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Special Customs project targets gay bookstore

Freedom of Information request unveils 'The Little Sister's Project'

CENSORSHIP. Canada Customs wasted a lot of time and taxpayer money, says Jim Deva of Little Sister's bookstore. Credit: (Jacques Gaudet)

Despite court rulings against them and an ongoing legal dispute, recently obtained documents show Canada Customs is continuing to target Little Sister’s, Vancouver’s gay and lesbian bookstore.

It’s all detailed in Canada Customs documents recently obtained by Xtra West (the Vancouver sister paper of Capital Xtra) through an Access To Information request. The documents outline something called The Little Sister’s Project.

The Project contains a series of proposals for book-seizure blitzes of materials entering Canada, targetted by exporter. It also has a detailed list of prohibited materials and seizures, starting in 1996, and an action plan in development for dealing with the two decade-long book seizures dispute between Little Sister’s and Canada Customs.

The dispute began in 1987 when a frustrated Little Sister’s first took Canada Customs to court for unfairly targeting its gay and lesbian imports.

Round one ended with a semi-victory for the gay bookstore 13 years later, as the Supreme Court Of Canada ordered Customs to stop discriminating against Little Sister’s. The catch: the court condoned Customs’ overall power to screen for obscene materials at the border, provided the border guards screened everything equally, without discrimination.

The fact that Customs quietly created the Little Sister’s Project in the midst of that court case shows the agency learned nothing through the process, says the bookstore’s co-owner Jim Deva.

“This is cloak and dagger bullshit and it resolves nothing. It made it worse. It clearly indicates why we need to get them back in court.”

Little Sister’s took Customs back to court in 2001, after border guards again seized imports destined for the store; this time the offending books were several volumes of a gay comic called Meatmen, which sometimes features SM imagery.

Customs called the comics obscene.

Little Sister’s called Customs discriminatory again. Round two of the court case began. The battle is still working its way slowly through the courts.

“They went from bad to worse and [The Little Sister’s Project] is the blueprint by which they did it,” Deva says.

The Customs documents divide book retailers and exporters into high, medium and low-risk categories but all the retailers have been blanked out under the Access To Information Act.

The papers also show limited details of prohibited material seizures from across the country.

While the topic areas such as degradation, violence, incest or bondage remain – as do the destination cities and ports of entry – the specific stores’ identities are considered private and protected from the request for public information.

“It would be nice to know who those are,” Deva says. “We’re fairly sure that Chapters wouldn’t be in the high risk [category] and we’re fairly sure that small, independent [gay and lesbian] bookstores would be in the high risk to re-offend.”

The fact that Customs specifically named its project after the store suggests Little Sister’s was the only store in the country having problems, Deva notes. “I find that a bit alarming and kind of sad that they don’t realize it was a nationwide problem – that it was a problem dealing with [gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans] books, not just with our store.

“It’s offensive,” he adds.

One source Canada Customs has apparently been using to identify “all legitimate commercial retailers, publishers, printers etc.” is The Book Trade In Canada.

The book is used by book retailers across the country. It is produced by the trade magazine Quill And Quire whose editor, Derek Weiler, says the Little Sister’s case is of national importance.

He says Customs’ use of The Book Trade In Canada to identify legitimate retailers is disturbing.

Inquiries to Customs in Vancouver were referred to Ottawa officials who promised to research Xtra West’s questions. Answers were not available by press time.

The documents obtained by Xtra West also outline proposals for periodic import searches and suggest bases on which to target certain importers.

“Random selection can be as high-tech as selection by an automated system, or as low-tech as drawing names from a hat,” undated papers say. “The key is to ensure indiscriminate selection.”

Targetted import searches are also listed as an option.

Exporters would be targetted if caught shipping material dealing with youth sex or “obscene” material that Customs considers harmful; if the author is a known source of previously prohibited material; or if there is current information from a reliable source such as the RCMP.

Deva says the document shows that Customs has wasted a lot of time and taxpayer money coming up with a “system that’s far worse.

“Meetings, projects, reports, money being spent. I still thought, I really did in my naiveté, that they would ask us to come to Ottawa, to sit down at a table and discuss our difficulties.

“This is not about that. This resolved nothing. It made it worse.

“They’re not going to understand that until we get them intoa courtroom. It’s why they’re up to their asshole in problems – they will not outreach.”

Curiously, a draft proposal for the project shows meetings with stakeholders from the gay and lesbian community were suggested.

However, the suggestion is followed by the bold type: “Given the ongoing litigation, is this too controversial?”

The documents also warn officials they must be ready to demonstrate in court “that the department does not examine shipments solely because they are destined for a particular importer such as Little Sister’s.”

meanwhile, the store remains mired in round two of the court battle.

Last June, Justice Elizabeth Bennett ordered the federal government to pay Little Sister’s advanced costs for its fight against Customs’ seizures of the two Meatmen comics and the books Of Slaves & Ropes & Lovers, and Of Men, Ropes And Remembrance.

“The issues raised are too important to forfeit this litigation because of lack of funds,” she ruled, noting that courts can grant advanced costs in “rare and exceptional circumstances.”

This is “a case of public importance and has not been decided by other cases,” she ruled. “That issue transcends the interests of Little Sister’s and touches all book importers, both commercial and private.”

On Feb 18, that decision was overturned on appeal.

“The evidence does not indicate that the public in general, to say nothing of the gay and lesbian communities or the writers, publishers, distributors or retailers of erotic literature, view this case as of such importance that they will undertake financing,” BC Court Of Appeal Justice Allan Thackray ruled.

Deva says the documents substantiate the store’s claim that the only way to effect any change at Canada Customs is to take them to court.

“You can clearly see in the documents that they think they can resolve this problem in a bureaucratic vacuum in Ottawa,” Deva says.

But, he adds, what the documents also indicate is that Customs was taking the court case seriously enough to create the Project.

Little Sister’s is now appealing Thackray’s funding decision to the Supreme Court Of Canada, says the store’s lawyer, Joe Arvay. The Supreme Court may or may not agree to hear the case. If the court refuses and Thackray’s funding ruling stands, the bookstore may not have the resources to pursue round two any further.

But the revelations will likely bolster the store’s argument that it should get advance funding to continue its battle, Deva says.

“If we can get the Supreme Court to hear our financing problems and get some money from the federal government in order to continue this court case, we most certainly” will continue the fight.

“We want them to get this right,” he says.