Thursday, December 10, 2009

Little Sister's vs. Big Brother

I saw one of the best movies I've ever seen tonight, Little Sister's vs. Big Brother. It's available from the Toronto Public Library.

The film documents 20 years of struggles the Vancouver bookstore Little Sister's has had with Canada Customs.

When the store first opened, many books were held or banned outright. The issue is that these books had violated no law, no court in the country had ruled them obscene. A group of individuals, mostly heterosexual men with no training in the arts or literature, had ruled them obscene.

In the early 1980's the film mentions there were no widespread national news magazines for gay people and one magazine that featured photos of nude men was confiscated at the border. And by confiscated, I mean burned. This magazine was one of the first to talk about what would become HIV and AIDS and the film details this man calling his friend in the United States and asking him to read to him over the phone the article "The 10 safe ways to have sex". This article had been banned by customs for having obscene sexual content.

One wonders how many men were denied education on safe sex and subsequently died because of the will of a group of individuals to protect our moral fibre. I read this and wonder how people weren't marching down the streets yelling "Shame!" And yet, even today, try to organize a rally to show why banned pornographic magazines are important to Canadian society and you can imagine what these people were up against in 1983.

In the film a bookstore in Vancouver orders the same books as Little Sister's from the same seller, shipped by the same method. Both shipments are stopped for review at the border. The heterosexual bookstore gets it's books a few days later, the shipment destined for Little Sister's is banned and destroyed.

Little Sister's originally tried to take Customs to court for violating their rights under the Charter of Rights and freedoms. Years would pass as the court date approached, and Little Sister's would ready their witnesses, including Jane Rule and Pierre Burton. A week before the trial, the government would say that a mistake had been made. That upon further review, the item mentioned in the law suit was now acceptable to be imported into Canada, that they were sorry for the misunderstanding. The hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees Little Sister's had spent to that point were gone, they were now starting from scratch, and now had permission to import a magazine that had been printed 5 or 6 years before. Their own shipment of the magazine had long ago been burned.

So they reversed tracts and sued Customs for discrimination. In what is described as a partial victory, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Customs had discriminated against Little Sisters and awarded them money. The next decision was that the system which led to this discrimination was still a valid one and would continue.

After Little Sister's, the small independent gay bookstore had spent more than $250,000 on their legal defense, one ray of hope came out of the case. As of 2001, it is now the responsibility of customs to prove the book is obscene, not the bookseller to prove it is not.

This still does not stop customs from their usual practice of opening boxes of books with boxcutters, damaging the covers. Throwing these books into a pile, then a plastic bag, and calling the bookseller to say they have to pick up their material at the border itself, in its now unsellable condition.

In May of 1993 Canada Customs opens domestic mail addressed to Little Sister's, mailed from Penguin Canada in Newmarket, Ont.

Two democratic countries in the world banned Salmon Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses" in 1989. One was Iran, the other was Canada.

A history of censorship in Canada here.

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