It started as a normal day for Andy Henderson. He bid his wife and two sons farewell and headed out to work at his job sorting mail for Canada Post at Station F on Commercial Dr in Vancouver.
It’s Henderson’s job to sift through the mountains of incoming junk mail–most of it commercial advertising–to ensure each carrier gets the right number of copies for delivery on his or her route.
“This was just one bag,” he says of that Wednesday morning, Oct 25. “I reached in to grab two samples to do the paperwork and the words jumped out at me; I was completely floored. My first thought was: we can’t be delivering this.”
The bag contained about 200 copies of a 27-page booklet entitled The Prophetic Word. The headline read: The Plague of this 21st Century: the Consequences of the sin of Homosexuality (AIDS).
It’s a rambling load of barely coherent hooey written by an obscure 77-year-old fundamentalist Christian evangelist from Ontario. In it, the author warns that homosexuality is causing the fall of Western civilization and is to blame for a host of social ills.
The author told the Globe and Mail that AIDS is a plague sweeping the world that can be stopped by honouring monogamous heterosexual relationships. He said so many people are dead and dying from AIDS because they lead unhealthy lifestyles and that the AIDS “plague,” which, he said was started and is spread by homosexuals, foreshadows the fulfillment of Christian scriptural prophesy about the second coming of Jesus Christ.
According Christian folklore, the second coming is variously described as preceded by the resurrection of the dead, the end of the world, the final judgment, the apocalypse, and the establishment of the kingdom of God.
So, in a nutshell, this whack-a-doodle believes that queer sexuality is pissing God off so much that he’s working up the gumption to destroy Western civilization and everyone in it. He thinks queer people are cosmic terrorists and a blight on humanity.
“I get kind of emotional at times, but this to me is disgusting, filthy hate mail,” says Henderson. “It incites hatred. Who knows what evil will come from this.
“I took the booklet into the supervisor’s office,” he continues. “I’m shop steward, so when I came in and said, ‘This is hate mail and we shouldn’t be delivering it,’ their immediate reaction was, ‘Oh yes you will.’ And then they read it.”
Henderson says the booklets didn’t go out for delivery that morning. He thinks a copy was sent off to Ottawa for inspection by Canada Post executives and lawyers.
“The next day, at about 10 am, I got word from management that their bosses had said, ‘Yes it’s going out,'” recalls Henderson.
But that simply wasn’t good enough for him and more than 60 of his colleagues who walked off the job rather than deliver unsolicited hate mail that was such a clear attack on queer people.
“It was a wonderful experience because it was full support,” recalls Henderson. “We have people of different ethnic backgrounds, ages, sexual orientations, political beliefs, and yet every single person cleared the floor.”
When Ken Mooney, president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers local 846, heard about the walkout, he rushed over to Station F.
“We asked management what was going to happen,” he says. “They wanted a Canada Post letter carrier to hand it [the hate mail] to a customer who could quite possibly be HIV-positive, or had someone in their family who had died of AIDS. A lot of people were not comfortable with it. And people were concerned that if they didn’t deliver it, there might be disciplinary ramifications.
“When I arrived at Station F, there were a bunch of security staff and additional management types around,” Mooney recounts. “The manager at the time was insisting that it [the hate mail] was going to be delivered. He was posturing and making comments to the effect that he’d be more than happy to hand this out to his own children. It was really escalating things and really infuriating people.”
After Mooney spoke with Canada Post management and the union members, Henderson and his colleagues agreed to return to work. They were only away from their posts for a short time, but when they returned, Canada Post management told them that although the flyers would be delivered, no letter carriers would be forced to do the job.
Lillian Au, Canada Post communications director for the Pacific Region, confirms that the hate mail was delivered, but she won’t say who delivered it or when.
“It was delivered by a Canada Post employee,” she says. “That’s all I can say at this point. By all accounts the delivery went very well. It was less than 200 pieces, it affected one mail route in Vancouver, and that was it.”
Au says she won’t share the details of the delivery with Xtra West “for safety reasons.” She won’t confirm whether management delivered the hate mail or whether it was stuffed into envelopes before it was delivered, as has been rumoured in the mainstream press.
She says she wants to protect the identity of the person who made the delivery and that, because Canada Post was privately contracted to deliver the hate mail, it would be a violation of that contract to reveal the details of the transaction to the public.
Henderson says the usual carrier for the route in question told him that the hate mail–some copies in envelopes; others not–were in mailboxes on Monday morning, Oct 30. Henderson says he suspects it was delivered sometime over the weekend and that he’s pretty sure he knows which Canada Post manager made the delivery, but he refuses to name the person.
Henderson also says that Canada Post management summoned him to a disciplinary interview, the first in his career, Nov 1. He describes the meeting as “intense and kind of scary.”
“It was like being grilled by a couple of cops,’ he told Xtra West later that day. “It seemed like they were focused on my reading of the flyer. We’re not supposed to read mail, but I have to look at the thing to see that it matches the statement of mailing. The words on [the hate mail] are large and bold. It’s completely absurd to think someone would look at it and not absorb what it said.”
Henderson also says management asked him how a copy of the hate mail fell into the hands of a Global television news reporter.
He won’t know until after Xtra West goes to press whether or not Canada Post will attempt to discipline him further for having the courage to blow the whistle and to lead every single one of his colleagues to refuse to discriminate against queer and HIV-positive people.
So how can this happen? How could Canada Post be so blind to the bald-faced hatred they wanted Henderson and his colleagues to deliver?
“We walk a fine line,” says Au. “We are committed to the Charter of Rights which guarantees freedom of expression and religion. It’s really not up to us to decide what hate mail is. We believe the determination as to whether or not an item is hate mail is in the realm of the courts. The only thing I can say is, anyone who does have an issue with that piece of mail should direct their concerns to the author of the literature, the sender, or the police who have provisions to deal with inappropriate material.”
When reminded that the Canadian Human Rights Act, the BC Human Rights Code and the Criminal Code of Canada each have provisions against hate propaganda and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; and that the collective agreement Canada Post has with its workers recognizes an employee’s right to a working environment free of harassment on the basis of sexual orientation, Au pauses before reiterating almost word-for-word her previous statement.
“We are in a difficult balancing act,” she says. “It’s an awkward postion. You’re right. Again, we do walk a fine line. We are committed to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees freedom of expression and religion versus respecting the views of our workers and they did stand up for what they believe in and that’s correct.
“We recognize our workers have opinions and we respect their opinions,” she continues. “I’m sorry to sound repetitive, but if they do have concerns with that mail, they should take it up with the sender, the author, or take it up with the police where they have provisions to deal with inappropriate material.”
But although Canada Post prefers to leave hate mail determinations to the courts and the cops, it has no such objection to deciding on its own what mail counts as sexually explicit.
Sex Party leader John Ince is fighting a lawsuit against Canada Post because it refused to deliver one of his political leaflets early this year. Canada Post called Ince’s leaflet “sexually explicit” and refused to deliver it. There’s a picture of a vaguely phallic sculpture on it, but there’s no sex or nudity, and the BC Civil Liberties Association called the flyer “downright pedestrian.”
Ince doesn’t think Canada Post is qualified to police morality in any capacity, even if it is hate mail.
“I think the [The Prophetic Word] is highly offensive but I think that Canada Post had a duty to deliver it, even if it’s criminal material,” Ince told Xtra West Oct 27.
Ince compares Canada Post’s censorship of his flyer with Canada Border Services Agency’s seizure of queer-themed materials bound for Vancouver’s Little Sister’s Bookstore.
“We don’t want prior restraint on things,” he continues. “We can’t have a standard of offensiveness governing discourse in a democratic society. People can get offended by all sorts of things.”
When asked to explain how Canada Post management is qualified to censor mail they arbitrarily deem to be sexually explicit, while protecting hate mail as free expression unless the courts direct otherwise, Au responds:
“Well, um, we do deal with, just on a general, on the broad issue of sexually explicit material, again, as I mentioned we are required by law to accept all mail as long as it doesn’t pose a safety hazard and doesn’t display sexually explicit material,” she says. “For that piece I can’t comment because it is before the courts.”
It’s a confusing and evasive answer. So, how about a simple acknowledgement that, generally, Canada Post management does make determinations on mail that may seem sexually explicit but does not make determinations on mail that may be hate propaganda.
“We do have criteria for sexually explicit material,” Au replies.
But in January, Bob Taylor, Au’s predecessor, told Xtra West in reference to Ince’s case: “We don’t have what sexually explicit is. It’s, I guess, whatever the dictionary defines it. I don’t know what the background on the term is, but it’s quite clear to most people that sexually explicit implies that there’s sexual information that’s, uh, not of uh, nature that they want, uh, people to be able to see that aren’t…”
Au referred us to the Canada Post website for the criteria which reads that non-mailable articles are those that are “obscene, indecent, immoral or scurrilous.”
So, Canada Post’s objective criteria for identifying sexually explicit material is a string of abstractions. Clearly, homophobic hate mail doesn’t seem scurrilous to Canada Post.
Au did eventually acknowledge that someone at Canada Post does make a judgment call on sexual explicitness, but she wouldn’t say who that person is.
“It was sent all the way up to the president,” was Taylor’s answer to the same question about Ince’s flyer in January. “Everyone in the line all the way up had an opportunity to review the material and it was upheld all the way up the line that it was sexually explicit material. So I don’t think there was any question.”
When asked if Canada Post has any plans to explore the hate mail controversy further, Au doesn’t mention that management is in the process of interviewing Henderson.
“As far as I know, there will be no changes in policy,” she says. “That piece was delivered and completed and it’s business as usual unless we see a change in legislation or a change in policy.”
Henderson says, regardless of the outcome of his interview with management, he’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. He says he doesn’t want to be too hard on Canada Post because he thinks it is pretty progressive in a lot of ways. He also hopes this incident doesn’t reflect badly on all religious people and churches.
“I’ve never been part of anything like this before, but it felt so right,” he says. “I was honestly disgusted when I read this thing. We have all heard or been affected by young people committing suicide, at least a lot of us have. I have two kids. There is just so much hate in the world already; I didn’t want to be part of propagating anymore of it. We should be past that.”