Denied Entry

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:

A newspaper article with the words Prohibition importation in bold

Announcement of the ban on the importation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, National Revenue Review, 3, no. 5 (February 1930), p. 13. (OCLC 42299612)

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.”

A photograph of a typed document with a signature on the bottom right hand corner

A typical memorandum announcing a ban on the importation of certain publications. The Bible Unmasked was an atheist tract. Art Lovers Magazine published suggestive photographs alongside commentary on artistic and cultural subjects. Film Fun featured “pin-up” illustrations. (RG16-A-3, Volume number: 888)

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.

A typed document with the a signature at the bottom

Memorandum announcing the banning of Two Worlds Monthly in 1926. The New York City literary magazine serialized Ulysses by James Joyce, which Canada’s customs censors had already banned. (RG16-A-3, Volume number: 888)

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.

A ledger with columns and blue ink writing.

Record of the seizure of “2 books, – ‘A Jew in Love,’ – prohibited importation” imported by G.J. McLeod and Company, and of the Department of National Revenue’s decision concerning them: “That the books be and remain forfeited and be destroyed.” (RG16-A-3, Volume number: 864)

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.

The Freedom to Read

By Liane Belway

A colour photograph showing the spines of a stack of books against a black background.

A sample of the variety of books held in the Library and Archives Canada collection, which have been challenged.  Photo credit: Tom Thompson

In Canada, we enjoy the freedom to read what we choose, so much so that we may not always consider how important this right is, or whether it could be interfered with in a country such as ours. After all, our intellectual freedom is guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Yet, freedom to read can never be taken for granted.  Even in Canada, books and magazines are frequently challenged in libraries and schools, and these pressures affect the right of Canadians to decide for themselves what they should or should not read. Freedom to Read Week encourages Canadians to talk about and celebrate our intellectual freedom. Each year, Canada’s Book and Periodical Council ensures that this event raises awareness of Canada’s often little-known history of censorship and book banning, and the battles fought to keep books on the shelves of schools and libraries. Nationwide events throughout this week help raise awareness about the importance of protecting our right to read.

The right to intellectual freedom means that each person has the right to choose what to read, within the limits of Canadian law. Challenging a book’s right to be on a shelf and available to readers involves more than a personal expression of taste or the choice not to participate in a conversation about controversial issues. It is an attempt to limit public access to the works in schools, libraries, or bookstores, often for political or moral reasons, and prevent others from reading them. Libraries have a core responsibility to protect the freedom to read and are required to have library policies reflect this duty.

Each case is different, and libraries respond differently, according to their mandate and their responsibilities to users. Most public libraries have intellectual freedom policies in place to deal with individual concerns while protecting the collective right to read, for example by shelving according to age appropriateness, while the mandate of many school libraries is mainly to support the curriculum for the school’s relevant age group. At Library and Archives Canada, our mandate is to acquire, describe, and make accessible all Canadian publications to readers and researchers from Canada and around the world.

Not all challenged books wind up being banned. When a famous author like Margaret Atwood has a book like The Handmaid’s Tale challenged, the result is often greater media attention, increased sales, and more readers. Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women was challenged decades before she won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

However, the process of trying to ban a book can have a more insidious effect, especially in school and public libraries. A children’s book with a controversial reputation can simply be dropped from reading lists and curricula to avoid confrontation. When books with themes like that of Maxine’s Tree, a picture book with an environmentally friendly message, are challenged, sometimes the challenge is denied, as in this case from 1992, where the book was allowed to remain in elementary schools. Today, we take for granted picture books that teach kids about the environment, or same-sex families, or different religious views, or any number of topics, but this was not always the case.

Who knows how many such books were not purchased (or not written) over the decades because of a culture of banning? We like to think that, today, we are more open to the views of others. Nevertheless, as Canadians, we should remain aware at all times of how valuable our right to read is and should protect this right for ourselves as well as for other readers.


Liane Belway is a librarian in the Acquisitions section of Published Heritage at Library and Archives Canada.

For more information, check out Freedom to Read Week online.