Vancouver
3 min

Going for broke

Little Sister's plans to attack censorship itself

WHO KNOWS BEST?: Customs doesn't want Little Sister's importing these comics and books. Little Sister's says that proves Customs is unable to properly administer the obscenity provisions in the Criminal Code of Canada. They'll argue it in court in Sep 2004. Credit: Robin Perelle

Mark Macdonald’s eyes turn red as he details the most recent books bound for Little Sister’s but seized by Canada Customs.



This time it’s two books of fiction by acclaimed SM author Larry Townsend.



Last time Customs refused entry, it was to two Meatmen comic books and a book called Hazing.



The Meatmen comics and Townsend novels are easily available from Amazon.com, who will ship them unbothered into Canada.



“It drives me into a fury,” says Macdonald.



But seizures are only a small part of the story. More and more often this year, Customs is holding up other books and periodicals destined for Vancouver’s gay bookstore. They’re almost always eventually released, but material is often dated by the time it gets to Little Sister’s.



For example, lesbian detective novels-perfect for reading on a summer beach blanket-were held up and didn’t arrive in time for the peak Pride sales period, says Macdonald.



It’s got so that he dreads walking into work to discover a shipment with a bright yellow Customs sticker. It’s a deeply frustrating moment each time he experiences it, he says.



And there’s no evidence that Canada Customs has learned anything from the last time Little Sister’s took them to the Supreme Court of Canada, says Macdonald.



Customs is clearly incapable of applying the law in the way that the top court ordered-not targeting gay and lesbian bookstores and exercising good judgement in what it delays, seizes and refuses to allow in, he says.



As that belief sunk in, the bookstore decided to change its approach in its latest case against Canada Customs. Initially, Little Sister’s was going to force Customs to justify their seizure of the Meatmen comics. The comics, which feature SM sex and fisting, clearly have artistic merit and should have been let through, went the thinking at Little Sister’s.



But when the bookstore’s owners went to court last year, they decided they’d had enough: it was time to escalate the fight by challenging the Criminal Code definition of obscenity.



“We’re trying to show that the law as it’s written is at fault,” explains Macdonald. “The administration of Customs cannot be done properly if their mandate is to apply legislation that is inherently vague. The legislation says that there is a difference between art and porn and then it says: Customs agents, you go and figure out what that difference is.'”



Put another way, Little Sister’s will tell the courts that Customs remains a mess, that the legislation around obscenity is very vague and that the application of that legislation continues to harm only gay and lesbian bookstores and importers. “How can you justify this legislation in a world of Internet pornography of your choice?” Macdonald says the bookstore will demand of the court.



The philosophy around criminalizing words, images and ideas needs to be updated in Canada as surely as does the philosophy limiting marriage to a man and a woman, he adds.



The bookstore knows what they’re after from the court: “Ideally they take the application of the obscenity provisions out of the hands of Customs and put it in the hands of the police and courts. Then it would be dealt with inside borders. That would be our first choice.



“In less favourable scenarios, Parliament would look at the decades of problems we’ve had importing regular books and draft legislation that will eliminate the problems, not reduce them.”



The case is off to a strong start. BC Supreme Court Judge Elizabeth Bennett ruled last October that the onus is on Canada Customs to show that they have fixed the systemic problems identified by judges last time Little Sister’s went to court.



The trial is scheduled for September 2004-a decade after the first trial began in the previous round.



Joe Arvay, the lawyer for Little Sister’s, says he’s spending the year until the next trial trying to brainstorm every possible argument against state censorship and a law that makes it likely that queer bookstores-and hence queer sexuality-will be singled out by those who apply it.



Macdonald thinks it will be possible to show that Customs simply cannot apply the Criminal Code within the bounds of the law. After all, Little Sister’s continues to receive Customs forms improperly filled out, he says. Then there are the puzzling decisions officials make, such as their recent seizure of books wrapped in cellophane and then their release without cracking the cellophane to review them.



Or how about that shipment including two SM fiction books by Larry Townsend that Customs wouldn’t let through. In the same shipment, says Macdonald, Customs did not pull for review a photobook by Tom McGurk showing guys getting fisted, having wax dripped on them, and other SM play.



The Canadian government simply has to get its head around the idea that people can make their own judgements about what to read, what ideas they want to be exposed to, how they want to see their lives reflected, says Macdonald.



“Canadians by and large, the person in the street, have this lovely mythology of the Trudeau moment, ‘The state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.’ That’s the belief most Canadians embrace. This is the same issue. If we don’t have laws banning fisting, don’t tell me I can’t read about it.”