freedom to read week

Opinion piece for Freedom to Read Week, Feb.23 – March 1st
[logo available on request]

By Mark MacDonald and Charles Montpetit
[for a photo of Little Sister’s staffers just before their
Supreme Court testimony, see] [Teaser:]

After winning a ten-year battle against Canada Customs in the
Supreme Court of Canada, Little Sister’s Book and Art Emporium
must do it all over again–just to import two comic books. How
did this happen?

In 1983, Little Sister’s opened as Vancouver’s first gay and
lesbian bookstore. Since such a market was largely undeveloped
in Canada, the store had to import 90% of its inventory from
the United States.

By 1985, however, Canada Customs apparently equating gay
literature with obscenity, and detained almost every shipment
destined for the store. Not only did they repeatedly damage
what they let in, they kept out books by Honore de Balzac,
William Burroughs, Marguerite Duras, Jean Genet, Patricia
Highsmith, Henry Miller, Arthur Rimbaud, Gertrude Stein, Paul
Verlaine, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams and Marguerite
Yourcenar, as well as foreign-published works by Canadians
like Sophie Cossette, Julie Doucet, Yves Navarre and Thomas
Waugh. Even comic strips like Tintin and Asterix were held
under suspicion.

Owners Jim Deva and Bruce Smyth realized that they could no
longer run their business without fighting back, so they
contacted the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which took up
their cause. Together, they argued that Customs’ treatment of
the store (as well as several other gay and feminist
bookstores) was unconstitutional.

After many, many delays, they got to court in 1994. The judge
found “grave, systemic problems” in Customs’ methods,
including violations of free expression rights under the
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Customs appealed the
decision, and Little Sister’s took the appeal to the Supreme
Court of Canada in 2000. Meanwhile, seizures and prohibitions
continued unabated.

The Supreme Court ruled that it was indeed unconstitutional to
force importers to prove that their books are not obscene,
which had been the law up to that point. Henceforth, Customs
officers would have to prove that what they wanted to prohibit
was obscene. The Court also simplified the appeals process and
granted importers the right to sue for punitive damages caused
by wrongful seizures.

Customs representatives, however, contended that it would be
“business as usual.” And on July 5th, 2001, they went on to
seize 36 copies of Meatmen comics #18 and #24, which feature
the work of 15 gay artists. Little Sister’s filed an appeal
for the books’ release, and the judge allowed the store to
argue far beyond the nature of these specific titles in the
upcoming trial.

Altogether, Little Sister’s will attempt to eliminate Customs’
entire practice of stopping books at the border. To survive
unscathed, Customs will have to prove that they fixed all the
problems identified in earlier trials.

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