2 min

Bookies need a day off

How did queer bookstores get put in charge of freedom of expression?

Canada’s gay and lesbian bookstores have long been at the forefront of the struggle for freedom of expression. For decades Little Sister’s Bookstore in Vancouver has been battling Canada Customs (recently renamed Canada Border Services Agency). In 2000 the Supreme Court Of Canada agreed that Little Sister’s had been targeted by Customs, and told it to clean up its act. Toronto’s Glad Day Bookshop has fought censorship on many fronts, including a recent successful challenge to the censorship power of the Ontario Film Review Board (OFRB).

But government censors just don’t take no for an answer. Even after the Supreme Court decision, Canada Customs kept seizing and censoring materials en route to Little Sister’s. And when the Ontario government issued new regulations governing the OFRB, it entrenched the very censorship power that the court had taken away.

Eventually, even the most tireless of crusaders can grow weary. Glad Day has waved the white flag, saying that it won’t be bringing any more challenges. Little Sister’s hasn’t yet thrown in the towel, but it was delivered a tough blow last month. A lower court had ordered that the government pay Little Sister’s legal fees during this round of legal challenges. The BC Court Of Appeal successfully overturned the decision.

There are perfectly legitimate reasons for a court to reach this conclusion. The courts have held that it is only in the most exceptional cases that the public purse should have to fund a court challenge. But the cantankerous appeal court could barely contain its disdain.

“Little Sister’s assumed the role of watchdog over Customs,” the court wrote. “The public has not appointed Little Sister’s to this role. Little Sister’s not only wants to have Customs found to have incorrectly classified the books in question but wants to be financed as the instrument to reform Customs.”

In the court’s view, it is simply not necessary for Little Sister’s to be an instrument of reform. It’s an interesting conclusion, since there haven’t been a whole lot of other Canadian people, businesses or institutions challenging the often outrageous practices of Canada’s border police.

Little Sister’s has been at the forefront of the challenges to Customs censorship, and it has received more than a little public support in the form of donations, community acclaim and people buying books about their battles. The store has taken on the role in the absence of anyone else doing so.

When gay and lesbian businesses go to court to fight censorship, do they stand to benefit from success? Of course. Book retailers could improve their very small profit margin if they weren’t constantly harassed by government censorship. But does this mean that they are operating out of economic self-interest? Certainly not, given the kind of legal bills they have incurred over the years.

Little Sister’s, Glad Day and other bookstores like them are not some kind of self-appointed vigilantes of freedom of expression. They are simply defending themselves from excessive governmental censorship. And in so doing, they became the vanguard of this struggle. Often, instead of getting respect and appreciation, they get taken for granted.

Our bookstores need help – orchestrated assistance from the gay and lesbian community. There are more players now than when Glad Day and Little Sister’s started their battles, so it may be time to let these beleaguered bookstores, once energetic hubs of gay and lesbian life, sit out a few rounds. The lobby group Egale Canada, for example, which has taken more interest in sexual freedom issues in recent years, needs to take a leadership role.

In fact, Canadian gay and lesbian organizations may be well placed to turn more of their attention to freedom of expression struggles. Same-sex marriage is almost done. Reshaping the gay and lesbian political agenda, particularly on the sexual freedom front, should be a priority. We can no longer continue to expect the bookstores to take care of it for us.