Toronto
2 min

Our new governess

Just take a look underneath Canada's skirt for its true character

Liberal Americans have been eyeing the Canadian border as their escape hatch since the tragedy of November’s US presidential election. But anyone seriously thinking of movin’ on up should scratch the surface of our image as a hip and happening nation. Beneath the fashionable attire of same-sex marriage, you’ll find Canada sporting a rather fussy petticoat.

Americans may think of Canada as a nanny state, given the way we coddle our citizens with free health care and equality provisions. But Canada’s nanny is not just the caring nurse; she’s also a strict governess. Specifically, she’s a sexually repressed and somewhat hysterical Victorian governess, right out of a Henry James story, who determines our appropriate behaviour and activities.

This role is perhaps most evident in Canada’s overprotective approach to censorship. Instead of cooing over how much we love our gay couples, Americans might point and laugh at prim agencies like the Canada Border Services Agency (formerly Canada Customs) and the Ontario Film Review Board.

The latter agency must screen and approve every film and video (and soon, every video game) to be sold in the province before you’re allowed to see them. Merchants are responsible for submitting and paying for the privilege of state approval.

Toronto’s own Glad Day Bookshop challenged the film classification law after the shop was charged with selling an unrated gay porn video to an inspector in 2000. This past April, a judge ruled the classification law unconstitutional, and last month the Ontario government introduced legislation pretending to address the ruling.

Sadly, though, the proposed legislation doesn’t address the board’s film classification role, deemed an unconstitutional impediment to free expression. As Justice Russell Juriansz wisely noted in his ruling: “The government has not created boards that must approve books, plays, art exhibitions, concerts or other forms of performance before the public may have access to them.”

The governess of Ontario has a special fear of the corrupting influence of movies. And she especially disapproves of sex: of 152 movies banned in 2000, 146 of them were porn.

The law will continue to require that the review board pre-approve what we watch. What’s new is that the law proposes to limit the board’s power to ban films… sort of. The board will have two options for dealing with films it considers obscene: ask the distributors to cut offending scenes and resubmit, or forward the films to the police to investigate as criminal matters.

The proposed changes appear to have been designed, not in response to the Glad Day ruling, but rather to save the board from the embarrassment it has suffered over high profile film bans.

In 1984, the board (known then as the Ontario Censor Board) prompted a raid of the artist-run centre A Space, where videotapes and equipment were seized. Gay and lesbian artists were involved in the subsequent mocking and defiance of the board by the arts community, and in a successful constitutional challenge.

More recently, the board made Canada a laughing stock in international film circles when it banned the film Fat Girl, by French filmmaker Catherine Breillat, in 2002. The board subsequently reversed the ban of the film, which features a sex scene involving a 15-year-old female character.

Under the proposed legislation, the board would simply transfer the embarrassment to the police, who might find a film like Fat Girl in violation of Canada’s ridiculously broad child porn law.

The board wants to be the new, likeable governess. Think Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music, steering her charges as a trusted advisor, and leaving the task of stern discipline to Captain von Trapp.

The Internet also makes a mockery of the board, allowing Ontarians to download or stream whatever they please without regulation, while the old school bureaucrats, seemingly oblivious, fuss about with individually screening the hard copies.

Glad Day deserves credit for taking on the government’s restrictive film classification bureaucracy. Unfortunately, the government’s diddling changes little at the dusty old review board.