Preserving the freedom to read
By Joan Richoz
Each year, Canada's Book and Periodical Council sponsors Freedom to Read Week (Feb. 22-28) to highlight concerns about book challenges and bannings by Canada Customs, by school and library boards, and by people who think they can decide what Canadians should not read.
It is also is intended to focus public attention on the vital issue of intellectual freedom. As long as humans have enjoyed the freedom to express themselves, some have wished to restrict that freedom. As some of us thrive on voicing our thoughts and feelings and experiences, others fear the consequences of those thoughts. It is not surprising that Freedom to Read Week has become an annual event in Canada, because the right to free expression remains as sensitive and vital an issue as ever.
In 2003 there were many challenges to our intellectual freedom. Our provincial governments continued to decrease their funding to school libraries despite overwhelming evidence that shows that the health of school libraries has a direct effect on student performance. In Whistler, the secondary school was without a teacher-librarian for the first few months in the fall due to a budget shortfall. Concerned parents pressured the administration and school board and the school library is now open a limited number of hours per week.
On the other hand we are fortunate that our National Librarian, Roch Carrier, (author of the well-known childrens book, The Hockey Sweater ) and the Canadian Coalition for School Libraries are taking a proactive role by campaigning to restore school library funding in every part of Canada.
Check out the report by Dr. Ken Haycock that warned of the effects of major funding cuts on school libraries in Canada at www.peopleforeducation.com/librarycoaltion/Report03.pdf
Our freedom of expression was sharply curtailed by CanWest Global Communications who demanded that all its newspapers including the National Post carry identical editorials written by the corporation's head office in Winnipeg. The move prompted journalists to condemn the reduced diversity of opinion in local newspapers.
In 2001 unprecedented interference in library policy arose when the city councillors of Hull, Quebec, ordered the municipal library to withdraw 180 adult comic books from its public shelves. In doing so, city politicians violated the usual arm's-length relationship between themselves and public libraries. In 2002, the order was withdrawn after widespread public condemnation.
Despite these attempts to limit our access to books, we must applaud people like James Chamberlain and his colleagues for their successful campaign to get B.C.'s Surrey School Board to accept the use of picture books depicting same-sex families in the district's primary classrooms. In December 2002, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the school board was wrong to keep the books out of classrooms on religious grounds because the ban went against the provincial government's policy of encouraging tolerance and diversity in public schools. At the B.C. Library Conference in 2003, James Chamberlain received the Award for the Advancement of Intellectual Freedom in Canada, presented by the Canadian Library Association, for his outstanding contribution to intellectual freedom and demonstrating leadership and courage in resisting censorship and opposing violations of intellectual freedom in Canada.