By Forrest Pass
Canadians have a reputation for being quiet and unassuming. As we mark Freedom to Read Week, it is worth noting that even censors have demonstrated these national traits, working quietly in the shadows to determine what Canadians can and cannot read.
Consider how different countries censored D.H. Lawrence’s erotic classic, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In the United States, the question of banning this work warranted a congressional debate. In the United Kingdom, the release of an unexpurgated edition provoked a well-publicized obscenity trial.
In Canada, by contrast, the decision to ban Lady Chatterley’s Lover was announced in the back pages of the National Revenue Review, an internal magazine for customs officers:
From Confederation onward, the Minister of National Revenue, who was responsible for customs enforcement, and his staff had virtually absolute power to prohibit the importation of publications that they deemed obscene or seditious. By the 1950s, customs censors had banned well over a thousand titles.
Although authors and publishers sometimes protested, they could not appeal these decisions until 1958. Even then, the importer had to prove that a challenged publication was not obscene or seditious. Only in 2000 did the Supreme Court of Canada rule that it was unconstitutional to consider questionable books and magazines guilty until proven innocent.
Customs censors worked discreetly. For decades, the Department of National Revenue refused to publish a cumulative list of banned publications. However, Library and Archives Canada’s collections preserve evidence of the books and magazines that the department’s censors targeted.
When the minister decided that a publication was obscene or seditious, he issued a brief memorandum instructing customs officers to intercept the book or magazine at ports of entry. Copies of these memoranda survive, pasted into a series of scrapbooks alongside notices of duty exemptions and procedures for staff holidays. Beginning in the 1920s, notices also appeared in the National Revenue Review; the magazine was publicly available, and newspaper editors regularly reprinted these announcements.
The customs censors’ earliest targets, before the First World War, were mostly American newspapers and magazines. With titles like Chicago Despatch and American House and Home, these publications seemed innocent enough, but one memorandum warned that they might contain advertisements unfit for Canadian eyes.
In the twentieth century, a wide range of books and magazines attracted the customs censors’ attention. Unsurprisingly, sexually suggestive content—mild by today’s standards—was a persistent concern, as were some “true crime” stories, which allegedly glorified gangsterism. The customs censors also banned extreme anti-Catholic propaganda, some of which might qualify as hate literature today. During the 1920s and 1930s, communist and socialist newspapers in foreign languages also appeared regularly in announcements of prohibited publications.
More surprising is the department’s effort to keep out publications promoting atheism. In 1931, the Toronto Globe praised the exclusion of works by the American freethinker Emanuel Haldeman-Julius. “To let this sort of literature into the country would be to welcome ridicule on religion,” warned the Globe. “If the Department errs, it is in not going far enough with its ban on subversive reading matter.”
Canadian customs censors seldom targeted well-known literary works. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a rare exception; so was James Joyce’s Ulysses, banned in 1923. Such decisions were the most likely to provoke criticism. Some magazines and newspapers, including Maclean’s and the Ottawa Citizen, occasionally criticized the customs censors. So, too, did Quill & Quire, the magazine of the Canadian publishing trade.
Canadian publishers knew, however, that there were ways to evade censorship. Customs censors could prohibit only the importation of publications, not the production and distribution of those publications in Canada. Seizure records hint at publishers’ efforts to use this loophole. In 1932, customs officers seized two copies of A Jew in Love, a racy novel by Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht that the department had banned some months earlier. The importer, Toronto publishers G.J. Macleod and Company, specialized in reprinting foreign titles and may have planned a legal Canadian edition of Hecht’s novel. To ban a book produced in Canada, the aspiring censor had to convince a judge that the work was criminally obscene or seditious—a high standard that only the most offensive publications met.
The standard for banning imported publications was much lower, and customs censors almost never gave justifications for their decisions. Canadian censors’ objections to Lady Chatterley’s Lover probably echoed those of their British and American counterparts. The title of Frederic Arnold Kummer’s Gentlemen in Hades: The Story of a Damned Debutante hints at grounds for its 1932 exclusion from Canada; libraries in Canada and elsewhere preserve several copies of this all-but-forgotten flapper fantasy. But no library in the world holds Krums of Komford (banned in 1895) or American Beauties magazine (banned in 1926).
We can only guess at the reasons for banning these lost works because the customs censors did not keep their reading copies. In 1938, the department’s chief censor, J. Sydney Roe, revealed to the Ottawa Citizen that, twice a year, he and a departmental messenger took a wheelbarrow-load of illicit publications to the basement of his office building and threw them in the coal furnace.
Private and without ceremony, these were very Canadian book burnings.
Forrest Pass is a curator with the Exhibitions team at Library and Archives Canada.