Censorship in Canadian Schools

Posted May 19, 2020
By Richard Beaudry

When there is a news report about books being challenged in a school library learning commons, it is often because the item was removed at the direction of the school or district administration following a parent complaint about a specific book and that the proper ‘Request for Reconsideration’ process was not followed.  

For example, in January 2019 in Ottawa, CBC News Online reported what always troubles teacher-librarians across Canada: a request for removal of a popular book from all the elementary libraries in the Ottawa Catholic School Board. The headline was “Catholic board pulls book with LGBT characters from elementary libraries.

The book, Drama, a 2012 graphic novel by American author and illustrator Raina Telgemeier, is about a student who wants to be part of her middle-school theatre production. The side story about same-sex relationships includes two boys sharing an onstage kiss. 

A parent had requested that the book be removed from the library learning commons at their child’s school and went to the district offices with their request. Instead of being directed to remove the book from the school library learning commons where the complaint was launched, the district directed all the schools to remove the offending book. The removal was reported to the press and after an uproar on social media that included statements from the author of the book, librarians, LGBTQ advocates, politicians and parents, the Ottawa Catholic School Board reversed their decision the next day as reported by CBC News: “Catholic school board changes mind, allows book depicting 2 boys kissing back in libraries”.

Kindergarten to grade 12 schools in Canada have had to deal with censorship challenges on two fronts: outside challenges from parents and specific groups and from within from school boards, district personnel, administrators, teachers and even teacher librarians. The types of challenges can be classified under three main categories: Curriculum, Genre and Book Levelling. 

Curriculum

Curriculum in Canadian schools is the responsibility of provinces and territories so the issues vary across the country. BC, where I work, was at the centre of one curriculum challenge that was litigated to the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC): ‘Chamberlain v. Surrey District School Board No. 36. It involved three books, One Dad Two Dads Brown Dads Blue Dads by Johnny Valentine, Asha’s Mums by Rosamund Elwin and Michael Paulse, and Belinda’s Bouquet by Leslie Newman and Michael Willhoite. 

In January 1997, James Chamberlain, an elementary school teacher submitted three books for Board approval to use in his grade one class. The request was denied and then challenged, ending up at the SCC on December 21, 2002. The SCC ruled that the ban on books about gay and lesbian parents had no place in a public-school system that claims to promote diversity and tolerance. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin stressed in the 7-2 ruling that the importance of a secular school board to avoid caving in to pressure from religious parents to the point of excluding the values of other members of the community and dismissed the board’s concerns that children would be confused or misled by classroom information about same-sex parents. 

More recently, the SOGI 123 (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) program in BC schools has been challenged by parents and groups like Culture Guard and became part of the political platform for some candidates running as school trustees in the last municipal elections in 2018. The demand was for certain districts to rescind the implementation of the program and for the removal of the offending resources even though the BC Ministry of Education Policy does offer parents some flexibility in the delivery of certain ‘sensitive areas’ of the curriculum, specifically topics related to reproduction and sexuality. The program was not rescinded.

Genres 

Genre issues have varied over the years but some examples of challenges over the last decade have dealt with LGBTQIA+ resources and stories (DramaBeing JazzGeorge), magic/witchcraft (Harry Potter Series), horror (Twilight), inappropriate behavior (Captain UnderpantsThirteen Reasons Why), and even ‘lust’ (What My Mother Doesn’t KnowForever).  

If parents are concerned with the type of books being read by their children, they are still required to follow the process for challenges if the item is in the library learning commons. Most parents are invested in the education of their children and do express themselves when they see materials that they would consider offensive to their children. The teacher librarian’s perspective is that they should do the paperwork and meet with the school committee dealing with book challenges/reconsideration. In most cases, this is the procedure followed. In other instances, the parents take it upon themselves to make the decision to remove the book as they see themselves as the arbiters of whether the reading material should remain in the school or in in the district catalogues. 

And from Within

Over a decade ago, a teacher librarian in Canada filed a human rights complaint against a school district, a fellow teacher, and a school administrator based on personal beliefs. The teacher librarian was removing books dealing with alternate families even though they were part of the curriculum and, when asked to desist, refused.

The Human Rights Tribunal determined that the teacher librarian’s case was without merit and dismissed the complaint. The books were returned to the library learning commons. 

Book Levelling 

The freedom to read and choose what to read is at the heart of library learning commons programs and what it means to be a reader. There is a need to have levelled readers, readers that match students with books right for their reading skills and to assist in their literacy instruction. 

In 2016, levelling books was not only debated in an elementary school but was put in place by an administrator to remove much of the fiction collection and replace the items with books that had been pre-approved by a leveled reading program. When the freedom to choose books is absent or delayed for the students, it can affect their motivation to read.  In this particular elementary school, the decision to level books included the classroom collections of teachers. 

The teacher librarian and classroom teachers launched two grievances. The first dealt with the removal/weeding of books from the library learning commons and the second one dealt with teacher autonomy. After an inventory, it was determined that a substantial number of books had been weeded from the library learning commons collection in two years. When the grievances were settled, the school board committed to having in place a request for reconsideration form that would prevent any further opportunity for one person to remove books from a school library learning commons without a consensus and following the district policy.

The role of teacher librarians

Teacher librarians understand that sometimes parents have issues or concerns with the books that their children bring home to read and that they may challenge books in their child’s library learning commons for all kinds of reasons. While challenging reading content is a parent’s prerogative for their own child, removing access to a book from the library learning commons for all the other students in the school is the problem.

As Canadians, we value our democratic and Charter rights and hope that we can resolve book challenges to the satisfaction of all concerned. The fact is, however, that people have sought to limit the public’s access in general and children specifically to books in library learning commons, public libraries, and even bookstores.  

Even with district policies in place, teacher librarians sometimes find themselves confronted by parents and directed by administrators or district staff to remove items from their library learning commons. In some cases, the argument is made that it only affects one school or one item in the district so why make a fuss? The simple answer is that it does matter. Whether a challenge happens in one school or one district, the reality is that the removal of any item from a library learning commons anywhere in the country could and does bring about challenges elsewhere.

It may seem simpler for teacher librarians to remove one challenged book by acquiescing to a school administrator or a district request than going through the challenge process, but the reality is that any censorship challenge in a library learning commons in Canada needs to be addressed. Local teacher librarian colleagues, as well as local, provincial and national library associations are there to support any teacher-librarian who is confronted by a challenge to remove a book. It is in best interest of students and staff for teacher librarians to contact provincial teacher librarian associations to report any censorship issues and to contact their provincial or national library association intellectual freedom committees to have the challenge recorded. Reporting a censorship challenge provides information on the type of book and type of challenge occurring in a library learning commons. That knowledge can assist teacher librarians in seeking to resolve a complaint or a challenge to remove a book.