This is Freedom to Read week, an event of the Freedom of Expression Committee of the Book and Periodical Council, created to focus public attention on intellectual freedom and raise awareness of trends that limit or threaten freedom of expression. I think Canadians tend to think of ourselves as supremely liberal and book challenging and banning then, as something that happens elsewhere. Unfortunately, we are doing ourselves a monumental disservice by choosing to remain unaware. Challenges do not make any new headlines - the books simply disappear. According to the Freedom to Read website, even if a challenged book does not ultimately end up being officially banned, it is often quietly dropped from reading lists and curricula due to its controversial nature. When public access to books is limited in schools, bookstores and libraries, what's next?
A short list of important books that have been challenged in Canada in the last fifteen years (a more complete list is available here):
- Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger - Consistently challenged in schools across Canada for at least the last 15 years
- To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee (2002 challenge in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia)
- Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck (2000 challenge in Winnipeg, Manitoba)
- Dance Me Outside, WP Kinsella (1994 challenge in Barrie, Ontario)
- The Diviners, Margaret Laurence (Challenged repeatedly between 1976 and 1994 and removed from high school reading lists in at least two provinces)
- A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess (1991 challenge in Essex County, Ontario)
- The Wars, Timothy Findley (1991 challenge in Lambton, Ontario)
The reasons for the challenges on these books run the gamut from "foul language" (Catcher in the Rye) to "pressuring students to accept homosexuality" (A passage in The Wars, describes the rape of a Canadian soldier by fellow officers during World War I). Nothing really good enough to limit our collective freedom of expression - a fundamental freedom under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and a basic right of humanity under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.