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Censorship at the Canadian border, 1985-2020

A bilingual study of the works that were either kept from entering the country or referred to the Prohibited Importations Unit in Ottawa on suspicion of obscenity or hate literature.

The closest thing that Canadians have to a nationwide tally of forbidden documents is the Canada Border Services Agency’s Quarterly List of Admissible and Prohibited Titles, known as the List of Material Reviewed by the Prohibited Importations Directorate prior to 2001. (To subscribe at no cost, see cbsa-asfc.gc.ca/alert-avis/piu-uip-eng.html.)

The List tells us which titles were suspected of being hateful or obscene, and then held for examination or prohibited outright in Ottawa. At first, such decisions were attributed to the Revenue Minister, but as of 1985 customs officers have relied on guidelines provided by Memorandum D9-1-1. Since then, 58,349 items were singled out, resulting in 19,185 prohibitions over 31 years. Given that the Vatican’s infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum banned about 4,000 titles over 407 years, Canada’s censors have accomplished quite a feat. What’s more, their policy is still being enforced, while the Index was abolished in 1966.

True, a few items are repeat offenders (like Story of O, banned five times before its 1998 acceptance). But thousands of seizures are omitted from certain installments of the List, like the one dated 1985-1989, which ignores 1,767 titles covered in the sub-issue of 1985-1986 (also, see our appendix, which covers 199,105 detentions and 70,163 prohibitions in 1999-2015). A truly exhaustive catalogue would therefore feature many more entries than are currently listed, even if all duplications were removed. One should also note that many items are inaccurately entered, that several copies of a title may have been seized in any given instance, and that “admissible” documents were nevertheless held until their release―a process that could take as long as a year.