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The other freedom of expression battle

C-10 clause settled, but the CBSA still a mess

PORN STOPPED AT THE BORDER. The Canada Border Services Agency continues to confiscate porn that it deems obscene. But the issue hasn't received much attention in this election campaign.

It was a missed opportunity. With censorship on the radar for the first time in years, the gay community’s ongoing dispute with those who run Canada’s border registered nary a blip.

Canadians spent the spring and summer debating a clause in C-10, which would have given the heritage minister the power to deny film tax credits to controversial productions. Then, when the Conservatives released their platform this week, they pledged to drop the clause if reelected.

Meanwhile, the Canada Border Services Agency’s (CBSA) confiscation of pornographic materials deemed obscene form the crux of a 20-year battle. But the issue has rarely generated mainstream attention.

The most famous case is the Little Sister’s bookstore, which fought legal battles against Customs Canada (now the CBSA) for two decades that sought to protect the material imported by the store.

The CBSA doesn’t stop at bookstores. Just last August, the agency confiscated the laptop of Ottawa man Rick Frenette when he and his partner Shawn were returning to Canada from a trip to the United States.

A CBSA officer poked around Frenette’s laptop, and decided to confiscate it when he found “questionable material”, which turned out to be gay porn.

But only the Green Party has mentioned the issue since the writ dropped. The Green platform promises to end the CBSA’s targeting of queer bookstores and businesses.

In this climate, said Egale executive director Helen Kennedy, the gay community is forced to focus its campaign advocacy on only a small number of issues.

As in 2006, Egale released a questionnaire to all candidates that sought their opinion about gender identity and gender expression, the reinstatement of the Court Challenges Program, reproductive rights, and the ban imposed on gay men who can’t donate blood. But not a word about the CBSA’s confiscations.

“It’s not that you want to rank the priorities, but there are only so many that we can include,” says Kennedy. “They are all good issues, and we have a myriad of issues to choose from. It’s just that these are the ones that, when we talked to other groups and members of the community, stuck in most people’s minds as being priorities.”

By focussing attention on the inclusion of “gender expression” and “gender identity”, activists like Kennedy have managed to open up space in two political party’s platforms — the NDP and the Greens both officially support changing the Canadian Human Rights Act to include trans people.

But two of Egale’s other flagship issues — keeping homophobic dancehall artists out of Canada and filing a hate crime complaint against a homophobic independent candidate from Sudbury — both nip at the edges of calling for censorship.

Marian Botsford Fraser of PEN Canada, an organization that supports the freedom of expression of writers and artists — a group that fought for the Little Sister’s bookstore when it took its fight to the Supreme Court — also hadn’t heard anything about the CBSA this time around.

“I think the focus of the arts community at the moment is generally on the issue of the attitude of political parties to artists in general — which certainly includes attitudes towards materials or ideas that are not [in the] mainstream,” she said. “I don’t think there has been any discussion, to my knowledge, of the specific issue of border seizures, probably because there haven’t been any major cases recently, to my knowledge.”

Fraser said that focussing on the general issue of arts funding is the best approach to this campaign.

Border confiscation “just hasn’t been on the radar,” she says.