Canada Customs seizes freeedom of expression at border

By Caroline Dobuzinskis

Canada Customs has decided to infringe upon our rights to freedom of expression to protect us from “obscene” literature.

The censorship of books by customs continues to target gay and lesbian bookstores, despite a Supreme Court decision against this type of prejudice.

David Rimmer, owner of After Stonewall on Bank Street, was not able to import a lesbian-themed novel this month. Cherry, by Charlotte Cooper, was seized at the border because it was deemed “obscene” under Canada Customs guidelines.

The novel described lesbian sex scenes, including acts of “fisting.” However, the troublesome novel was then released from customs due to its artistic merit. Its sufficient literary value was discovered after its British publication company launched a letter writing campaign to customs.

According to Rimmer, books allowed through customs can be extremely explicit as long as they do not delve into certain off-limit categories such as acts considered sado-masochism.

“It seems ridiculous to me that something that is legal to do in Canada is illegal to read about,” says Rimmer. “Especially when some books, like books on S&M, can be educational.”

Canada Customs’ tailored guidelines on obscenity are subjective and arbitrary.

While they prohibit books describing illegal and non-consensual sexual acts, they emphasize unconventional sexual practices. These include bondage, submission, spanking and “extreme roughness of action.”

According to these formal rules, Canada Customs wants to keep sex in literature good, clean, and simple — maybe they just forgot to nab all the Harlequin romances on their way to drugstore shelves.

Furthermore, customs has repeatedly made mistakes in seizing books, later rescinding with their tails between their legs. This happened in 1989, with the seizure and release of Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic verses. Then in 1998, the lesbian novel Empire of the Senseless, by Kathy Ecker, went through a similar process.

Customs’ strategy on literature sounds like a running play that belongs on the football field — the seize and release.

This floppily ambiguous decision-making and targeted bullying does not belong at our borders — especially when it concerns freedom of expression and the literary arts.

Little Sister’s Bookstore, which opened in Vancouver in 1993, made similar arguments against customs in the Supreme Court of Canada in 1994. Because of multiple incidents of book seizures at customs, Little Sister’s felt that they were being unfairly targeted.

“While the laws for Canada Customs are not unconstitutional, they have systemic problems at customs such as a negative view of homosexual culture,” says Mark Macdonald, a Little Sister’s book buyer.

The Supreme Court found that the store had suffered prejudice and harassment at the hands of customs. The law determining obscenity in literature was reversed, putting the onus for proving the obscenity of a publication on customs instead of importers.

In March 2002, Little Sister’s Bookstore filed yet another appeal with the British Columbia Supreme Court to have comics released from customs because they have not been proven to be obscene.

The comics are from a series called Meatmen, that feature artwork by gay male artists.

The comics are considered to be male erotica but some are also humouristic takes on life in the gay community.

Little Sister’s now has the largest selection of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender books in North America, most of which have to be imported from the United States.

According to Macdonald, Canada Customs continues to seize one in four of his shipments of up to 100 books at the border.

These actions harm small businesses, not only by holding stock and delaying transactions, but also by tarnishing reputations. Unfortunately, when these border seizures are made, the bookstores importing the books receive negative attention — not the bullies at Canada Customs.