4 min

Pierre Berton vs Canada Customs

Canadian icon testified for Little Sister's in 1994 trial

Pierre Berton testified the day following an appearance by Janine Fuller on Front Page Challenge, a longstanding CBC show that starred Berton, among other Canadian icons. Below is an excerpt from Restricted Entry: Censorship on Trial, a book written by Janine Fuller and Stuart Blackley and published by Press Gang.


The morning after the taping of Front Page Challenge, Little Sister’s lawyer Joe Arvay introduced the day’s first witness with unusual fanfare.

“My lord, I thought it might be appropriate to have the next witness testify behind a screen,” said Arvay, “and give your lordship twenty questions to guess his identity. But then I thought maybe it wouldn’t be appropriate. So my next witness, without any concealment, is Pierre Berton.”

At 74 years, a robust six-foot-three, with trademark bow tie and white hair, Pierre Berton reeks of Canadiana. After almost 40 years on network TV, Berton’s face was deeply embedded in the mainstream consciousness; he was also a prolific print journalist. But it was Berton’s literary accomplishments that formed the bedrock of his national reputation: several Governor General’s Awards for popular histories (notably, his saga of the CPR railroad, The Last Spike), plus a Stephen Leacock Medal for humour (Just Add Water).

It would be hard to imagine a personality better equipped than Pierre Berton to lend a respectable air to Little Sister’s case. While solidly liberal and urbane, he also represented an orthodoxy: that of the white, middle-class, heterosexual man. The side of Berton that emerged during his Little Sister’s testimony-perhaps less well known to his game show audience-was his strong commitment to civil liberties. For Berton, the Little Sister’s case was inescapably linked to his experience as a soldier in World War II.

“I spent four years of my time, partly because I was drafted, but also because [we] felt that for once we were involved in a just war,” he testified. “We were attacking the very people who burn books and destroy books, either in public or in secret, and I have been opposed to that ever since.”

Berton spoke effortlessly on the merits of Richard D Mohr’s Gay Ideas, published by Beacon Press in 1992 and seized by Canada Customs in April 1993. A philosophy professor at the University of Illinois, Mohn had difficulty finding a publisher for the academic text, which covered scandalous topics like civil rights and the politics of culture and identity. Gay Ideas was originally scheduled for Canadian distribution by Oxford Union Press, but they declined the book. The apparent problem? Mohr’s analysis of the erotic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, which were reproduced in the book, made Gay Ideas a likely candidate for a Customs seizure.

After exploring Gay Ideas, Arvay asked Berton to step back and consider the impact of censorship on the community.

“Well, I’m a member of a large constituency,” Berton said. “It is a constituency of people who write books and read books. We believe that books are the essence of our culture, that without a literature, a country has not only no soul, it has no reason for being … Literature … will be the basis on which we are judged as a civilized community, and we are very upset when people try to infringe upon our freedom either to write or to read.”

“You mentioned literature,” said Arvay. “Do you draw some distinction between literature and pornography?”

“I don’t think you can draw a distinction,” Berton replied. “I think anything that is written down is literature … You can say whether it is bad literature or good literature or whether the author doesn’t achieve his purpose or whether he is ungrammatical, but I don’t think you can make moral judgements on literature. You can make judgements of taste. That is quite a different thing.”

Arvay invited Berton to “tell his lordship [anything more] about this issue.”

“Well, I should say more exactly where I stand on censorship,” said Berton. “I don’t think it is necessary in democracy. I think that books deserve to be judged the same way as a human being is, because books are just as important … as human beings and some may be more important. I think a book has to face a jury of its peers, and through cross-examination and evidence and statements, people on the jury or the judge himself make up their minds as to whether that book is breaking the law, which are the obscenity laws in this country … But it must have its day in court.”

The following day, Berton’s testimony was quoted in flattering terms by newspapers and broadcasters across the country. Not surprisingly, many of Little Sister’s lesser-known witnesses would receive no media mention at all, let alone respectful coverage.

An excerpt of Pierre Berton’s testimony:

Crown lawyer Hans Van Iperen asked the witness to turn to a page of illustrations in Gay Ideas, by Richard D Mohr.

Pierre Berton: I know the picture.

Hans Van Iperen: Could you describe the picture in your own words, very briefly?

Berton: Yes. It’s a depiction of anal sex by three men, two of which are supplying the sex and the third is receiving it.

Van Iperen: Okay. And it is fair to say that the penetration is by two men? And there is [another] photograph there by Robert Mapplethorpe?

Berton: Yes.

Van Iperen: What does that picture show?

Berton: It depicts a man shoving his wrist up a man’s anus.

Van Iperen: Sir, the evidence will be that the [Customs] officer at the border … referred the book to Ottawa for an opinion and, of course, the opinion was to release it. Do you think it is totally unreasonable for a person to have some concerns about these pictures although, and I fully agree with you, the text itself should offend on one?

Berton: The pictures are essential to the text. [Mohr] goes into the text based upon those pictures and uses them as examples, as everybody does who writes books which require illustration.

Van Iperen: But my question was … that the person making this first examination, when they look at these pictures first …in terms of unexpected confrontation, those pictures are striking, aren’t they?

Berton: Well, they are no more striking than [what] you can obtain for two dollars of rent in any adult video store in this or any other Canadian city, and show to yourself in colour and in motion. These are still pictures in black and white, and here is a Customs guy saying we have to check with Ottawa on this, when he can go around the corner and see the same thing on a movie screen.


Janine Fuller & Stuart Blackley.

Press Gang Publishers, 1996

Excerpt from a book by Janine Fuller & Stuart Blackley.