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Freedom to Read Week Celebrates its 25th Anniversary

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 Freedom to Read Week Celebrates its 25th Anniversary

By Monique Mathew, a budding writer, curator and OCAD graduate. She lives in Toronto.

Freedom to Read Week, Canada’s longest running celebration of intellectual freedom, celebrated its 25th anniversary this year with a crowded event at the Gladstone Hotel on Wednesday, March 25th. The Book and Periodical Council’s Freedom of Expression Committee created Freedom to Read Week in 1984, a response to increasing censorship and challenges to Canadian literature. The week's events raise awareness about challenges to books and magazines and promotes intellectual freedom and public debate on censorship issues. Freedom to Read week events are held across Canada each year, ranging from author readings and musical events in support of freedom of expression to 24 hour read-a-thons of banned and censored literature.

Wednesday night’s event featured an evening of discussion moderated by Globe and Mail columnist, Russell Smith. Guests included Derek Finkle, Janine Fuller and Ken Setterington, all of whom presented interestingly varied experiences of challenges to freedom of expression in Canada.

Finkle was the first speaker to chat on stage with Smith, and he discussed his highly public battle to keep his research for his 1998 book No Claim to Mercy (Penguin Canada) from being seized by the Crown. No Claim to Mercy is an in-depth investigation of the Robert Baltovitch case, and Finkle fought two separate attempts to subpoena his research materials in the years leading up to Baltovitch’s retrial in 2008. Finkle’s standoff with the Crown was bolstered by several writing organizations, including The Writer’s Union of Canada and the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, who acted as intervenors in the case. Write Aid, a fundraising event, was also created to help offset Finkle’s legal fees, and raised $15,000 in his support. Finkle spoke about the chill to journalism which he feels could have worsened had the subpoenas not been quashed and expressed his deep gratitude for the outpouring of support that he received from the literary and journalistic community.

Ken Setterington, Children and Youth Advocate for the Toronto Public Library, was the next speaker of the evening. Children’s and teen fiction is a common target of book challenges, and some of the most public challenges in recent years have been to these genres. Setterington, who has published several children’s books, discussed examples of books that have been pulled from Canadian library shelves in recent years, including Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (Scholastic, 1995) and Deborah Ellis’s Three Wishes (Groundwood, 2004). Setterington stressed the importance of books being allowed to find their intended audience and of encouraging discussion on issues like religion within literature.

Janine Fuller, author and manager of Little Sister’s Book and Art Emporium in Vancouver, was the final speaker of the evening. Little Sister’s, a prominent GLBT bookstore, is well known for their epic, decades-long battle with Canada Customs. The bookstore’s shipments were first seized in 1984 on the grounds that their gay and lesbian imports were obscene. Fuller explained that the procedure for deeming items as obscene could be as absurd and arbitrary as finding the words “penetration” and “anal” in a work, and humorously went on to use those words with increasing frequency throughout the discussion. The bookstore filed a suit against Canada Customs (now Canada Border Services Agency), challenging their obscenity designations and more broadly, governmental censorship of queer literature and erotica. The Supreme Court gave a mixed ruling that recognized the unfair targeting of queer materials and requested greater proof of obscenity. The bookstore continues to struggle with seizures, and Fuller shared a particularly shocking Customs story where a book by the American scholar bell hooks was also seized for its potentially political nature. Fuller called for increased vigilance in Canadians around government censorship and welcomed dissenting opinions in the spirit of discussion and free speech.

Following the lively panel, The Writer’s Union of Canada presented their annual Freedom to Read Award posthumously to Nancy Fleming. Fleming was the director of the Book and Periodical Council for over 20 years, during which she was instrumental in initiating Freedom to Read Week in 1984, and a dedicated advocate against censorship in Canada. The evening concluded with performances by musical guests Myk Freedman and the Spelling Bee Sharps.

The event was a lovely celebration, marking a quarter century of commitment to intellectual freedom and the ongoing fight for access to Canadian books and writing.

The Book and Periodical Council publishes an annual review on censorship issues, Freedom to Read, which was on sale at the event. This year’s issue is a special 25 year retrospective of the events and issues that have affected free expression in Canada. Below is an excerpt from an article in this issue, in which members of the literary and publishing community respond to the question of what freedom of expression means to them:

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right in any democracy because we are our stories. Without our stories we do not exist. Having that right enshrined in our Charter not only protects us, but bestows upon us an imperative to defend the rights of others, to shine a light into dark corners where people are denied access to information, literacy, and the rights to speak, write, read, and/or listen—the rights to be fully, freely human. - Camilla Gibb, author of Sweetness in the Belly (Penguin, 2007)

For more information on Freedom to Read Week or to get a copy of the 2009 issue of Freedom to Read, visit www.freedomtoread.ca.

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