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Talking Censorship and Sensibility with Charles Montpetit

By Mark Leiren-Young

When I Googled “Charles Montpetit” three different options came up: a lawyer, an author and an inspector of explosives. The Montpetit I’m interested in isn’t a lawyer or a bomb expert, but considering his passion for crafting weighty arguments on censorship issues and his love of wading into explosive situations, I think he elegantly juggles all three roles.

Born in Montreal and still based there, Montpetit started creating cartoons at a young age. At age 15, he won a writing contest with a science fiction novella that earned him $500 and a trip for two to Paris. He took his brother and got his first taste of touring as an author.

In 1984, his debut novel Temps perdu, a time-travel adventure for young readers, was a finalist for a Canada Council prize. Five years later, Montpetit received a Governor General’s Literary Award for the sequel, Temps mort. One of Montpetit’s earliest experiences of being personally censored occurred after a parent at a primary school took offence at Temps perdu’s opening line—“Tue-le!” (“Kill him!”)—and Montpetit was ordered not to discuss either of his suddenly controversial novels in that school.

In the late ’80s, Montpetit read several articles about sex education in Quebec schools. In the articles, students complained that their course focused only on condoms, plumbing and infections. In response, Montpetit asked well-known authors to write true accounts of first sexual encounters.

The two-volume anthology, La première fois, made the prestigious White Raven catalogue of the International Youth Library in 1992. This accolade prompted Montpetit to collect submissions for an English-language edition of the books, which were released as The First Time in 1995. Both titles led the author down a rabbit hole: he found himself not only facing school censors again, but also potentially on the wrong side of a new federal law aimed at preventing child pornography. Most of the first times in the stories happened before the protagonists turned 18.

When he found out about Canada’s Freedom to Read Week, he contacted the Book and Periodical Council to help launch a French version in Quebec. The Semaine de la liberté de lire debuted in 1996, and Montpetit repeated the event in 2002 under the broadened name Semaine de la liberté d’expression, which covers more than just literature. He also served on the board of administrators for Quebec’s writers’ union, Union des écrivaines et des écrivains québécois (UNEQ), from 1999 to 2003, acting as its freedom of expression coordinator. He has since produced a bilingual study of the material that’s censored at the border, and his Index of challenged books now covers 643 authors and 1,222 works.

For his efforts in fighting censorship in Canada, Montpetit received the Freedom to Read Award from the Writers’ Union of Canada in 2006, and the Book and Periodical Council’s Freedom of Expression Committee selected him as its champion of free expression for 2017.

To kick off our interview, I asked Montpetit about his first time—of being censored.

Q: How did you get involved in the issue of censorship?

My works tend to push the envelope. I do a lot of conferences and workshops in classrooms, and I got to realize that some of my books had not been read by teachers prior to my visit, and they were unpleasantly surprised about the subjects that I broach and asked me not to speak about them. This trend spiked with my anthology, The First Time. Once, I was even told on the doorstep of the classroom that I couldn’t talk about this very title that they had invited me to talk about. And I started realizing that all of the anecdotes that I had heard about other authors being censored now applied to me.

Eventually I learned about the existence of Freedom to Read Week, and I decided, “Hey, this is a good thing that should happen in Quebec.” In 1995, I called the people at the Book and Periodical Council and asked if they minded my trying to set up a francophone version of Freedom to Read Week that they wouldn’t have to be formally associated with but that could complement what they were doing. That’s when I did the first version of my document about free expression [the Index], a simple list of books that had been censored in various contexts. I later got grants that helped me expand it to 24 pages, then 40 pages.

Q: Any thoughts on how school censorship works as opposed to other forms of censorship?

Most people in schools are afraid of what I call “ghost parents.” They imagine that this or that activity that they organize, or this or that reading that they assign to kids, might stir up some problem. They can either do something else or plunge in and dare to cross that bridge when it will happen. But very few take the second option, so there’s a lot of tacit censorship in that context because fear is a major driving force in schools.

Q: How has censorship changed in the schools since you started getting into this?

I don’t think it’s changed much over the last 30 years—either for good or for bad. But before that, religious authorities used to have a real stranglehold on education, entertainment and politics, so we’ve made a lot of progress on that front.

Q: Are there any issues in Quebec that are different from issues in the rest of Canada?

The first thing is, Freedom to Read has been going on for more than 30 years on the English side, and it’s something that echoes similar movements in the United States, but French-Canadians don’t have that history. There is this sense that censorship is bad, but there’s no effort to really combat it head on.

Another difference pertains to language. We don’t have a problem with the same types of expressions that English people do. The F-bombs and the sexual profanity are less shocking in Quebec. The English curse words are actually uncensored on French-Canadian television. You might find it very weird to have a program at the children’s hour in the afternoon that actually uses them. Obviously, everybody knows that they’re curse words, but they don’t carry much weight in French. It’s as if they are just amusing, meaningless sounds. Then again we have our own curse words which are—surprise, surprise—religiously oriented.

Q: Is there one issue or fight you’re particularly passionate about?

I’ve done a lot of issue-oriented writing in my career: a novel about tobacco use, a book about gun control and an ecological fairy tale, for instance. Those are all issues that are dear to my heart. But after expressing what I felt wasn’t being said in those specific fields, I discovered how voices were thoroughly stifled in broader contexts. That’s what I’m now tackling. And that manifests itself in many ways.

One of them is an audio-visual presentation that summarizes what I’ve found about book banning. This is another talk I get to give in secondary schools, and yet again some teachers are dismayed when I show stuff that has been censored for adolescents. I can’t seem to shed the “controversial” label that often gets affixed to me…

I’m not a researcher by nature, but whenever censorship is concerned, I just have to keep plugging at it, classify it and make my findings available so more people become aware of the issue. This is probably the reason I’m more interested in this issue than in any of the others I’ve tackled in my life, because not that many people are doing it. You can count them on one hand in Quebec. I sort of carved this niche for myself.

Mark Leiren-Young (@leirenyoung) is an award-winning journalist, playwright, filmmaker and author. His latest book is The Killer Whale Who Changed the World (Greystone Books). For more information, visit www.leiren-young.com.

Reprinted from Freedom to Read Kit 2017.