Banned books of Canada

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A young person with long red hair is reading a book, but a greyed-out arm is blocking their eyes from seeing the book.
Censorship and propaganda are alive and well in many countries, including Canada! Briana Moore via Wikimedia Commons

Banning books bans the freedom to think independently 

Book banning is often associated with the United States. Unbeknownst to many Canadians, there are a plethora of books that have been challenged right here at home. In fact, Canada has a nationwide “Freedom to Read Week” in February that seeks to encourage Canadians to think about and reaffirm their right to read as parcel to intellectual freedom, one guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Canadian Federation of Library Associations makes clear its stance on censorship by stating, “Libraries provide, defend, and promote equitable access to the widest possible variety of expressive content and resist calls for censorship and the adoption of systems that deny or restrict access to resources.” 

While similar data is currently unavailable in Canada, book bannings have been on the rise in the United States. According to the American Library Association Offices of Intellectual Freedom, the number of challenged titles was up nearly 40 per cent in 2022 compared to the previous year. PEN America, a non-profit tracking book banning data, found clear patterns amongst banned books. From July 2021 to June 2022, 40 per cent of all banned books featured protagonists or prominent characters of colour, 21 per cent dealt with themes of race and racism, while another 41 per cent included 2SLGBTQIA+ content. The most banned book according to PEN America, is Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, whose graphic memoir follows the author’s exploration into their own gender and queer identity. 

Canadians have a long and often unknown history of trying to remove books and magazines that are deemed offensive or inappropriate. Some challenged titles in Canada include Underground to Canada, In the Heat of the Night, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and Such Is My Beloved

Underground to Canada by Barbara Smucker was challenged in 2002 along with In the Heat of the Night and To Kill a Mockingbird in the Tri-Country District Board of Nova Scotia with objections to the depiction of Black people in anti-racist works. The challenge called for the removal of the titles in N.S. classrooms. Ultimately the school board rejected this request. 

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck was challenged in the mid-90s and a petition circulated asking the book to be removed from Alberta school curriculum. 

Such Is My Beloved by Morely Callaghan was challenged in 1972 in Huntsville, Ontario based on the depiction of sex work and the use of ‘strong language.” Challengers asked that this title be removed from local high schools. 

In discussing why books remain targets of challenges and bans, Dr. Micheal Horacki of the Department of English at the University of Regina said that “approaching [book banning], in terms of [a] novel anyway, pretty much exclusively a single-authored thing, it’s kind of easier to challenge and get a single work taken down by an individual.” 

Dr. Horacki researches and teaches about written propaganda centred between the two World Wars. He says that following the First World War there was a rise in propaganda “and [propaganda] start[ed] being used by broad swaths of people. […] as much as we think of propaganda as people sort of writing lies and publishing those lies as facts, propaganda is really all about controlling narrative. And the two halves of controlling narrative are putting your narrative out there and stopping other narratives from being published.” 

Horacki points to the lengthy and meticulous process involved in writing books and suggests that since books are “very, very carefully constructed articulations by people who have thought a lot about individual subjects, make them maybe the most dangerous things ideologically, when you don’t agree with the position. So, it might be almost from… a propaganda perspective, almost most urgent, to have a book taken down.” 

According to Horacki, it’s important to begin thinking more broadly about book banning, which might include “all other forms of censorship. So, I’m really interested in thinking about banning as part of this larger constellation of propaganda.” 

Dr. Horacki is teaching English 110-001 “Mass Media and Misinformation” this fall. The class deals with themes of propaganda and censorship and explores a variety of texts that include George Orwell’s writing, of whom it is well known that some of his written work has been banned. 

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