A BRIEF SURVEY OF CENSORSHIP IN CANADIAN CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS
by Katrina Enros
Difficult economic times are trying for all businesses, but cultural institutions, so often financially dependent on granting organizations, tourism, and leisure dollars, are frequently the first to feel the effects. When economic panic sets in, there is the risk of submitting to demands by sponsors, granting organizations, audiences, or other players that may endanger the mandate of the institution. Responsible arts administration therefore requires the creation of serious, well-thought out policies that protect institutions from opportunistic bodies. One of the most important policies for any museum or gallery is one that contends with the possibility of censorship. However, all too often institutions neglect creating a formal policy, instead making decisions regarding censorship on a case-by-case basis. This study demonstrates that this is an imprudent strategy, as the immense and quick pressure on an institution to act can result in foolhardy decisions. Particularly during times of economic hardship when conservative sentiment tends to rise, such policies are crucial for discussing calls for censorship both outside of and within the institution. In order to make these policies effective, arts administrators need to understand censorship: why does it happen, when does it happen, and when does it make sense to submit to it? This study outlines a brief survey of censorship practice in Canada in order to emphasize the imperative to create a coherent, broadly applicable censorship policy (1).
Censorship as Cultural Practice
“Censorship,” in the truest sense of the word, is an important cultural practice that both reinforces social norms, and that attests to the presence of cultures of dissent. Francis Horibe has described the existence and recognition of these dissenting (sub-)cultures as a necessary part of effective policy-making, a catalyst for engaging a wider public, and for finding alternative solutions (2). Thus censorship and dissent may mobilize groups to effect change and redefine national identity in unforeseen ways.
Perhaps due to its negative, even dictatorial connotations, censorship is an aspect of self-enculturation that is rarely addressed at the policy level. Indeed, it can be perceived as a clearly oppressive force: it can close exhibitions, bring a halt to the screening of a film, take literature off the shelves of bookshops and libraries, and go so far as to punish authors, audiences, and participants for engaging directly with a ‘censored’ item. However, there is also a more subtle set of processes that may be defined as “censorship:” those that discourage certain types of speech or action by offering incentives to abide by regulations, or deterrents if one steps outside of prescribed bounds. The curious place the practice occupies as a sometimes “necessary evil” means that its implementation is rarely referred to as “censorship” by those who enact it. Labelling an action as censorship is always potentially contentious, as different players seek to identify, analyze and define the process in ways that are inherently fraught with difficulty.
Whatever its forms, censorship attempts to normalize society, situating it within a core of acceptable political thought and morality. This does not insinuate that this “acceptability” is sanctioned by a majority of people, or even that there is any philosophical or legal defence for the status quo. The process can marginalize important minority voices, propping up systems of power that quash certain interests and pathologize the lifestyles of some, while institutionalizing the practises of others. The Canadian government system is no different than any other major country’s system of governance; it can and will intervene when it is deemed necessary, and such intervention is sanctioned by law.
Government Intervention in Canadian Popular Culture
“The precondition for order in a liberal society is an act of the imagination: not a moral consensus or shared values, but the capacity to understand moral worlds different from our own”
−Michael Ignatieff, Historian and Liberal MP
The censorship of various media has been relatively commonplace in Canada, and far more pervasive than in the United States. Where cultural products are concerned, Canadian censors have exercised a great deal of control over film and publications, including fiction and non-fiction books, magazines, and comics. Rarely, though, has the government interceded in the world of galleries and museums. In Canada, the production of “high art” has traditionally been protected in a way that other cultural artistic products are not. The loosening trends and amendments of various legislative powers seem to indicate a change in this regard, but new proposed legislation has demonstrated that such inclinations have not disappeared entirely.
The protection of the fine arts has traditionally been built into the federal legislation concerning censorship. State censorship usually falls under the aegis of one of four aspects of law: (i) Bill C-128 (1993) and later Bill C-292 (2004), both Amendments to the Criminal Code concerning Child Pornography; (ii) the various iterations of Memorandum D9-1-1, the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency’s Policy on the Classification of Obscene Material (revised as recently as February 2008); (iii) the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision, R. v. Butler (1992), which committed to protecting the public from pornographic materials that were hateful or degrading toward women and children; (iv) the Ontario Film Classification Act (2005) (which replaced the Theatres Act), and other related provincial film review acts. These laws and policies have been cited for the censure of a wide-variety of materials, yet all of them make exceptions for articles of artistic, literary, or scientific merit. The vagueness of these various rulings, however, makes the application of “merit” exceptionally difficult.
The problematically obscure definition of obscenity in Canada was established by the 1992 case of Regina v. Butler, wherein the government tried Donald Butler for the possession, display, and sale of obscene pornographic materials in the province of Manitoba. The Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling focused on a section of the Criminal Code that outlawed the “undue” exploitation of sex; they set out to define what might constitute “undue,” and determined that it would have to include anything that degrades women. R. v. Butler has been criticized in particular because its definition of obscenity remains unclear, as does its claim to be able to concretely address societal ills. The question remains: does the outlawing of materials hateful to women actually reduce harm in society? The following sections review how the aforementioned laws and policies have applied to federal intervention in the arts and culture, particularly in publications and film.
Censorship and Literature
The interception of publications has been pervasive in Canada, and has taken place both at public institutions, and private, commercial enterprises. Two government bodies are generally responsible for these instances of censorship: local and provincial police forces, and Canada Customs (3). The seizure of goods and objects is normally justified on the basis of obscenity. However, censorship is often the result of subjective and arbitrary decision making, based on stereotyping of establishments, or a lack of context and experience surrounding various topics. Legal challenges to acts of censorship reveal that the censors infringed on rights guaranteed by the Charter, primarily the first section that addresses freedom of expression, and the cases lacked the basic qualities necessary to prohibit sale or use.
However, today, quite frequently it is not only text, but also images that are deemed “immoral or indecent.” The adult monthly magazine Penthouse has been held at the border, strangely not for the “usual […] line-up of seductive nude young women in various stages of enticement, including the now-standard crotch shots and simulated masturbation,” but for the publication of ancient Japanese and Hindu depictions of sex, including work from the Kama Sutra (4). The images were reproduced as part of an article reviewing work shown at the 1983 New York Art Expo. The magazine’s publisher was forced to place black dots over all of the offending genitalia, or lose the profits of a then-half-a-million Canadian circulation.
Comic books are also frequently held and destroyed for similar sexually graphic (but notably, not violent) images. Penthouse Comix, an adult themed comic book published by the makers of Penthouse Magazine, was refused entry at the border because of perceived “degradation” in the work. The editor of the comic, George Caragonne, vented his frustration: “…to censor a comic book is particularly absurd. Comics are by definition farcical. […The panels] in no way could be said to ‘degrade or dehumanize’ any of the participants. They are purely cartoon characters and nothing more.” (5). The Meatman comics, featuring gay-sadomasochistic practises, have also regularly been stopped at the border. Mark Laliberté, the teenage publisher of an underground comic ‘zine, had his work seized by police after complaints by parents of fellow high school students. According to Val Ross, his ultimate acquittal was the first test of the parameters set by R. v. Butler (6).
One of the most memorable instances of literary censorship in Canada was a series of border patrol seizures during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The seizures primarily concerned alternative bookstores, which catered to the LGBT community, and in some instances, feminist audiences at “women’s bookstores.” Little Sister’s of Vancouver, British Columbia (and later, other alternative bookstores) contended that it was systematically discriminated against, and that border patrol officers were deeming material obscene simply because it depicted sexual acts outside of the norm. The only recourse after a book had been deemed obscene was to file an appeal after being served with a Notice of Detention and Determination. Appeals were often lengthy and sometimes expensive processes. As a result, small retailers infrequently filed them and Customs, in more than one instance, destroyed the books before the response deadline.
Little Sister’s Bookstore in Vancouver, British Columbia has been one of the most persistent and assertive litigants in the ongoing fight against government censorship. Little Sister’s took its case to the courts after several infuriating events. Material the store had ordered from the United States was not only destroyed at the border, before it had a chance to register their appeal, but other shipments of the same materials were allowed to make their way to larger, “big box” bookstores. A Canadian customs official carelessly threw a bag of detained shipments into the bookstore’s stairwell; the books inside were damaged. The detainment of The Advocate, a mainstream LGBT magazine available at most book and magazine retailers, and which contained virtually no sexual content, turned out to be the linchpin they needed. It was, in the words of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association’s director, “…an opportunity to attack the constitutionality of the obscenity provisions themselves.” (7).
Books on their way to Glad Day, the first gay and lesbian bookstore in Canada, seem to have committed no offence other than to be on their way to this particular bookstore; shipments here were systematically detained, despite no discernible obscenity. American scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Tendencies and Fat Art, Thin Art were detained by the Border Patrol in 1995. Its delivery had been timed to coincide with a visit by the author to Glad Day bookstore in Toronto, and though it was eventually released two weeks after the visitation date, no reason for its detainment was ever given. Jane Rule’s book The Young in One Another’s Arms, though available at bookstores across Canada, was also detained (and eventually released, no reason given) on its way to Glad Day. David Leavitt’s A Place I’ve Never Been, a short-story collection with very little sexual content, was also detained on its way to the book store (8). Even the famous 19th-century work by poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal, readily available in virtually every major bookstore, was detained (9).
Though LGBT bookstores take on a disproportionate amount of the censorship imposed by Customs, they are not the only bookstores that suffered. The Gauntlet, a respectable magazine devoting an issue to the analysis of censorship, was also seized because it contained images and excerpts from materials formerly seized (and later released) by the Canadian border patrol (10). The absurd misapplication of law also touched Andrea Dworkin’s own Pornography: Men Possessing Women and Woman Hating, both feminist treatises on the oppressive nature of pornographic materials on their way to Le Dernier Mot bookstore in Montreal (though both books were released after only a brief detention) (11). The Gauntlet and Dworkin titles are particularly ironic examples, but many other seized books, though they sometimes contain sexual or violent details, are rarely obscene and usually ascribed serious literary value by peers, critics, and other professionals in the field. Le Dernier Mot carries no pornographic titles in its stores (12).
Little Sister’s decided to challenge the seizure of publications, and took its case to the courts in 1990. The bookstore lost its first major court battle in 1994, and its second one in 2000, but finally made its way to Canada’s Supreme Court in 2004 (13). Not only did the organization assert that Border Patrol officers should not have the authority to seize books, but that federal law (the aforementioned Butler decision) was by necessity biased against gay erotica, and that a separate standard of values was necessary. In 2000, “The federal government contend[ed] that if Customs officials lose the power to regulate what material can cross the border, the country will be flooded with obscenity.” 14 In 2004, the Supreme Court agreed in a majority consensus that the system was broken, and Little Sister’s constitutional rights had been violated.
Indeed, as all of the Supreme Court judges noted, it is questionable whether a model of border censorship devised in the 19th century is worth retaining at all. In the age of the Internet, is it still worth devoting resources to the interception of expressive material at mail depots and border crossings? Should the state ever be able to suppress books before proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal trial? (15).
Customs Canada was ordered to put an end to their strictures, but whether or not they have come to end is debatable. Little Sister’s has contended that the incidents go on, and demanded the right to advanced federal funding in order to pursue continued legal action against the government. The Supreme Court ruled that the store could not have access to these funds, because its case was too narrow, and did not apply to a broad enough sector of the population. Commenting on the Court’s requirement that funding only be provided in “rare and exceptional” circumstances, law professor Brenda Cossman noted, “This was an action involving an unrelenting censor [Canada Customs] with whom Little Sister’s had been battling for 12 years – and they were operating in defiance of a Supreme Court order. If this case wasn’t exceptional, I don’t know what is.” (16). In their dissenting opinion, Justices Binnie and Fish emphatically disagreed with the Court’s decision, “It is 12 years into [the litigation process]. . . . Given that 70 per cent of Customs detentions are of gay and lesbian material, there is unfinished business of high public importance left over from Little Sister’s No. 1. The public has an interest in whether its government respects the law and operates in relation to its citizens in a non-discriminatory fashion.”(17). For many, the loss of this case, and the continued disdain for
the Supreme Courts orders, signalled that such censorship would never end. Little Sister’s has since announced that it will no longer pursue legal action, and the owners are looking to sell the business.
Film Censorship in Canad
Film censorship has a long history in Canada. Past debates have largely centered around the power of boards to edit or delete content outright. Ironically, the presence of these boards has made film censorship one of the best documented aspects of censorship in the country. As time has gone on, most of the Canadian provinces have done away with “censor boards,” and remodelled them as “review boards,” whose sole purpose is to apply rating systems. Censorship is still permitted when a film is “pornographic,” and it is here that many troubles still arise; debates over what qualifies a film as pornographic, or strictly pornographic, continue.
Early examples of Canadian prudishness abound in the State’s unusual censorship choices: the British Columbia censor board banned Mickey’s Follies (a 1929 Mickey Mouse cartoon) and the Marx Brothers’ films for being too silly, and The Woman that God Forgot, because God would not forget a woman (18). The Alberta Censor Board banned a nine-minute documentary, A Message from Our Sponsor, a critique of sexism sponsored by the National Film Board (NFB) (19), while Ontario banned the Cannes award-winning Tin Drum. Nova Scotia even banned All Quiet on the Western Front, because it was undertaking an army recruitment project at the time. These historical cases of censorship are outdated by contemporary standards, but even decisions made since the inception of the Charter often appear priggish. Léolo, a Quebec-made film sponsored by the NFB, and cited by TIME magazine as one of the greatest 100 films of all times, was banned by the province of Alberta. Though ultimately overturned on an appeal, the Saskatchewan censor board’s decision to bar the comedy Exit to Eden created enough public embarrassment that the government ultimately
dismantled the ban (20 ). Most provinces have gone the way of Saskatchewan, and either eliminated their censor boards, or transformed them into classification boards. Problems remain in Ontario, however. Recent films, such as Fat Girl (2001), Baise-Moi (2000), and Sex and Lucia (2001), have all been censored in Ontario. More recent decisions to allow the screening of potentially difficult films like Shortbus (2006) seem to indicate a turn, but a long history of controversial acts of censorship make the likelihood that will remain true unsure.
Ontario long ago set-up a distinction between “high art” films, and “low art” movies. The battle to limit the Ontario Film Censor Board’s (OFCB) powers started in the early 1980s. Artists and the OFCB clashed when the use of film as an artistic medium (i.e., produced especially for viewing in galleries and museums), became relatively pervasive. In 1975, the OFCB was granted aegis over art galleries exhibiting videotapes and Super-8 film. As per Ontario law, films had to be vetted by the board, then recommended changes applied, in order to permit public screening. Artist groups argued that the work screened in galleries should not be subjected to the same regulations, because they had different audiences, purposes, and screening locales, and they were already vetted “as art” by curators and directors. To suggest changes to an artistic work would be to question the authority of the artist.
The first art centre to defy the Censor Board was Toronto’s Funnel Film Theatre in 1980, which openly advertised its intent to publicly show unapproved films. In 1981 the Images Film Festival (then screened in Peterborough, but now based in Toronto) defied section 58 of the Theatres Act (1953) by showing unvetted films in a public setting. As charges were laid against them, the editors of FUSE magazine held yet another public screening of unapproved films in solidarity. Mary Brown, the Censor Board’s then-Director, claimed that like all censorship policy in Canada, the board’s activities were justified by the concept of “community standards.” According to Mary Brown, “[Film censorship] is recognized as a popular policy […] 70 percent of the people in Ontario want film censorship, so I would say that a responsible government should give it to them.” Yet a curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, one of Canada’s larger galleries, admitted that her institution often received preferential treatment, and was often not subject to the
same limitations as other galleries in the province (21). At the trial of four defendants from Artspace/Canadian Images Film Festival, the Defence established that “the Ontario Censor Board had not exercised its power over film gauges below 35 mm in its history, nor indeed to its jurisdiction over video screening in public.” (22). The Ontario Divisional Court plainly decided that the Film Censor Board’s activities were now in violation of the newly ratified Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They instead became the “Ontario Film Review Board” (OFRB), but it did virtually nothing to stop them from continuing censorship activities.
In August 1988, the Censor Board finally lost the ability to review films scheduled for display in galleries, public libraries, or schools, as well as film festivals, as long as the intended audience was over 18. While the gallery and school exception was a major win for artists and academics, it did little for more mainstream cinematic releases, whose “art” was not protected because of its venue. The case against the independent French film Fat Girl was so egregious that it prompted two of Canada’s most powerful corporate law firms to offer their services in defence of the film pro bono. Fat Girl was permitted to be screened in every Canadian province where there was a willing distributor; every province that is, but Ontario. The OFRB objected to the frank depiction of underage sex, although all of those scenes involved actors over the age of 18. Attorney Craig Martin came prepared with a small artillery of legal precedent that clearly showed the unconstitutional nature of the film’s censorship; their victory seemed assured. Realizing their position, the OFRB allowed the film to be released. Though on the surface the admittance seems like a win, it allowed the OFRB to evade constitutional challenge.
It was actually the legal actions of the previously-cited Glad Day bookstore, which also happens to carry videos, that forced a change in the film review board’s policies. In 2000 Glad Day challenged the OFRB in court, condemning their practises after they seized the unreviewed film Descent, and charged the owner. In 2004, the provincial courts agreed that their powers were “overly broad.” The presiding judge noted in particular that the previous exceptions to the Theatre Act, which granted special permissions to art galleries, libraries, schools, and film festivals, did not make sense. No evidence existed, so far as he could see, that the OFRB was correct in its assumption that the audiences present in those venues were “more sophisticated” than the general public. He gave the government one year to change its unconstitutional policies. After one year, the government tabled a new bill, labelled by Glad Day’s lawyer as, “…a new coat of paint on the old powers and presented […] as new legislation.”23 The Canadian Civil Liberties Association also claimed that the bill had “‘mysterious’ provisions that appear to recreate the very powers that were struck down by the court.” (24). Glad Day, just like Little Sister’s, fed up with the seemingly unending process and exorbitant costs, announced that they would no longer take up any censorship battles. Nonetheless, what at times can be difficult, embarrassing, and either ignored by small retailers or swept under the carpet by larger chain stores, has ironically gained enormous public exposure.
In the previous two sections we have seen that government intervention in the dissemination of films and literature has been frequent. The concerned works have often veered from standard definitions of sexuality, and typically come from places outside of Canada; most of the exporters are book publishers and film distributors from the United States, where the products are legal. Canadian government intervention has often been deemed inappropriate and in violation of the Charter by the provincial and federal courts. The Canadian government has thus demonstrated an intolerance for a wide-variety of “commercial” cultural products, while most of these products remain perfectly legal and tolerated within the United States.
The Rarity of Government Intervention in the Visual Arts
There are probably more total instances of censorship in Canada than could be compiled into any reasonable-sized tome, but the instances of government intervention in the visual arts are few. Some examples discussed here highlight the more pressing problems for censorship in the visual arts. Though “personal discretion” decisions happen at the level of government, procedures are such that inexcusable behaviour at this level is more easily challenged, and has been, without the long, protracted battles experienced by organizations like Glad Day and Little Sister’s. When government intervenes in the business of museums and galleries, citizens cry “censorship” without hesitation, because it is perceived as an infringement upon rights guaranteed by the Charter.
Such is the case with the artist Eli Langer. Eli Langer was charged with making obscene material, possession of child pornography, and exposing obscene material to the public, on December 21, 1993. This was less than a week after 35 of his drawings and five paintings were seized from an exhibition at the Mercer Union Gallery in Toronto. Two days later, the director of the gallery, Sharon Brooks, was also charged. Langer’s series depicted children and teenagers, often in different stages of undress, sometimes engaged in a sexual act. The exhibition’s press release explores some of the issues: “Langer’s work focuses on the tender and often abject aspects of sexuality and intimacy […] exploring the phenomenon of intimacy where it exists without the compensation of social or cultural consent. […] Langer often boldly develops a sexual ambiguity that inadvertently addresses our cultural taboos and the formation of morality.” (25).
No live models or other images of real children were used to create the works. More than one art reviewer found the works difficult to view, though, and the general opinion of the show, if not scathing, was less-than-favorable (26). The consensus among art reviewers seemed to nonetheless be that though the handling of the subject matter might have
been somewhat sophomoric, Langer showed promise as an artist. It was one of these art reviews, by critic Kate Taylor in Canada’s Globe and Mail, that prompted some readers to complain about the exhibition, although most readers hadn’t actually seen the works (27). The Toronto Metro Police’s Morality Squad (28) seized the work without
a warrant. It was the first instance of anyone being charged under Canada’s new child pornography law, granted by amendment to the Criminal Code known as Bill C-128.29 The law, which did include a vague provision for the exclusion of works with “artistic merit,” left no means for determining what constitutes this merit, and left the onus on the defender to do so. The Toronto Metro Police seemed prepared to both deny that artistic merit should have any bearing, and even if it did, that these works could be considered “art”: “It’s a firm belief at our end (that) artistic merit is no excuse, no defence. […] In this case, an examination was done and opinions were made almost instantly – it was that blatant to anyone we exposed (the exhibit) to – it was not art,” stated John Ferguson, one of the morality squad officers (30).
Charges against Langer and Brooks were eventually dropped, but the charges remained against the paintings themselves. A series of wellknown Canadian art personages were brought to court in order to testify that the works qualified as art, among them, artist Michael Snow, contemporary art dealer Avrom Isaacs, and the above cited Christopher Hume. Once their artistic merit was established, and the point reinforced that these were imagined images of a disturbing thing, not the thing itself, the judge was compelled to agree that the works were not pornographic. Similar arguments have struck down such laws in the United States Supreme and Appellate courts, but the same flaw failed to overturn the law in Canada.
A related case, albeit with far less fanfare, involved the exhibition of Canadian artist Lyla Rye’s work at eyelevelgallery in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Byte (2002) examined the relationship between a mother and infant: Rye videotaped herself singing into the mouth of her child, resulting in an unusual image of mouth-to-mouth contact between mother and daughter. The piece ends just after the frustrated baby bites the artist’s mouth. After two complaints, the Halifax vice squad arrived at the gallery on July 10, 2002, and demanded the videotapes from the director, who complied. Though the work had previously been exhibited in a small town in Ontario without incident, complaints made by two teenage viewers were taken seriously enough to keep the tape away from the gallery for the remaining duration of the show. No charges were laid against Rye, but she was warned that they likely would be if she attempted to show it again (31). She did show it again, without incident, at YYZ Gallery in 2003. The work is currently publicly accessible on the Centre for Canadian Contemporary Art’s Canadian Art Database (32).
These anecdotes reveal instances in which the government (represented through police morality squads) is willing to intervene. Langer and Rye both stepped into the tumultuous waters of childhood sexuality, a subject considered so taboo that few artists are willing to broach it, and the government is unwilling to risk perceived inaction on their part. The reasons for the outrage over the works seem clear enough: societal norms oppose the sexual exploitation of children (i.e. anyone under the age of 18). In Langer’s case, no actual children were involved in the making of the work, and there is no proof of an attempt to appeal to prurient interests; the Rye piece did have a real child, but a sexual relationship is neither explicit nor implied, so any interpretation as such would be imposed by the viewer. In both cases, the combined requirements for the criminal code to apply, that it involve children and be pornographic, were not present. The concern of this study is less with whether or not the works deserved to experience government intervention, but with the curious fact that the state felt compelled to do so. As demonstrated above, government censorship has been common, but it has almost always concerned products that are widely, publicly disseminated. Since it is clear that the government is, for the most part, willing to leave the fine arts to those who work within the arts community, one might wonder what has made the arts community worthy of such trust.
The likely explanation is that, as stated earlier, art institutions are believed to have a small, sophisticated audience, as opposed to pop culture items which are allegedly more widely distributed and more easily accessible. Such arguments are neither quantitatively verifiable, nor ethically responsible.
The Institution as Censor
In his preface to Interpreting Censorship in Canada, Allan C. Hutchinson warns readers to be careful when making assessments of Canadian censorship based on the quantity of reported incidents. Aside from the issue of a lack of thorough Canadian studies on censorship, there is also the problem of a reliance on reports that have made their way into the media. Some organizations, like Freedom to Read (a committee of the Book and Periodical Council), have started to request incident reports from the public, and are keeping statistics. No such organization does so for the visual arts. Even with this caveat in mind, however, the total number of reported incidents of intervention in the visual arts as opposed to intervention in all other aspects of cultural production, reveals such a distinct imbalance that it is clear this gap cannot be the result of a lack of reportage alone.
Institutions have frequently self-censored their own collections. This type of censorship is usually to blame in Canada’s museums and galleries: works quietly slip off walls, exhibitions are “temporarily” cancelled, and some objects are never allowed out of storage, all at the behest of the institution itself. Censorship of this variety is worrisome because there is usually no standard procedure by which it can be contested. It is impossible even to quantify how often this type of censorship occurs, let alone to judge the merit of individual instances. In this study, I will address some of the best-known cases in order to better understand its nature.
One might argue that censorship in the visual arts is rare, because the legal rights assured by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms seemingly make it difficult for the government to intercept images or information they deem inappropriate, but as we have seen demonstrated in the above, this does not necessarily hold true. The Charter in fact protects the government’s ability to intercede where it deems necessary.
However, it remains in the government’s best interest to appear a caring sovereign, and to limit the scope of its perceived censorship to a minimum. The more that citizens perceive inequities or unjust treatment, the
more likely they are to challenge the scope of certain bodies’ abilities, from the Toronto Metropolitan Police (who may no longer seize evidence from a public place without a warrant, due to the Langer case), to Canadian Customs Officials (who have been forced to significantly change the language and scope of Memorandum D9-1-1). Other organizations, like the OFRB, have even dropped their charges, rather than face a limitation on their powers in court (as in the Fat Girl case, described above).
A far better strategy is to create policy initiatives that encourage public institutions to regulate themselves.
The depiction of human sexuality is one of the censor’s favourite targets in Canada. In particular, it is when these images fall outside of sanctioned, hetero-normative bounds that issues arise; prevalent examples include the depiction of teenagers as sexualized beings, the illustration of the male nude, and the representation of homosexuality. Yet similar issues arise less frequently in the space of the museum. One might argue that museums are protected by virtue of their status as government entities, but this is not so. The National Gallery of Canada and the Museum of Civilization are both de facto arm’s length institutions, as per the 1990 Museums Act. The government therefore does not have the right to regulate museums in the same way that they would any other government department. The museum is officially kept to the same standards as any private corporation, but unofficially, their gaffes become the public embarrassments of the government.
In 1995, a contentious decision to cancel an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) was deemed censorious by many. NGC claimed responsibility for the decision, though rumblings of pressure to do so by government officials were publicly aired. The exhibition in question was a series of works by Dennis Tourbin, which examined the issue of Quebec’s October Crisis, an incident remembered by some as a frightening example of militant terrorism, by others as an exertion of unfair measures by the State. The exhibition was designed to occur in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the crisis, but accidentally coincided with the proposed date for a new referendum of the question of Quebec sovereignty.
The NGC’s decision may have been influenced by a similar one taken by the Smithsonian Institution, who in 1994, cancelled the display of fuselage from the Enola Gay and other WWII paraphernalia. The Museum of Civilization embroiled itself in a similar controversy when immediately following the events of September 11, 2001, it cancelled the exhibition The Lands Within Me, featuring Canadian artists of Arab descent. The museum’s claims that more time was required in order to add further context were neither well-received, nor believed. Commentator Hugh Winsor noted that, “The museum [had] shown previous exhibits on Ukrainians, Doukhobors, Vietnamese boat people and Jews…,” thus any pretence that this was an unusual situation that required special attention was unfounded (33). Even the then-Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Chrétien, condemned the museum’s interference. In response to their attempts to placate an increasingly angry public by offering to relaunch the exhibit in March 2002, Chrétien said, “If it
is good for March, 2002, it is good for October, 2001.” (34). After significant political and public pressure, the museum relented and opened The Lands Within Me on the originally planned date, October 19, 2001. The curator of the exhibition, Aida Kaouk, was promptly dismissed following the exhibition, though her contract had previously been renewed 14 times over ten years (35). She filed a complaint in 2002 with Canada’s Human Rights Commission, charging the museum with racism, and won (36).
In 2003, the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH), a public space in south eastern Ontario, made a decision similar to the Museum of Civilization’s when it elected to “postpone” Enduring Operation Freedom. The exhibit, a solo show with works by artist-architect Shahid Mahmood, included mostly satirical cartoons critiquing the American invasion of Iraq. Though the curator/director Alexandria Pierce publicly claimed that the exhibition was only postponed due to a requirement to, “…develop [the work] within the context of a broader exhibition on popular culture,” Mahmood asserted otherwise (37) “…I got a call back from the curator saying, ‘You know what? The times aren’t great. I think we should save this exhibition for another time. I fear for my job. I don’t think this is the proper political climate to be doing this in Hamilton right now.’” (38). The rather dubious claims that the work would be shown no later than 2005 turned out to be rightfully doubted: as of this date, the work has still not been exhibited at the AGH.
There are many examples of controversial works exhibited in the halls of Canadian art institutions. They contend with virtually every controversial subject-matter one can imagine: self-mutilation in the works of Vienna Actionist Rudolf Schwarzkogler at the Musée d’art contemporain in 1991, scenes of sexual torture in the work of Tom Lapierre at the Art Gallery of Peel in 1993, the homoeroticism of Attila Richard Lukacs’ work at the Musée d’art contemporain in 1995, Kent Monkman’s satirical image of rape at the Harbourfront Centre in 2002, and Carol Ho’s painted images of disabled children at the Red Deer and District Museum in 2003. While there are often healthy debates surrounding the exhibition of these works, and occasional reports of dissatisfaction by some members of the community, the works almost always remain in place. Upon occasion, museums take steps to shield such images from children or otherwise warn patrons of sensitive content, as with both the Ho and Monkman pieces, but calling such measures “censorship” severely diminishes the power of the word.
As the examples in this section illustrate, museums in Canada have a tendency not to react in a censorious manner simply because the work is controversial, but to react strongly when there are concerns about race, identity, and representation. The museum seems to be willing to risk the label of censor, rather than risk misrepresentation of a group. This may be related to previous, major protests that were fuelled entirely by members of the public on behalf of a minority voice: The Spirit Sings exhibition at the Glenbow Museum (1988) for misuse of Aboriginal artifacts, and Into the Heart of Africa at the Royal Ontario Museum (1989), for an offensive depiction of Africans. Representation is highly politicized in Canada, and a demonstration of “intercultural” understanding is considered a key aspect of the country’s cultural policy.
It seems clear that museums are unwilling to risk political backlash, and sometimes take the unfortunate misstep of censoring work. While this is hardly the fault of the Canadian government (representatives have actually spoken out against museum censorship on more than one occasion), it does demonstrate how anxious cultural institutions are about misrepresenting any community, particularly those that may be involved with politically-sensitive issues. They have preconditioned themselves to act in advance by closing down potentially controversial exhibitions, rather than to engage the public in dialogue and interchange.
Canadian censorship practice has shown a distinct pattern, quite different to that of the United States. While Americans have expressed anxiety about the ways in which the fine arts are supported and exhibited, Canadians have shown relatively less interest, with some notable exceptions: the government seems to intervene where harm toward children may be involved, and the institution itself may intervene when politically sensitive communities are concerned. Instead, the Canadian government has historically shown interest in the “popular arts,” especially cinema and literature.
How do Canada’s censorship practises relate to what is known about Canadian identity, as demonstrated by our values? Canada is perceived as a democratic state where rights are protected, and censorious actions are relatively rare, but as we have seen, the country is by no means completely free of such activity. There has historically been a deep divide between the censorship of cultural products that might be designated as “popular,” or “consumer-oriented,” and those that are considered “fine art.” Canadian government interventions and élitist divisions between “high” and “low” art are simply outdated and require a rapprochement in order to put an end to inequities.
While this survey demonstrates these general trends, it cannot predict what exhibitions or individual works of art will court controversy in the future. Understanding the government, Canadian citizens, the needs of granting organizations, and a given institution’s own mandate are all essential for creating a lasting policy that appropriately addresses everyone’s needs.
1. For a more complete discussion of censorship policy, please see Katrina Enros, Culturing Ourselves: Cultural Policy, Censorship, and the Canadian Identity (MA Thesis, The School of The Art Institute of Chicago. 2008), from which this paper is extracted.
2. Monica Gattinger, “Creative Pique: On Governance and Engagement in the Cultural Sector,” Accounting for Culture: Thinking Through Cultural Citizenship, Ed. Caroline Andrew, Monica Gattinger, M. Sharon Jeannotte, and Will Straw (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2005), 207.
3. Parents’ groups and school boards frequently challenge books within elementary and secondary schools. As these questions generally concern the appropriateness of literature for a child, or their educational value as a part of the overall curricula, they fall outside the scope of this paper.
4. William French, “Penthouse’s black dots a black mark for censor,” The Globe and Mail, May 3, 1983.
5. Charles Trueheart, “Canada Closes its Border to Penthouse Comic Book,” The Washington Post, June 28, 1994, A24.
6. Val Ross, “A Significant obscenity judgment,” The Globe and Mail, June 23, 1992.
7. Kirk Makin, “This case . . . is out of control’; After spending $500,000 and 10 years fighting the government,; the owners of a gay bookstore in B.C. would do it again.; ‘Customs was taking so much of our material that we were; going out of business,’ said Janine Fuller on her battle; to stop Customs seizing the shop’s material.; Did they win? Sort of.” The Globe and Mail, April 8, 2002, A6.
8. Hough, Robert, “Seizing books degrading Customs Canada still labours under the Victorian notion that viewing certain publications can make a person evil, mad, criminal, and hairy-palmed. Accompanying this conviction is the belief that someone, somewhere, must prevent us from reading such material,” The Globe and Mail, February 12, 1994.
10. Philip Marchand, “Censorship,” The Toronto Star, July 14, 1990, M1.
11. Albert Nerenberg, “Fear not, brave Canadian, Customs stands on guard for thee,” The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec), January 22, 1993.
13. Little Sister’s v. Canada (Minister of Justice), [1996.] No. A901450, Supreme Court of British Columbia
14. Little Sister’s v. Canada (Minister of Justice),  B.C. Court of Appeal
15. Little Sister’s v. Canada (Minister of Justice),  2 S.C.R. 1120, Supreme
Court of Canada
16. Little Sister’s v. Canada (Minister of Justice),  1 S.C.R. 38, 2007 SCC 2, Supreme Court of Canada
17. Janice Tibbetts, “‘A different kind of erotica’: Gay materials require separate measure for obscenity, top court told,” The Ottawa Citizen, May 17, 2000.
18. Brenda Cossman and Bruce Ryder. “Court was too lenient in B.C. censorship case,” The Toronto Star, December 24, 2000.
19. Kirk Makin, “Top Court Denies Cash for Little Sister’s Case,” The Globe and Mail, January 20, 2007, A6.
21. Lyle Jenish, “Censored: From Mickey Mouse to the Marx Brothers; Professor’s research reveals a disturbing history in British Columbia of material being banned for political reasons,” The Globe and Mail, April 30, 2007, A8.
22. “Alberta bans film on sexism,” The Globe and Mail, February 12, 1981.
23. “Sask. censors out,” The Montreal Gazette, September 17, 1997, A14.
24. Zsuzsi Gartner, “Panel members relate censorship encounters,”
The Globe and Mail, May 28, 1985.
25. Clive Robertson, “Contestations and Legal Mobilizations,” Policy Matters: Administrations of Art and Culture (Toronto: YYZBooks, 2006), 45-46.
26. Katie Rook, “Gay bookshop gives up the fight; Repeated legal battles have cost business more than $1-million over 30 years,” The Globe and Mail, January 25, 2005, A10.
27. Kirk Makin, “Reviving film censorship defies courts, group says; CCLA to oppose extension of grace period arising from Glad Day Bookstore ruling,” The Globe and Mail, April 14, 2005, A14.
28. “Eli Langer,” Digital Archives of Mercer Union: 1979-1995, http://www.mercerunion.org/archive95/348.html.
29. Christopher Hume, “Offensive, and porn not always the same thing,” The Toronto Star, December 26, 1993, E7.
30. Kate Taylor, “Eli Langer: Show Breaks Sex Taboo,” The Globe and Mail, December 14, 1993.
31. Kate Taylor, “SPECTATOR Don’t shoot the messenger … or arrest the artist,” The Globe and Mail, December 24, 1993.
32. The Toronto Metropolitan Police Force’s self-described morality squad has since been renamed with various other euphemisms, particularly the “Special Investigations Unit.” Journalists and authors tend to continue to refer to it as the morality squad in order to draw parallels to its previous investigations, and to remain clear about the squad’s mandate, which continues to focus on the prosecution of sexually-based crimes, gambling, and drugs.
33. Kate Taylor, “Child-porn law used for first time Toronto artist charged after police seize five paintings, 35 drawings,” The Globe and Mail, December 22, 1993.
34. Hume 1993.
35. Hanna Deirdre, “Art out of reach,” The Toronto Star, July 21, 2002.
36. Centre for Canadian Contemporary Art, “Lyla Rye: Byte,” The Canadian Art Database, http://www.ccca.ca/artists/media_detail.html?languagePref=en&mkey=53088&link_id=5478 (April 19, 2008)
37. Hugh Winsor, “The politics of art: What were they thinking?,” The Globe and Mail, October 1, 2001.
38. Ray Conlogue, “PM blasts museum over Arab art show,” The Globe
and Mail, September 27, 2001, A8.
39. Janice Tibbetts, “Dismissed Arab curator calls museum racist: Human rights complaint: Syrian-Canadian led controversial Arab art exhibit after Sept. 11,” The National Post, November 26, 2002, A2.
40. Ray Conlogue, “Some felt the show was derailed; With the Museum of Civilization’s decision not to tour a controversial show of Muslim-Canadian art, artists are charging bias,” The Globe and Mail, July 5, 2003, R9.
41. Christian Cotroneo, “Cartoon critique of Iraq war kept under wraps,” The Toronto Star, November 4, 2003, A16.