ontario’s Durham District School Board to remove a title by David Alexander Robertson, a prominent Indigenous author. The action, which contravenes the district’s policies for dealing with challenged materials, was subsequently reversed and the work was returned to the shelves. But the board’s actions raise questions about both intellectual freedom and due regard for established policies and practices.
One picture book (Fred Gets Dressed by Peter Brown) was alleged to “groom” children to accept cross-dressing. One non-fiction work for this age group, Sex Is a Funny Word by Corey Silverberg and Fiona Smith, was challenged for its sexual content. None of the other picture books challenged dealt with sex or gender issues.
Sexuality and gender issues feature more prominently in materials written for the teenage and young-adult audience. Gender Queer has been mentioned. Other challenged titles include Heartstopper, vol. 1, a teen romance involving two boys; This Song Is (Not) for You, an exploration of asexuality; and The Infinite Moment of Us, a summer romance between an 18-year-old boy and a girl.
While Irreversible Damage is meant not for teenagers but for parents, the book’s subject is teen sexuality. There is some irony here as Maia Kobabe has stated that an intended audience of Gender Queer was parents who needed to understand what was going on in the minds of their children.
Gender Queer provides an entrée into the grunts and twitches portion of this report.
In the United States, there have been many reports of organized attempts to rid school libraries and some public libraries of some of the titles challenged in Canada.1 Similar activities have taken place in Canada but have not been captured by the challenges survey. The border is porous, indeed.
The border is porous, indeed.
In June 2022, a Notice of Personal Liability was published on the website of Action4Canada, a conservative group known for its support of the truck convoys and opposition to vaccines and masking. The notice implies that individuals who provide materials regarding sex and gender to individuals under 18 are personally liable according to the country’s child pornography laws.
The focus of the new initiative is the SOGI program adopted by educational authorities in B.C. and Alberta, but the scope of the notices is not limited to SOGI-involved institutions. In response to reports of concerned librarians, the CFLA-FCAB’s Intellectual Freedom Committee issued a statement of guidance in early July 2022.
In the United States, it is becoming common for individuals upset by aspects of sex education that involve libraries to run for school board positions.
In B.C., an activist group named ParentsVoice BC, which, like Action4Canada, is opposed to the SOGI program, fielded 29 anti-SOGI school board candidates in 60 districts. Three candidates were elected: two in one district and one in another. In that second district, a prominent anti-SOGI incumbent was not re-elected; he came in 12th of 15, even though seven seats were available. While the 2022 elections appear to have turned back the anti-SOGI wave, three unsuccessful candidates in the first riding garnered more than 30% of the votes cast in their contests, suggesting that the issue is not dead there.
In Langley, B.C., all the candidates who declared opposition to the SOGI program were defeated. Five who publicly supported it were elected, and two incumbents who did not answer a SOGI-related question were also re-elected.
Candidates characterized as being “anti-trans” or “anti-woke” did not break through in Ontario; they filled only 10 positions despite contesting 50. High-profile candidates in Hamilton and Ottawa failed to be elected. In Ottawa, a high-profile candidate achieved a close second. Having come close, some candidates are bound to run again in future elections.
What do these elections have to do with freedom to read? There is a trajectory, best illustrated by the development of Action4Canada, that began with the launch of a general conspiracy website, moved on to anti-vaccine issues and last summer discovered “pornography” in library collections.
The explicit politicization of the freedom to read is new in Canada and follows recent developments in the United States. As always, the underlying argument is not that my teenager should not read this, but that no teenager should read it. Books, for some, become vectors of contagion rather than sources of inspiration and fuel for discussion. In wars the first casualty is truth, and in libraries the first casualty of attack is reasoned discussion as indicated in the United States.
Richard Ellis is librarian emeritus at Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador. He is also a member of the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Canadian Federation of Library Associations–Fédération canadienne des associations de bibliothèques.
1 In the American Library Association’s list of the most challenged books in 2021, four have been challenged in Canada: Gender Queer (No. 1), All Boys Aren’t Blue (No. 3), Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (No. 7) and Beyond Magenta (No. 10).