The Shifting Landscape for Intellectual Freedom: Recent Challenges in Canadian Libraries

 by Deb Thomas

This report covers challenges that occurred from summer 2019 to early 2020. Since many libraries were closed or offering very limited service for roughly six months of 2020, challenges from this year appear to have been limited, although reporting may have been affected as library staff focused on other pressing matters. In total, 60 challenges were reported for 2019–20: 48 to collections and 12 to policies or procedures related to services or programs. All challenges were recorded in a Canadian Federation of Library Associations–Fédération canadienne des associations de bibliotheques (CFLA-FCAB) survey made available to Canadian libraries. The challenges span the country: 19 in British Columbia, nine in Alberta, two in Saskatchewan, one in Manitoba, 23 in Ontario and six in Nova Scotia.

In this age of heightened awareness of the ways in which Canadians have privileged some people and ideas over others, libraries face increasingly difficult choices in their defence of what my colleague Alvin Schrader called the plurality of ideas and perspectives—the responsibility to provide a range of viewpoints that allow individuals to develop their own critical understanding of a topic.

Speakers or authors whose ideas may seem to deny the rights of others, or whose actions have indicated a disrespect for a group of people, have been challenged by both community members and library staff as unworthy of being given a platform or shelf space. In some cases, it is less the content of the speech or work than their past actions or words that the challengers say make them unworthy.

CFLA-FCAB logo
CFLA-FCAB logo

Librarians have combatted attempts by community members to restrict the ideas in their collections or programs for decades, but in recent years this adherence to allowing controversial and diverse thought has increasingly collided with the values of inclusion and diversity for which libraries strive. And concerns have been made considerably more public in an era of social media.

The Code of Ethics of the CFLA-FCAB guides the work of librarians and library workers in all types of Canadian libraries. The code includes values such as

  • access to information. (“Librarians and other information workers reject the denial and restriction of access to information and ideas most particularly through censorship whether by states, governments, or religious or civil society institutions.”)
  • inclusion. (“Librarians and other information workers ensure that the right of accessing information is not denied and that equitable services are provided for everyone whatever their age, citizenship, political belief, physical or mental ability, gender identity, heritage, education, income, immigration and asylum-seeking status, marital status, origin, race, religion or sexual orientation.”)
  • neutrality. (“Librarians and other information workers are strictly committed to neutrality and an unbiased stance regarding collection, access and service.”)

These values sometimes collide as librarians consider responses to challenges to collections, programs or speakers. It can be difficult not to compromise one value or the other in an attempt to achieve them all.

Challenged Programs

Several examples show how this collision manifested itself in library programs.

An organization which had partnered with Halifax Public Libraries proposed a film screening and discussion of two films: Profiled, which focuses on police brutality and racial profiling in the United States and episode 18 of the Trouble series, ACAB (all cops are bastards), which examines alternatives to policing.

The library requested that police be included in the roundtable discussion. The CEO of the library said that the library’s goal when it partners with a group is to achieve a balanced perspective that provides the public with many different viewpoints. “Libraries are democratic, inclusive spaces,” she added.

Alex Khasnabish, the organizer, felt that having police in the room could have a “chilling effect” on discussions, especially for marginalized people who wanted to share stories about their encounters with police. He noted that he had been holding film showings in the library for four years on topics such as misogyny, climate change, decolonization and militant protest, but none had raised concerns for the library. “The insistence that I include specific speakers had never happened before,” he said.

The community and library staff also pushed against the library’s request to include the police. Ultimately, the library decided to continue the program without police representation at the discussion and held a follow-up conversation with police representatives at a later date.

Photo: Rouge Fatale via CBC News

In British Columbia, people expressed strong concerns when a small public library invited Bob Joseph, author of 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, to speak. He had provided cultural training to large corporations, including some involved in resource extraction, and a few people said the talk might be biased toward big business. The community served by this public library has a significant Indigenous population. After the library staff and complainants talked, they resolved the matter, and a successful event was eventually held.

In Alberta, a local politician objected to a planned drag queen storytime. He believed that the “intent of the program is basically to condition kids … specifically 12 and under to become accustomed to the LGBTQ issues.” He didn’t think that a publicly funded organization should support what he considered to be child abuse. The event was held without issue.

Drag queen storytimes have been challenged since Canadian libraries began offering them in 2018.

Stereotypical Characters

Of the recorded challenges to materials held by libraries, 15 expressed concerns about books with dated, racist or homophobic portrayals of the characters.

In public libraries in British Columbia and Ontario, patrons challenged Crafts for Kids by Gill Dickinson, The Adventures of Tintin: Volume 1 by Hergé, and Mon ours Nestor by Valérie Weishar-Giuliani and Baptistine Mésange for their portrayal of Indigenous peoples.

A similar concern regarding people of colour prompted several challenges. In Nova Scotia at an urban public library, earlier editions (1970 and 1971) of the cookbook Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens by Marie Nightingale were challenged. Newer editions were deemed free of racist content, but the library moved the earlier editions to closed stacks for reference purposes.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, a book about Mexicans immigrating to the United States, provoked controversy in the United States for what some readers saw as the opportunistic exploitation of immigrants and the stereotyped portrayals of the Mexicans. In a public library in Ontario, a patron challenged American Dirt; the patron asked that the book not be promoted in displays or through library book clubs because of the portrayal of Latinx characters.

Sex, Sexuality and the Occult

Librarians have faced certain types of challenges for decades. They include depictions of sexuality, gender or sexual diversity and depictions in children’s books of witches and other occult beings.

In Alberta, a patron at a public library challenged the film Boy Erased. The film, which was based on the memoir of Garrard Conley, tells the story of a boy whose parents sent him to conversion therapy after he came out to them. The library patron said Boy Erased was “hateful towards Baptist ministers due to the portrayal of the father character.” The film remained in the collection.

book cover for Beyond Magenta
Copyright © 2014 by Susan Kuklin. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin, a book aimed at teens, was challenged three times in public libraries in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Ontario. Noting that some essays depicted minors who were sexually active, the complainants felt that the book condoned pedophilia by not stressing that “sex with kids is not okay.” The complainants also expressed concern about teen drug use in the book. It was retained in all cases.

At an urban public library in British Columbia, the adult DVD WolfCop was challenged for its graphic depictions of sexual acts and nudity. WolfCop is a Canadian horror comedy about a cop who turns into a werewolf. Library staff reviewed the film’s content and retained the DVD.

A parent in British Columbia felt that a Halloween display in a school library that included books about witches and vampires would give children nightmares and contribute to “gun violence and the degradation of society.”

Two books were challenged for other reasons related to age appropriateness.

At one urban public library in British Columbia, two patrons challenged the early reader Minnie and Moo: The Attack of the Easter Bunnies by Denys Cazet. The concern: the story suggests that the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist and could pose a “strong risk of … ruining the magic of the holiday for someone.” The patron wanted the book moved to an area where young children couldn’t easily gain access to it.

At an urban public library in Ontario, a patron challenged a children’s book about a boy raised by ghosts in a graveyard. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman was adapted to a graphic novel format by P. Craig Russell. The patron felt that the depiction of a murder early in the book was too violent for the age group.

Privacy issues were also raised this year.

In a small community in Alberta, a community member requested that a library patron be denied access to the public computers or that the content that this person was posting be monitored. The patron was a well-known Holocaust denier. The library respected the privacy of the computer user.

Challenged Satires

An urban public library in Nova Scotia received three requests to remove the magazine Frank. Concerns included “hate speech” and “doxing” of the politicians satirized by the magazine. The library sought legal advice about this concern and retained the magazine in its collections.

A patron at a small public library in British Columbia asked for the removal of the satirical book If You Give a Pig the White House by Faye Kanouse. It is a “partisan political tract that relies on smear, innuendo and invention, cloaked as humour to distract from the nastiness that borders on hate speech,” the patron wrote.

Finally, at an Ontario public library, a person requested the removal of the children’s book Le Livre où la poule meurt à la fin by François Blais and Valérie Boivin. It is a darkly humorous comment on overconsumption that features a chicken who spends money frivolously knowing she is destined to end up as someone’s dinner.

It is clear that, along with the familiar concerns about LGBTQ2AI content, the occult and age appropriateness, the human rights issues that have risen to prominence over the last few years—sexual harassment, transgender rights, Indigenous rights, systemic racism, privacy—are not going away. Nor is the discussion of how some controversial speech and ideas can harm others. Libraries will need to engage fully with this shifting landscape to find the appropriate balance between allowing platforms for controversial ideas, whether as library events or room rentals, and allowing the harm that could result from them. It is a good reminder to us all that decisions about intellectual freedom should never be comfortable or easy.


Deb Thomas recently retired after working for more than 40 years in libraries. She is a member of the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Canadian Federation of Library Associations–Fédération canadienne des associations de bibliothèques and a co-chair of the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the British Columbia Library Association.