Censorship in Canadian Schools

Richard Beaudry

By Richard Beaudry

On January 15th, 2019, CBC News Online reported another case of what teacher-librarians across Canada are always troubled about: the request for removal of a popular book from all the elementary libraries in the Ottawa Catholic School Board – “Catholic board pulls book with LGBT characters from elementary libraries”.

Drama, the 2012 graphic novel by American author and illustrator Raina Telgemeier, is about a student who wants to be part of her middle-school theatre production. The side story about same-sex relationships also includes two boys sharing an onstage kiss.”

After an uproar on social media that included statements from the author of the book, librarians, LGBTQ advocates, politicians and parents, the Ottawa Catholic School Board reversed their decision the next day as reported by CBC News: “Catholic school board changes mind, allows book depicting 2 boys kissing back in libraries”.

After the CBC posted the second article, I posted a few questions and observations on social media:

“I am pleased that the decision was reversed but I am still left with unanswered questions:

  • Was the book ‘Drama’ challenged at one school or all schools?
  • Does the Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB) have school policies related to school libraries?
  • Does the OCSB have a book challenge policy for school libraries and was it followed in this case?
  • If the book was challenged in one school, why was the decision made to remove the book from all school libraries?

School boards should have district policies in place that can assist teacher-librarians in doing their job. This would include a policy on book challenges that has a process in place to meet with the concerned parties and the possibility of a consensus decision made with the teacher-librarian’s input. A unilateral decision to remove a book at the district or administrative level is not helpful and can cause a public blow-back like the situation in Ottawa. A policy in place would have resulted in a better ending for all concerned.”

After things settled down, I contacted a teacher-librarian in the Ottawa Catholic School Board and we talked about the events surrounding the removal of the book Drama by Raina Telgemeier. In this particular case, rather than contacting the teacher-librarian in the school and following the district process for challenged books, which the district had in place in every library learning commons, the parent sent her complaint directly to the district offices with a request that the book be removed. It is not clear whether the parent asked for the book to be removed only from the school the child attended or from all library learning commons, but the district’s decision resulted in a request that the book be removed from all elementary schools, which resulted in the subsequent outcry and reversal of the district’s decision after one day.

Teacher-librarians understand that sometimes parents have issues with the books that their children bring home to read and that they may challenge books in their child’s library learning commons for all kinds of reasons. In our school district, we have policies in place for running our school library learning commons and we have a form for book challenges. This year, we have had four books challenged in the district: three in elementary school library learning commons (Bad Kitty for President by Nick Bruel (for using “%#@$” – bad words), George by Alex Gino (LGBTQ concern), Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Bullying) and one in a middle school library learning commons, We are All made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen (LGBTQ concern).

In these four local cases, the situation was resolved quickly at the school by following the process in place. This was not always the situation in our school district and we have had our share of challenges in past years where we had to fight for the right of children to read books and against their removal from our library learning commons. As with the Ottawa Catholic School Board, it took a public airing of the challenges to resolve them.

As Canadians, we value our democratic and charter rights and hope that we can resolve book challenges to the satisfaction of all concerned but the fact is, people have sought to limit access to the public in general and children specifically to books in library learning commons, public libraries and even bookstores. Freedom to Read Week is a website created and maintained by the Book Periodical Council, an umbrella organization for associations that deal with writing, editing, publishing, reading and selling books. They have been maintaining a list of challenge items for years. They publish a list of ‘100 books, magazines and other written works’ that have been challenged in Canada. The Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA), through its Intellectual Freedom Committee, maintains a yearly Challenges Survey and has yearly reports dating back to 2006.

Following a process for challenges in a library learning commons

The Ottawa Catholic School Board challenge demonstrates that there is still work to do in establishing and following policies when books are challenged. Even with policies in place, teacher-librarians sometimes find themselves confronted by parents and directed by administrators or district staff to remove items from their library learning commons. In some cases, the argument is made that it only affects one school or one item in the district so why make a fuss? The simple answer is that it does matter. Whether a challenge happens in one school or one district, it matters to the library learning commons and teacher-librarians in Canada. The removal of any item from a library learning commons anywhere in the country could and can bring about challenges elsewhere. So how does a teacher-librarian defend a book that has been challenged? It can be a difficult process depending on the policies in place and the support offered to the teacher-librarians.

A book has been challenged – What to do?

First and foremost is to be proactive. Make sure at the start of each school year that the district’s policies for library learning commons are up-to-date and that the form for book challenges is available as a document or downloadable pdf.

Second is to address the issue in a constructive manner: If, for any reason, an administrator or the school district decides to remove a book from one or several schools; there are legal documents and statements in Canada that can be used to reinforce arguments to follow the district process for challenges.

An example of a district policy that deals with challenged materials:

  • “That the final decision for controversial reading, listening or viewing matter shall rest with the Board after careful examination and discussion of the reading, listening or viewing matter with school officials or anyone else the Board may wish to involve.”
  • “That no parent or group of parents has the right to determine the reading, listening or viewing matter for students other than their own children.”

Provincial and territorial governments across Canada are responsible for K-12 education in their jurisdictions. Each of these provinces and territories has a School Act that covers the establishment of school districts and how they are run. The Supreme Court of Canada set a legal precedence in their 2002 ruling based on the manner in which school districts can choose materials to be taught within the provincial or territorial curriculum. Library learning commons across Canada also take direction from the School Act within their province or territory but choosing the reading materials is not only based on the curriculum, it also has to do with age-appropriate reading materials that are based on the reading interests of the students.

The BC School Act – Section 76

(1) All schools and Provincial schools must be conducted on strictly secular and non-sectarian principles.
(2) The highest morality must be inculcated, but no religious dogma or creed is to be taught in a school or Provincial school.”

In 2002, an important ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada was announced: Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36. The case dealt with the approval of three books to be used as supplementary learning resources in teaching the BC family life education curriculum. The books depicted families in which both parents were either women or men — same sex families.

While this 2002 ruling dealt with supplemental resources, teacher-librarians took notice of two other statements in the Supreme Court’s ruling that have been useful arguments in the defense of library learning commons resources:

  1. “The distinction between actions and beliefs is present in Canada’s constitutional case law: persons are entitled to hold such beliefs as they choose, but their ability to act on them, whether in the private or public sphere, may be narrower.”
  2. “The relevant Charter values are nevertheless incorporated in the requirements of the School Act. The Charter reflects a commitment to equality and protects all persons from discrimination. It also protects freedom of religion and freedom of expression.”

BC Civil Liberties Association

Standing to invoke a review process: Adequate evidence of widespread concern.

  • In our Association’s view, there must be sufficient evidence of significant opposition to the material before the review process is commenced. For example, evidence of widespread concern sufficient to invoke the process could be presented in a petition. It should not be enough for the subjective views of one person to invoke an expensive and time-consuming process. Evidence of communal concern is, of course, not enough in itself to prohibit any particular material since the views of the majority should not automatically determine access to ideas and information, even for youth.

United Nations Human Rights – Convention on the Rights of the Child – Ratified by Canada in 1990

Article 13

  1. The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.
  2. The exercise of this right may be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary

Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA – Statement on Intellectual Freedom

  • The Canadian Federation of Library Associations holds that libraries are a key institution in Canada for rendering expressive content accessible and affordable to all. Libraries are essential gateways for all persons living in Canada to advance themselves through literacy, lifelong learning, social engagement, and cultural enrichment.
  • Libraries have a core responsibility to safeguard and facilitate access to constitutionally protected expressions of knowledge, imagination, ideas, and opinion, including those which some individuals and groups consider unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable. To this end, in accordance with their mandates and professional values and standards, 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 resource

BC Library Association – Statement on Intellectual Freedom

  • It is the responsibility of library administrators and librarians, as guardians of the peoples’ freedom to read, to contest encroachments upon that freedom by individuals or groups seeking to impose their own standards or tastes upon the community at large.

The Book and Periodical Council of Canada – Statement on ‘Freedom of Expression and Freedom to Read’

  • “The freedom to choose what we read does not, however, include the freedom to choose for others. We accept that courts alone have the authority to restrict reading material, a prerogative that cannot be delegated or appropriated. Prior restraint demeans individual responsibility; it is the anathema to freedom and democracy.”

A final but important reminder: any censorship challenge in a library learning commons needs to be addressed. Your local colleagues, as well as your local, provincial and national library associations are there to support any teacher-librarian who is confronted by a challenge to remove a book from their library learning commons. It is in your best interest to contact your provincial or territorial associations to report any censorship issues and contact the Canadian Federation of Library Associations’ Intellectual Freedom Committee to record the challenge and the reasons it occurred.


BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) (1997, April 10). Civil liberties in the schools. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from https://bccla.org/our_work/civil-liberties-in-the-schools/

BC Government. (n.d.). BC School Act [RSBC 1996] CHAPTER 412. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from http://www.bclaws.ca/civix/document/id/lc/statreg/96412_00 Part 6 – Boards of Education – Division 2 – Powers and Duties – Conduct 76 (1) (2)

BCLA. (n.d.). Statement of Intellectual Freedom. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from https://bclaconnect.ca/about/statement-of-intellectual-freedom/

BCTLA. (2014). From School Library to Library Learning Commons: A Pro-Active Model for Educational Change [Brochure]. Author. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from https://bctladotca.files.wordpress.com/2017/11/school-library-to-library-learning-commons.pdf
Moira Ekdahl and Sylvia Zubke, Editors – Updated May 2017

Beaudry, R. (2010, January/February). Censorship in Canadian school libraries. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from https://bctf.ca/publications/NewsmagArticle.aspx?id=20384 BCTF Teacher Magazine – Vol. 22 #4

Book depicting 2 boys kissing returns to elementary school libraries after Ottawa board changes mind | CBC News. (2019, January 16). Retrieved February 19, 2019, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/drama-graphic-novel-catholic-library-1.4980153

Book and Periodical Council (BPC). (n.d.). Champions of Free Expression. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from http://www.freedomtoread.ca/
Freedom to Read Week

Book and Periodical Council (BPC). (n.d.). Freedom of Expression and Freedom to Read. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from http://www.thebpc.ca/whats-happening/freedom-to-read-week/
Statement of the basic tenets of the Freedom of Expression Committee

Book and Periodical Council (BPC). (2019, February). Challenged Works Selected books and magazines that have been challenged in Canada. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from http://www.freedomtoread.ca/challenged-works/

Bruel, N. (2012). Bad Kitty for president. New York: Roaring Brook Press. ISBN 978-1250010162

Canadian Federation of Library Associations. (2016, November 16). Statement on Intellectual Freedom and Libraries. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from http://cfla-fcab.ca/en/guidelines-and-position-papers/statement-on-intellectual-freedom-and-libraries/

Canadian Government – Legislative Services Branch. (2019, February 19). Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/Const/page-15.html
Constitution Act, 1982 (80) Part I – Fundamental Freedom

Gino, A. (2015). George. New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN 9780545812542

Hensley, L. (2018, October 19). Certain books continue to cause an uproar in Canadian education – here’s why. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from https://globalnews.ca/news/4571476/banned-books-in-canadian-schools/

Intellectual Freedom Challenges Survey. (2018, November 20). Retrieved February 19, 2019, from http://cfla-fcab.ca/en/programs/intellectual-freedom-challenges-survey/
Canadian Federation of Library Associations – Intellectual Freedom Committee

Lexum. (2002, December 20). Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from https://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/2030/index.do
Supreme Court Judgements – Report [2002] 4 SCR 710 – Case Number 28654

Nielsen-Fernlund, S. (2016). We are all made of molecules. London: Andersen Press. ISBN 9780553496895

Osman, L. (2019, January 15). Ottawa school board moves book with LGBT characters from elementary to ‘age-appropriate’ middle, high schools | CBC News. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/drama-telgemeier-banned-ottawa-catholic-school-1.4977546

United Nations. (n.d.). UN Human Rights – Convention on the Rights of the Child. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx
Entry into force 2 September 1990

Richard Beaudry

Richard Beaudry is an Information Specialist and Librarian. He has worked as a teacher-librarian in K-12 schools and taught classes in the diploma and master’s programs in Teacher-Librarianship at the University of British Columbia. Richard is an ALA Certified Librarian and a Fellow of the Library Association of Ireland. Richard is particularly known for his activities to promote human rights and freedom of information, particularly as they relate to the censorship of materials in school libraries. Richard was the recipient of the 2016 Canadian Library Association Award for the Advancement of Intellectual Freedom in Canada. Richard chairs the Canadian Federation of Library Associations / Fédération canadienne des associations de bibliothèques (CFLA-FCAB) Intellectual Freedom Committee, representing Canadian School Libraries.