Now in its 26th year, Freedom to Read Week is an annual event aimed at raising awareness among Canadians of the intellectual freedom guaranteed them under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19). Organised by the Freedom of Expression Committee of the Book and Periodical Council (an umbrella organisation for associations of writers, editors, publisher, manufacturers distributors, sellers, and lenders of books and periodicals in Canada), it's marked with numerous events across the country between February 21 and 27.
Most of us take our freedom to read for granted, but even here, in Canada, books and magazines have been banned at the border, and are frequently challenged and removed from libraries, schools, and bookstores. These infractions on our freedom of expression are seldom reported widely, yet affect the right of all of us – not just Canadians – to decide for ourselves what we chose to read. Although government-instituted censorship has apparently been abandoned in the Western world, public concern over "offensive" literature hasn't subsided.
In Canada, a majority of us accept the Supreme Court's authority and prerogative to restrict reading material; we trust the court to interpret the Charter and determine the reasonable limits to our freedoms. A majority of us also accepts that a stable, vibrant democracy can withstand disagreement and a wide range of beliefs. However, this doesn't prevent private entities and individuals from attempting to limit, sanitise, and censor literature and information that doesn't fit their particular position. These attempts to "protect" society, by arbitrarily deciding what others can read, merely smother creativity and stifle open debate of controversial issues.
Public libraries are in fact expected to act as benevolent guardians of literature in many places, particularly concerning books for young readers. Even in notoriously "liberal" countries like Norway and Sweden, which introduced some of the earliest laws regarding freedom of the press, scrutiny of public and school libraries remained a concern throughout the 20th Century. The die-hard tradition of literature surveillance in America is perhaps less surprising, where various groups intent on choosing what others should read constantly demand the removal of books they deem contain "questionable content".
Canada is no exception: the Canada Border Services Agency, parent groups, and religious organisations have all tried to ban books for reasons varying from sexual orientation, racial or religious content, to explicit language and witchcraft. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series remains among the most challenged books in this country; Robert Munsch’s Thomas' Snowsuit was banned by a Catholic school board because Thomas' refusal of a snowsuit was deemed disrespectful to school authorities.
Only last year the Toronto District School Board, having removed Deborah Ellis' Three Wishes from its public school libraries on the grounds that its inclusion of interviews with Palestinian as well as Israeli children offended the Canadian Jewish Congress, considered restricting access to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale - winner of the Governor General's Award in 1985 and the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987, and a seemingly permanent top-40 fixture on the American Library Association's list of the 100 most frequently challenged books in the 1990s.
The undermining and obliteration of independent, local booksellers by large chains of big-box retailers poses yet another serious challenge to what literature and information we can access. Take Canada's largest bookstore chain Indigo Books & Music Inc. for example, a retailer with the publicly stated goal of becoming "the world's first cultural department store", which doesn't shelve books or magazines its owners personally object to, and whose profits are funnelled into dubious martial projects that have little in common with literature, never mind Canada.
Like their electronic counterparts, Indigo isn't a library but a business, with a right to stock whatever it wants. But it's a right that becomes problematic when a bookseller dominates the market like Indigo, Amazon et al do. Any titles they, and the other three or four major players, decide not to stock become harder to find, and - by extension - to publish. Supermassive booksellers can also exert pressure on publishers (as Amazon has done in the past) to offer greater discounts, and interfere with publishers direct sales, thereby undercutting the profitability - and ultimately, the existence - of small publishers in particular. It's censorship by proxy.
However, Freedom to Read Week serves not only as a reminder to remain vigilant of the challenges, but also as an opportunity for Canadians to celebrate our freedom to chose what we read, and to reach out to our neighbours across the world. We can acknowledge it by reading and making up our own minds about some of the books challenged in Canada, patronising our remaining local independent booksellers, or checking up on the state of libraries and information in the rest of the world. We could even indulge in some banned literature online. After all, the only thing worse than suppressing, banning or destroying books is not reading them.
Note: this is an altered, updated version of an article originally posted on February 19, 2009.