A Chronicle of Freedom of
Expression in Canada

(Part 1, 1914-1994)
barbed wire

[censored!] Part 2, 1995-present

Balzac's Droll Stories banned by Canada Customs.

January 22 1918
The Manitoba movie censor board bans comedies, claiming they make audiences too frivolous.

January 1930
Canada Customs prohibits importation of Lady Chatterley's Lover.

The Edmonton Journal wins a special Pulitzer Prize for its spirited defence of freedom of the press against provincial premier William Aberhart.

Journalist Wilfrid Eggleston is named director of censorship in Canada, having been chief censor of publications since the start of WWII. Eggleston goes on to become the founding director of Carleton University's school of journalism and, in the words of the Globe, the "founder of journalism education in Canada."

May 1946
Canada Customs prohibits importation of Bernard Clare, by James T. Farrell.

Canada Customs bars 126 publications from entry, including 29 considered "seditious" -- presumably grounds on which Trotsky's Chapters from my Diary was banned. Canadian-printed editions of some of the titles, however, (including God's Little Acre) are freely available.

The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer, is banned in Canada by personal order of the Minister of National Revenue, who admits he has not read the book through. "I read the parts my staff had marked. I thought they were disgusting." The book had been a best seller in Canada for ten months before the banning.

James Joyce's Ulysses is allowed into Canada for the first time after 26 years on the prohibited importations list, and 16 years after it was cleared of obscenity charges in the U.S. But 505 books remain banned, including short stories by de Maupassant, Faulkner's Sanctuary, Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell, A Jew in Love by Ben Hecht, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall and the 16-volume The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night by Sir Richard Burton (The Arabian Nights.)

Maclean's magazine calls on the federal government to abandon censorship and repeal Article 1201 of the Customs Tariff.

The University of Toronto shuts down its "Art Room," where for years students had had to certify that they were free of "mental problems" before reading works such as Havelock Ellis, de Sade, Ulysses and Such is My Beloved, by Morley Callaghan. The books were moved to open stacks or the rare-books room as appropriate.

Customs bans Peyton Place from entering Canada. Dell Books appeals the ruling to a tribunal of the Tariff Board, which agrees it isn't immoral. The Tribunal suggests that Customs can't do the job properly and that the task should be given to another body.

Finance Minister George Nowlan instructs customs officers to stop only those books that have already been judged obscene by the courts. The policy lasts only until 1967.

The Supreme Court of Canada rules that Lady Chatterley's Lover is not obscene.

Dec 2 1964
The Ontario Court of Appeal rules that Fanny Hill is not obscene.

May 1965
Police raid the Dorothy Cameron Gallery in Toronto and remove seven paintings by Robert Markle, Lawrence Ross and David Chapin. Cameron is charged with exhibiting obscene material, found guilty and fined $350. She appeals, and ultimately the Supreme Court of Canada denies her the right to appeal. Legal costs ruin her financially and she closes her gallery.

African Ballet dancers are forbidden to perform bare-breasted at Montreal's Place des Arts.

Ontario bans the movie I Am Curious (Yellow).

Canada Customs detains Seymour Hersh's My Lai-4 for one month.

A cut version of Last Tango in Paris, in which Marlon Brando appears to engage in anal intercourse without removing his trousers, passes in Ontario, but the censor board gets 100 protest letters when it plays Toronto.

Toronto art dealer Av Isaacs becomes the first person charged with exhibiting a disgusting object under an obscure section of the Criminal Code. The charge relates to an exhibit by Montreal artist Mark Prent. Charges are thrown out.

Mark Prent has another exhibition at the Isaacs Gallery. Police again lay charges under the same law, and the charges are again dropped. The law itself is subsequently repealed.

The Canadian Library Association starts a legal defence fund, after the Church of Scientology sues libraries in Hamilton and Etobicoke that have refused to remove books critical of Scientology. None of the books had been found libelous in Canadian courts. Some booksellers respond to similar pressure by refusing to sell both pro- and anti-Scientology titles.

The principal of Lakefield High School, in Margaret Laurence's back yard, pulls The Diviners from the Grade 12 reading list. In the subsequent furor, 4300 people signed a petition against the book, but a special Textbook Review Committee reinstated the book. Also in 1976, the book is challenged and temporarily removed in Orangeville, ON and faces an unsuccessful challenge in Kings County, N.S.

In Peterborough, a high-school principal removes Lives of Girls and Women from the senior English reading list, though it remains in the school library, while the Textbook Review Committee of the board of education strikes White Niggers of America from the approved textbook list.

Ontario bans the Louis Malle film Pretty Baby, a historical drama starring Brooke Shields as a child prostitute.

In August, the Huron County (ON.) Board of Education pulls The Diviners from Grade 13 reading lists, and an Etobicoke school-board trustee unsuccessfully tries to have A Jest of God banned as a high-school text. In Elgin County, ON, 125 parents submit a list of offensive books to the local school board, including Who Has Seen the Wind. And an Etobicoke trustee unsuccessfully tries to have The Country Girls and the frequently challenged The Catcher in the Rye banned as a high-school text.

Ontario orders cuts to Luna.

Ontario orders cuts to Oscar-winning The Tin Drum. Director Volker Schlöndorff refuses, and the film is not exhibited in the province.

Jean Chretien, as Justice Minister, introduces a child pornography bill that would have made it a crime, punishable by up to ten years in jail, to produce a "visual representation" of any one who "is or appears to be" under 18 engaged in "any sexually explicit conduct." Under opposition ridicule, particularly from Ray Hnatyshyn who got him to admit that a photo of a child eating a popsicle "in a suggestive way" would be an offense, and having been unable to produce a single pornographic scene involving children that couldn't be prosecuted under existing obscenity law, Chretien withdraws the bill.

Brian Mulroney is elected Prime Minister with Tory majority.

In late December, Margaret Laurence's books -- this time The Stone Angel , on the Grade 12 list, and A Jest of God, on the Grade 10 list -- are again challenged in Lakefield. The students, who know Ms. Laurence from her annual visit at the invitation of the head of the English Department, get involved in the controversy, defending the author on local radio and television.

The Ontario Censor Board becomes the Ontario Film Review Board, with a new mandate to classify rather than cut, and a new head. Hail Mary is passed as Restricted without cuts, despite protests from some Catholics.

May 1985
Customs distributes Memorandum D9-1-1 to its offices across the country. It declares all descriptions of gay and lesbian sexuality to be degrading and dehumanizing, and therefore obscene.

March 3, 1987
Courts rule that The Joy of Gay Sex, which had been prohibited by Canada Customs, is not obscene and therefore may be imported into Canada.

The Supreme Court declares that the wording in the Customs Tariff barring "obscene and immoral" material is too broad to constitute a reasonable limitation on freedom of expression.

April 13, 1987
Canada Customs amends Memorandum D9-1-1 to allow materials that communicate information about legal sexual activity, such as anal intercourse, provided it is not "prurient in nature".

May 1987
The federal government gives first reading to Bill C-54, a proposed anti-porn bill would have defined porn so as to include depictions of intercourse between consenting adults. The burden of proof would be on the accused. After widespread protest the bill dies. The minister responsible is Ray Hnatyshyn, who had so effectively lampooned the earlier Chretien bill.

November 1988
Canada Customs seizes Empire of the Senseless, by Kathy Acker, en route to L'androgyne Bookstore in Montreal. This is the first seizure in the 15-year history of the gay, lesbian and feminist bookstore. Under media and citizen pressure, Ottawa releases the book six weeks later. In the meantime, the national Coles bookstore chain has been importing the book without incident.

Metro Toronto police bust an independent comic called Omaha, The Cat Dancer, which was being sold in a local comic store and features cartoon characters depicted as humanoid cats, dogs and other animals. They allege it glorifies bestiality. The same comic was examined in New Zealand and given the equivalent of a G rating for its responsible depiction of sexuality.

February 1989
During Freedom to Read Week, Canada Customs makes this country the only western democracy to seize The Satanic Verses. After 48 hours, the ban is rescinded.

March 1989
Prime Minister Mulroney, speaking in The Hague, expresses embarrassment of the delay of import of The Satanic Verses, and promises a review of the legislation that confers such powers on non-elected officials. Mulroney adds that free expression is fundamental in any democracy.

Little Sister's Book and Art Emporium of Vancouver (a gay and lesbian bookstore) and the BC Civil Liberties Association launch a Charter challenge against Canada Customs censorship.

February 1991
During Freedom to Read Week, Canada Customs seizes or detains 580 books en route to Glad Day Book Store, some of which are freely available at mainstream bookstores.

And CBC Radio pulls one part of a commissioned five-part Morningside radio play called Dim Sum Diaries on the grounds that "it could be perceived to be racist." The incident is reported around the world. The Vancouver Province publishes an editorial condemning the CBC as our "national censor" and CBC eventually recants and airs the entire show in B.C. A controversy ensues over whether it was racist after all. The show has still not been heard in full nationally.

Federal lawyers obtain a year's adjournment. Little Sister's loses thousands of dollars in prepaid airfares for witnesses.

January 1992
Kimberley Noble prepares to start work on a book about Hees International. Hees International threatens to sue her publisher, Macmillan Canada. Macmillan announces it will not proceed with the book. Writers' groups have long sought reform of Ontario's libel laws, which among other shortcomings put the burden of proof on the defendant.

February 1992
Business agent for IWA-Canada asks for the children's book Maxine's Tree to be removed from Sechelt school district libraries because of its anti-clearcut logging message.

February 27, 1992
The Supreme Court of Canada delivers the landmark Butler decision that defines obscenity as sex with violence, explicit sex involving children, and exploitive sex that degrades or dehumanizes. Over the next year, most of the feminist bookstores in Canada experience detentions and seizures.

June 1992
The Canadian Senate holds hearings into the CBC documentary, "The Valour and the Horror". CBC President Gerard Veilleux subsequently issues apology to veterans despite widespread criticism of the internal Ombudsman's report on their complaints.

Meanwhile, Canada Customs shreds the manuscript of a novel by an Alberta retired psychologist en route back from a U.S. literary agent; they also raid the author's home. However, the Alberta Attorney-General had ruled that the book wasn't pornographic.

October 28, 1992
Toronto Women's Bookstore experiences its first detention by Customs in its 20-year history. The adult lesbian comic book seized, Hothead Paisan #7, contains no sex whatsoever, but the Notice of Detention cites "sexual degradation." The periodical is prohibited until May 1993 when the classification is abruptly revoked.

November 1992
Everywoman's Books in Victoria experiences its first seizure in its 18-year history, again of Hothead Paisan.

November 14, 1992
Little Sister's wins the right to press its court Charter challenge to harrassment by Canada Customs.

The 60th congress of International PEN, with 12,000 members in 120 centres or groups worldwide, calls on the government of Canada to dismantle the prohibited-importations unit of Canada Customs.

Ontario Private Members introduce two bills: to ban the sale to minors of posters or playing cards depicting violent criminals; and to prevent accused or convicted persons to profit from writing about their story (including those wrongly convicted or accused but not convicted).

Meanwhile, the Ontario government introduces a civil rights protection bill that would allow people or associations of people to bring an action, without proof of damage, as a result of communications the plaintiffs feel promotes hatred or prejudice.

January 1993
The Ontario Human Rights Commission appoints a Board of Inquiry to investigate a case of discrimination based on sex against the operators of several variety stores, because they sold legal materials that the complainants believed to be "pornographic". The Board of Inquiry manages to spend over $400,000 of taxpayers' money before hearing a word of actual evidence. They ultimately dismiss the case on a technicality, leaving open the possibility that the entire process could be repeated in the future.

June 1993
The federal government passes Bill C-128, a law outlawing child pornography. It prohibits depictions of "explicit sexual activity" which is not defined and presumably could include kissing, not only by anyone under 18 but by anyone "represented" as being under 18. The law is so broad that critics, all of whom support restrictions on genuine child pornography, argue that many coming-of-age movies including Romeo and Juliet , as well as The Boys of St Vincent and many episodes of Degrassi High could not have been made had the law been in effect at the time. Makers of educational productions face the risk of mounting an expensive defence or even going to jail. The burden of proof is once more on the accused.

July 1993
Veterans announce they are suing the makers and broadcasters of The Valour and the Horror for defamation, claiming $500 million damages. The case is subsequently thrown out of court.

October 4, 1993
Little Sister's court challenge set to begin its proceedings in Vancouver. At the request of Canada Customs, the trial is again postponed until Oct. 11, 1994. The delay costs Little Sister's and the BCCLA about $30,000.

October 25, 1993
Jean Chretien is elected prime minister.

December 7, 1993
Canada Customs opens domestic mail addressed to Little Sister's, mailed from Penguin Canada in Newmarket, Ont.

December 1993
Following a raid on an alternative gallery, Eli Langer of Toronto becomes the first artist charged under the new child pornography law. Thirty-five of his drawings and five Langer paintings are seized in Feb. 1994. No live models or photography are involved. Charges against Langer are later dropped, but the work remains on trial.

Most of the subsequent charges under the child-pornography law are laid against the presumed victims: street kids over the age of consent but under the age of majority, who are charged after making consensual videos for fun or profit.

January 1994
"Sluts and Goddesses", a film by performance artist Annie Sprinkle, opens commercially in Montreal. However, a Winnipeg student who has ordered a copy finds that Canada Customs seizes and subsequently destroys it, although she has filed an appeal. After that, any personal mail she receives from the US is opened and inspected by Customs.

February 1994
Canada Customs detains The Sexual Politics of Meat: a feminist-vegetarian critical theory en route to WonderWorks, a book store specializing in women's spirituality and ecology. The bookstore is not notified.

Meanwhile, the Ontario Human Rights Commission refuses to award any costs to Four-Star Variety for its multi-year ordeal.

March 1994
A group of Ottawa-area parents attempts to have The Diviners removed from high schools. The classic Canadian novel has faced similar challenges since 1976.

And during Freedom to Read Week, Alberta MLA Victor Doerksen calls for the removal from Alberta schools of Of Mice and Men.

April 1994
A school trustee in Ponoka County, Alberta adds the item "English 10" to the spring meeting agenda, without elaboration. Turns out she has read parts, but not all, of a prescribed text called The Witch by Shirley Jackson, and found it offensive. The trustee asks board to immediately remove the anthology in which it appears from all schools in the county. The motion passes unanimously after an immediate vote, although nobody has read the book or talked to teachers about its educational or literary merit. The next morning, April 20, students in the trustee's son's class in Rimbey are asked to surrender copies of the book, and some are sent home to fetch them. The teacher is threatened with dismissal if she does not comply, but speaks to the media about the issue. A substitute teacher in the area writes a letter to the local newspaper supporting the story and anthology, and is fired by the board. The local library becomes involved and makes the work available to the public. Eventually the books are returned to the classroom with The Witch ,as well as Images by Alice Munro, cut out by office staff using razor blades; the teacher had refused to mutilate the books. (The office staff later use the excised chapters to make confetti for her wedding.) In 1995 the county is amalgamated with another school division and the stories are reinstated.

April 30, 1994
The Nova Scotia Legislature is closed to the public on the day the budget is to be read, following a clash with demonstrators the previous day. The chamber is sealed from the public, press, television technicians, and pages and there is no Hansard taken. The House reopens 40 minutes after the budget speech has been read.

May 1994
The Alberta provincial government says it wants the Alberta Foundation of the Arts to scrutinize applications to make sure they do not "offend the sensibilities and the community standard."

June 1994
The Leo Kamen Gallery in Toronto exhibits one of the Robert Markle paintings seized in 1974, without protest.

October 11, 1994
The Little Sister's case finally comes to trial in Vancouver. Among those testifying on behalf of the bookstare are Jane Rule, Pierre Berton, Nino Ricci, Becki Ross, Bart Testa, and law professor Bruce Ryder.

Around this time, Saskatchewan bans the movie "Exit to Eden;" the decision is later overturned.

December 1994
The Justice Committee of the House of Commons, which has spent months investigating the marginal existence of "killer" trading cards in Canada, comes up with draft legislation that would change the legal definition of obscenity to include "undue exploitation or glorification of horror, cruelty, or violence." In addition to cards and games, the report specifies "music, videos, comics, posters, and computer bulletin boards" as forms of communication that need to be controlled by the government. Communication that falls within this expanded definition and has "no redeeming cultural or social value" would be banned.

Electronic Frontier Canada vociferously protests the proposals. The games that sparked the furor are so rare in Canada that the Justice Committee had to actively import a foreign board game into Canada, no sufficiently objectionable ones being available domestically. Dissenting MPs have expressed that the wish that the committee would concentrate on real as opposed to conjectural violence.

Meanwhile, the school district in Sechelt, B.C. bans from classrooms an anthology of Canadian and American poetry originally published in 1971, because of its "anti-establishment" stance, profanity and sex. The book includes works by Margaret Atwood, Irving Layton, George Bowering and others.

Also in 1994, the Ontario Film Review Board bans Tokyo Decadence, but after an appeal from the distributor rates it Restricted and allows art-house screenings.

censor Continued on the next page...


censor More magazines and books that have been detained or banned by Canada Customs.

censor Be sure to read this wonderful speech by Parker Barss Donham...

censor and this equally wonderful speech, The Real Meaning of Free Speech in Cyberspace, by Jeffrey Shallit.

censor More censorship links.

This chronology was compiled by Sandra Bernstein on behalf of the Periodical Writers Association of Canada and the Book and Periodical Council, in collaboration with Electronic Frontier Canada. While she has tried to make it as accurate as possible, neither Sandra Bernstein nor any of these organizations is responsible for the consequences of any errors or omissions.
Updates to the Chronicle are temporarily on hold but will resume in spring 1998.

Last updated Sept. 1, 1997.

Copyright © Sandra Bernstein 1995, 1996, 1997.