Thursday, April 24, 2008

Little Sisters

An excellent time line of Little Sisters Bookstore in Vancouver from


Apr 15: Jim Deva, Bruce Smyth and Barb Thomas open Little Sister's Book and Art Emporium at 1221 Thurlow St in Vancouver and hold their official opening two weeks later on May 3. The store's bookshelves and art gallery initially share space, but despite the popularity of monthly gallery openings art sales are slow and the bookstore soon takes over. Since very few gay and lesbian books are available at this time in Canada, Little Sister's has to import about 90 percent of its stock from the US.

March: The Federal Court of Appeal rules that the section of the Customs Act barring the importation of pornography is unconstitutional. In a unanimous decision, the three judges declare that the wording of the Act is too vague and runs counter to Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees of freedom of speech. The ruling comes as a result of a case brought forward by Vancouver resident Tom Luscher who had purchased a heterosexual porn magazine in Blaine, WA in January 1982 only to have it seized at the Canadian border.

May 29: Canada Customs seizes a shipment of the lesbian magazine Bad Attitude destined for Little Sister's. Customs officials will not say why the publication has been seized, but inform Little Sister's that it can fill out the requisite forms to appeal the decision.

June: The federal Department of Justice releases Memorandum D9-1-1, itemizing exactly what kinds of material should be considered obscene and stopped at the border. Materials deemed to be obscene will be seized and destroyed by the government; items passing inspection will be forwarded on to their destination. The memorandum goes into effect in July. The guidelines include depictions or descriptions of anal sex as grounds for prohibition.

Dec 8: Canada Customs seizes 59 titles headed for Little Sister's for the busy Christmas season. Two days later, officials seize another 19 titles, including 75 copies of the Jan 3, 1987 issue of The Advocate. Little Sister's appeals the seizures and goes public, issuing a press release entitled, "Canada Customs Declares War on Little Sister's." Press coverage of the seizures notes the ready availability of many of the detained titles through other bookstores and the Vancouver Public Library. By the end of the month, Customs has seized more than 600 books and magazines bound for the store, at least $4,000 worth of merchandise.

Dec 17: Supporters of Little Sister's demonstrate at the offices of Pat Carney, MP for Vancouver Centre and Minster of National Revenue, the body responsible for Canada Customs, to protest the seizures of Little Sister's merchandise. Demonstrators demand the release of detained titles and an end to Customs' targeting of Little Sister's.
May: Little Sister's and the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) launch proceedings against Canada Customs for the detention of two issues of The Advocate. The trial date is set for May 1988.
Jun 3: Customs detains a shipment of books, including Anne Cameron's book Dzelarhons, destined for Little Sister's. The popular Canadian title, a re-telling of northwest coast Native legends, is deemed obscene due to the presence of one short story which recounts a legend of a woman who is forced to marry a bear. Customs releases the book later in the month.
Dec 9: A bomb is thrown into the stairwell leading up to Little Sister's from its Thurlow St entrance. No one is in the stairwell when the bomb explodes, but police estimate the bomb has caused $2,000 in damage. The incident heightens concerns for the safety of lesbians and gay men in Vancouver.

Feb 6: At 8:45 pm a bomb is thrown through the back door of Little Sister's downstairs neighbour Thurlow's Restaurant while Jim Deva dines with co-owner Gaston Nadeau. Patrons pack the restaurant, and broken glass showers the diners, but press reports maintain that no one is seriously hurt.
April: Just weeks before its case against Canada Customs over the 1986 seizure of The Advocate is set to get underway, Little Sister's and the BCCLA learn that the federal government has conceded that the LA-based biweekly newsmagazine is not obscene after all. The case is closed. Seizures of other gay and lesbian materials destined for Little Sister's continue.

Jun 7: Little Sister's and the BCCLA file a statement of claim in BC Supreme Court challenging Canada Customs' powers to detain and ban books as unconstitutional under Section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the section which guarantees the right to freedom of expression. The statement also maintains that Jim Deva's and Bruce Smyth's rights to equal treatment under the law, as guaranteed by Section 15 of the Charter, have been violated. The trial date is initially set for September 1991, but will be postponed a total of three times.
Jan 7: A smoke bomb explodes in the stairwell leading up to Little Sister's at about 10 pm, while the store is still open. A wave of smoke fills every corner of the store. No one is injured but there is considerable damage to the floor of the landing and stairwell walls. Remains of the bomb are soon discovered embedded in the notice board on the stairwell turn. It's a Polish percussion grenade, military issue. No one claims responsibility and no one is ever arrested.
Feb 27: The Supreme Court of Canada renders a decision in R v Butler upholding the obscenity section of the Criminal Code of Canada. Though the court acknowledges that some of the code's obscenity provisions are unconstitutional, it finds them necessary and justifiable to avoid harm to society. Specifically, it finds that porn is harmful, degrading and dehumanizing (especially to women) and therefore must be stopped at the border.
September: Little Sister's Charter challenge of Canada Customs is postponed for a year just one week before its planned start date. It is now scheduled to begin on Oct 4, 1993.
Sep 12: Delegates attending the 60th International Congress of PEN, the international writers' union, in Valencia, Spain, pass a resolution condemning Canada Customs' seizure of books and materials as a violation of the fundamental right to freedom of speech.
Sep 27: BC Supreme Court Justice R Bruce Harvey agrees to the federal government's request to adjourn the start of the Little Sister's trial. Lawyers representing the government argue that they need more time to prepare their case. The trial is rescheduled to commence on Oct 11, 1994. This is the third time the case has been adjourned since Little Sister's and the BCCLA filed suit in 1990.
Nov 29: Canada Customs intercepts a shipment of copies of Gael Baudino's Shroud of Shadow, sent to Little Sister's by Penguin Books Canada in Newmarket, ON. This is the first instance of Customs detaining a domestic shipment of materials destined for Little Sister's. Customs releases the books and sends them on to Little Sister's in early December, claiming, along with Canada Post, that the incident was a mistake. Federal Revenue Minister David Anderson apologises to Little Sister's.
Aug 25: Customs detains 10 titles on their way to Little Sister's, including the children's book, Belinda's Bouquet.
Sep 29: Just two weeks before Little Sister's Charter challenge is finally scheduled to be heard, the federal government amends Memorandum D9-1-1 to remove depictions of anal penetration from the list of obscene materials banned from importation into Canada.
Oct 11: More than four years after filing its statement of claim and after three postponements, Little Sister's case against Canada Customs finally opens in BC Supreme Court. The trial will run for 40 days and feature testimony from such literary luminaries as Pierre Berton, Jane Rule, Nino Ricci and Pat Califia in support of Little Sister's.
Feb 24: A male caller phones Little Sister's from out of town and warns Janine Fuller that a bomb has been planted in the store. Police investigate but find no explosive device. In subsequent days the store receives additional letters and packages containing hateful content.
Mar 1: Staff at Little Sister's receive a hand-written letter threatening them with "a day of reckoning" and warning them to stay away from work the next day. The letter is believed to be the work of a religious fanatic.
Jan 19: The BC Supreme Court renders its decision in the Little Sister's case. Justice Kenneth Smith rules that Canada Customs has discriminated against Little Sister's and enforced the law with "arbitrariness, inconsistency and just plain foolishness." However, the court upholds Customs' power to seize and detain material. Little Sister's and the BCCLA vow to appeal the decision.
Mar 29: Justice Kenneth Smith grants an injunction requiring Canada Customs to stop its seizures of Little Sister's material until the Crown can prove to the court that Customs officers are applying "appropriate standards" in their examinations of Little Sister's material. In separate proceedings, Justice Smith also awards Little Sister's costs to a total of $168,740 plus disbursements, a significant victory for the bookstore.
Jul 7: Little Sister's opens at its new location, 1238 Davie St, having run out of space at its old Thurlow St location.
Mar 28: Little Sister's appears in the BC Court of Appeal to appeal the BC Supreme Court ruling in its case against Canada Customs.
Jun 24: The BC Court of Appeal, in a 2-1 decision, upholds Justice Smith's BC Supreme Court decision and rules that Canada Customs' powers to seize and detain material its officers deem to be obscene are not unconstitutional. Janine Fuller announces that Little Sister's will appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Feb 18: The Supreme Court of Canada agrees to hear Little Sister's appeal. The bookstore hopes the nation's highest court will strike down the laws permitting Canada Customs officers to seize and detain material they deem obscene at the Canadian border.
Mar 16: The Supreme Court of Canada hears arguments in the Little Sister's case.
Dec 15: The Supreme Court of Canada upholds Justice Smith's BC Supreme Court decision and rules that Little Sister's suffered "excessive and unnecessary prejudice in terms of delays, cost and other losses in having their goods cleared (if at all) through Canada Customs." The court orders Canada Customs to stop targeting the gay bookstore, but it does not strike down Customs' authority to seize materials deemed obscene at the border. The court does, however, shift the burden of proof to Customs, whose agents will now have to prove that materials they seize are obscene. Previously, importers had to prove that their seized shipments were not obscene.
Jul 5: Less than a year after the Supreme Court of Canada ruling, Customs seizes two issues of the gay comic book Meatmen. This act, followed by the subsequent seizure of two more books of gay erotica (Of Slaves and Ropes and Lovers, and Of Men, Ropes and Remembrance edited by Larry Townsend), prompts Little Sister's and the BCCLA to launch new proceedings against Canada Customs.
Feb 6: As pre-trial hearings begin in the Meatmen case, BC Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Bennett rules that the onus is on Canada Customs to prove that they have addressed the systemic problems in their treatment of Little Sister's cited by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2000.
Jun 18: BC Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Bennett awards Little Sister's advance costs to pursue its latest legal case against Canada Customs (now the Canada Border Services Agency). Judges have the discretion to award advance costs in rare and exceptional cases of public significance where the appellants lack the financial means to proceed. "The issues raised are too important to forfeit this litigation because of lack of funds," Bennett rules.
Feb 18: The BC Court of Appeal reverses Justice Bennett's June 2004 ruling which would have granted Little Sister's the advance funding necessary to carry on its legal proceedings against the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). Writing for the three-judge panel, Justice Allan Thackray rules that the case is not an issue of major public importance. Little Sister's and the BCCLA appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Nov 17: The Supreme Court of Canada agrees to hear Little Sister's petition for advance funds in the Meatmen case.
Apr 19: The Supreme Court of Canada hears arguments in Little Sister's bid for advance funding to pursue its latest complaint against the CBSA. The justices reserve judgment.
Jan 19: The Supreme Court of Canada rules that the Little Sister's case against the CBSA is not special enough to warrant the taxpayers' support and denies the store's request for advance funding. The ruling is a blow to Little Sister's ability to take the CBSA back to court.
January: While making preparations for the store's 25th anniversary, co-owners Jim Deva and Bruce Smyth announce that they are selling Little Sister's Book and Art Emporium. "I think it's the right time for myself and my partner to step back and find somebody else to continue," Deva tells Xtra West. "It just feels from a very personal level that I'm ready for something completely different."

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