Thanks to Janine Fuller for agreeing to speak, to Shannon LaBelle for convening this session at the BCLA conference, and to Ashley Dunne for the following session writeup.
Little Sister’s Bookstore: Fighting Censorship in Canada for Over 20 Years
Report by Ashley Dunne, SLAIS student
Little Sister’s Book and Art Emporium is celebrating their 25th anniversary. They have been fighting Canada Customs for nearly just as long. This is because most of their books have gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender themes, which Canada Customs often deems “obscene.”
The store’s manager, Janine Fuller, came to the BCLA Conference to speak about how the discriminatory practices of Canada Customs affected Little Sister’s, and the country as a whole.
Since 1985, court battles against Canada Customs have cost Little Sister’s well over a million dollars. Their shipments have been seized, their merchandise incinerated, and their spirits crushed.
One effort to raise funds for the trials resulted in a book called Forbidden Passages. They wanted to have the book distributed from a Canadian distributor (so it would not be seized), but some major distributors refused to touch it for fear of being associated with Little Sister’s and having their other books flagged at the border.
Fuller described how the Canada Customs seizures had a huge impact on censorship in Canada, beyond the direct impact they had on Little Sister’s. Other bookstores stopped carrying Jane Rule and Armistead Maupin because they were afraid that their stores would start to be targeted by Canada Customs.
Even though Jane Rule earned a Governor General Award for The Young In One Another’s Arms in 1976, Canada Customs felt the book was too indecent to allow into the country. Another Jane Rule book, Contract With the World, was seized because the Customs officer thought it was “too political.”
Other materials that were seized in the 1980s included Gay Ideas, an academic book, along with other important information resources on AIDS and safer sex.
Strangely enough, these books were allowed into Canada when their destinations were the Vancouver Public Library and Duthie Books. During the trial, John Sheer, head of the regional office for the Customs post that seized the books, admitted that there was a memo for a “lookout” for Little Sister’s shipments. Customs had previously denied that they had been targeting the bookstore specifically.
Little Sister’s has appeared in the Supreme Court twice-once for their lawsuit against Canada Customs, and once for a plea to get advanced funding for another lawsuit against Customs-and have lost both times. Customs stopped seizing books when they were in court, but they continue to operate as a subjective guardian of Canadian morality.
Canada Customs can’t control the Internet, though. Fuller questions Customs’ insistence on seizing books and burning magazines when so much “indecent material” can be found online. Their attempts at censoring material for our own good is really only affecting the book industry. Even then, it just affects some types of books for some types of book providers.
BCLA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee sponsored the Little Sister’s conference session to inform delegates about the bookstore’s important battles against government censorship. While the Little Sister’s case involved a bookstore and not a library, Fuller reminded those in attendance that Canadians, and particularly librarians, need to be vigilant against all attempts to limit our freedom to read.