Recent news of challenges to books in school and public libraries remind us that book challenges are not uncommon in Canada and, in most cases, are dealt with by the library staff. When the public does hear about a book challenge in a school library learning commons, it is usually where the school policies were not followed and the decision to remove the challenged item was carried out by school officials working outside the bounds of the book-challenge procedures.
This is what happed in April 2022 at the Durham District School Board (DDSB) in Ontario, when a group of First Nations parents requested the book The Great Bear: The Misewa Saga – Book 2 by First Nations author David Robertson and several other books be removed from the library learning commons throughout the district, pending a review. The Toronto Star reported that the district had pulled several books from their library learning commons because they contained “content that could be harmful to Indigenous students and families.” No explanation was given as to what the harm or the harmful content was.
The unilateral removal of a book by the school district administration concerned the library community in general, and teacher librarians specifically, as the regular policy and process for reconsideration of books was not followed. The Star reported that the district sent an email to school principals directing that the items be removed. The email to the principal stated that the books “do not align with the recently updated Indigenous Education policy and procedure.”
I was contacted by teacher librarians who asked if I had a comment on what was happening. My response was that the district’s reconsideration policy and process should have been followed rather than having the district directing principals to remove the books unilaterally. The Canadian School Libraries (CSL) ‘Guidelines & Procedures’ in their CSL Collection Diversity Toolkit emphasizes the importance of the reconsideration process: “The reconsideration procedure defends the right of educators to select resources based on sound criteria. Resources being challenged should remain in circulation during the reconsideration process.”
I signed on to participate in next DDSB Board meeting that took place online on April 19th. As a participant to the Board meeting, I could ask one question: “As the chair of the Intellectual Freedom Committee for the Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA), we have been contacted about a possible censorship issue in the library learning commons of the Durham District School Board. In most school districts across the country, there are policies and procedures for teacher librarians to evaluate and weed materials in their library learning commons. It is quite uncommon, as well as inappropriate, for a school board in Canada to direct school principals to remove specific items from a library learning commons without following the Board policies and procedures.
Before attending the Board meeting, I did a review of the policies in place in the DDSB district. See Appendix A at the end of this post.
The DDSB has the appropriate policies in place and had they followed them, this process could have been resolved properly and without going to the press and being challenged on social media.
The DDSB Board Meeting on April 19th proved most interesting and informative, the trustees opened the meeting talking about the book removals and it went on for the first hour and a half of the Board meeting.
The trustees were caught off guard by the blowback in the Toronto Star and on social media. The first question was why no one responded to the publishers of 'The Great Bear' by David A. Robertson who had written concerned about the removal. The district had to admit that the two emails from the publisher ended up in a junk file, and no one checked for them until the article in the Toronto Star appeared stating that the district had not responded to their emails.
There was concern on the part of the Trustees that the Board administration’s directive to remove the books went out just before the long weekend, and it was poor timing because of the response on social media to the Toronto Star article. The DDSB Director of Education explained that it was First Nations families who had complaints about the title and that was why the books were removed from the collection without review or compliance with District policy and procedure.
The trustees then voted on the following motion:
"Trustees request that DDSB staff bring forward a report to trustees around the removal of books, including the policy explaining the criteria for doing so, and the report include a chart with the themes that trigger a book review and that the report be presented to the governance committee no later than June 1st, 2022. It was carried.
There was a discussion about a different policy that was used to remove the books. Even though that policy had been passed by the Board late last year, the trustees didn't seem to understand how the policy was used to remove the books, while the Director of Education repeatedly stated why the district had asked the books to be removed for evaluation. During the meeting, the district did state that other First Nations families expressed concerns that the books had been removed from the collections.
The Board meeting ended with a question period. They stated that many of the questions were similar and that they believed that the Board had responded to the questions during the evening discussions. Our question from the CFLA IFC was one of the questions that was read into the minutes. They did not respond directly to any of the questions.
They announced that they planned to meet with author, David Robertson, and that answers would be forthcoming at the end of May when the district reported on the request from the motion from the Board.
For teacher librarians in Canada, the question remains. Rather than using the district’s material selection and deselection policies, the administration opted for another policy that called for the quiet removal of the resources by principals when concern is expressed by the district’s Indigenous Education department. The problem is that the policy they used sets up a scenario where items could be pulled from the library learning commons without consultation with teacher librarians or any due process or public consideration. When a book disappears into limbo without public discourse, is it censorship? I certainly think so.
The decision to remove the items was based on a different policy enacted in September 2021: Indigenous Education Procedure on Classroom Practices: Teaching and Learning (See Appendix B)
The Board stated that, to protect the human rights of First Nations families as Rights Holders in the district, they had to remove the books without the usual process and without any specification of the alleged harm claimed by some Indigenous parents and disputed by others.
It is understandable that the Board seeks to have books that are current and free from harmful stereotypes and narratives. All teachers and teacher librarians across the country would agree. But in using this policy and neglecting the other policies in place that deal with the deselection process, the public is left with questions and no answers as to why the books were removed.
School library learning commons collections could be compromised if districts have policies in place that remove items based on protecting distinct populations within the district without consultation with the staff that has the expertise to evaluate those materials. DDSB has adequate policies in place to evaluate resources in the district. It would be in their best interest to follow the regulations.
On April 27th, 2022, the DDSB put out a statement that the books had been returned to the library learning commons. The statement said in part:
“An accelerated review process allowed us to engage in conversations with some members of the local Indigenous community. Those discussions have placed the focus on the importance of making books by Indigenous authors available to students, particularly Indigenous students based on providing choice. In response to this feedback, we will be returning the books to library circulation.”
2.0 Challenged Materials
2.1 Though care has been taken to select worthwhile materials for students’ and teachers’ use by qualified personnel, objections may be received about learning materials.
2.2 Questions from individual members of the community regarding the suitability of specific materials can usually be resolved at the school level.
Learning Resource Materials Selection – 7.0 Dealing with Challenged Materials
7.1 Request for Informal Reconsideration
7.2 The expectation is that issues should be resolved where possible, at the local level.
The principal receiving a parental expression of concern regarding a learning resource used in their child’s education shall attempt to resolve the issue informally through discussion with the teacher-librarian or the teacher involved and the questioner, using the following guidelines:
(a) The principal or other appropriate staff shall explain to the questioner the district selection procedure, A copy of the relevant policies shall be offered to the questioner.
7.3 Request for Formal Reconsideration
I The Request for Reconsideration of Learning Materials Appendix B shall be signed by the questioner and copies filed with the principal, teacher-librarian, and/or the appropriate lead teacher, and the Curriculum Officer. A copy of the Selection of Learning Resources Rationale Form A completed by the teacher-librarian or teacher shall be included. The principal can forward the material to the Area Officer and Curriculum Officer.
7.4 The Learning Materials Reconsideration Committee
1. The Superintendent of Education/Programs is responsible for:
(a) forming a new Learning Materials Reconsideration Committee for each reconsideration request. When appropriate, membership should include:
- a teacher of that subject area from another school, elementary or secondary, depending on the resource;
- the media library facilitator;
- a trustee;
- a Chair of a School Council not from the school involved;
- a senior pupil may be added from an elementary school not from the school involved;
- a principal not from the school involved;
- a member of the student senate, when the reconsidered resource is from a secondary school;
- the Curriculum Officer or Secondary School Reform Officer.
7.5 Resolution Guidelines for Learning Materials Reconsideration Committee
The Learning Materials Reconsideration Committee shall proceed within these guidelines:
(a) Examine the challenged resource in relation to the Durham District School Board Mission Statement. Each member will be responsible for reading/reviewing the material.
(b) Read critical reviews, if available.
(c) Weigh values and faults, and form assessments based on the material as a whole rather than on passages or section taken out of context.
(d) Discuss the challenged resource in the context of the educational goals, programs, and the library’s Collection Development Policy wherever possible.
(e) Discuss the challenged item with the individual questioner within 15 days of the convening of the committee, and speak to relevant staff within the 15 days.
(f) Maintain a list of challenged materials by panel recommended by the Reconsideration Committee for (g) Prepare a written report to the Director of Education, within 30 school days of the committee’s first meeting.
(i) A written report of the Learning Materials Reconsideration Committee shall be communicated to the questioner by mail.
(ii) A copy of the written report shall be retained by the Superintendent of Education/Programs, Principal and/or school librarian, and/or classroom teacher.
7.6 The decision of the Learning Materials Reconsideration Committee completes the process.
Durham District School Board Policy
All employees must comply with the Indigenous Education policy and this procedure within their job duties and responsibilities, including recognizing biases, discriminatory structural barriers and inequities, responding to and addressing inequities, discriminatory structural barriers and actively engaging in anti-colonial approaches and practices within their sphere of responsibility, authority and influence.
- The Director of Education (and designates) is responsible for the operations of the DDSB and implementing (or overseeing the implementation of) initiatives, practices and measures to support all educators in complying with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: (UNDRIP), the Ontario Human Rights Code and this procedure.
4.0 Guidelines and Considerations
4.1 Indigenous peoples have the inherent right to the dignity and diversity of their laws, cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations, which shall be appropriately reflected in education and public information. The DDSB “shall take effective measures, in consultation and cooperation with the Indigenous peoples concerned, to combat prejudice and eliminate discrimination and to promote tolerance, understanding and good relations among Indigenous peoples and all other segments of society.” (UNDRIP- Article 15).
4.2 Indigenous Peoples are the guardians and interpreters of their civilizations, traditions, and knowledge systems. They have the right to exercise, control, and protect their culture, intellectual properties, and knowledge (UNDRIP).
- Curriculum resources, including visual representations, will:
- Reflect positive Indigenous role models in a variety of subject areas and a diversity of perspectives of Métis and Inuit in addition to those from First Nations including diverse and intersecting Indigenous identities (e.g., Two Spirit);
- Include and prioritize Indigenous voices (authors, artists, scholars, etc.);
- Be current and will be free of harmful stereotypes and narratives;
- Accurately represent Indigenous contributions both past and present, Treaties, residential schools, accurate histories and the ongoing impacts of colonization;
- Ensure Indigenous expertise and knowledge systems as equal and on par with Eurocentric knowledge;
- Expose students to learning centered around current issues involving Indigenous Rights; and
- Align with the guidelines of the vetted Indigenous Education Resource Guide found on the spark resources site.
5.5 Ensure all curriculum resources and items that have been purchased that are no longer aligned with the Indigenous education policy and this procedure will be returned to the Indigenous Education department for disposal or recycled. They shall not be shared or reused elsewhere. This includes sacred and ceremonial items.