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MLA Continues Advocacy in Response to Calls for Censorship

Posted in Advocacy, and Intellectual Freedom

Manitoba Library Association has continued its work responding to calls for censorship in Manitoba libraries through the month of May. Our board and staff have worked hard on these responses and we would like to express sincere thanks to our members and partner organizations for their collaboration – without your active engagement, these responses would not have been possible.

On May 17, 2023, at the Canadian Federation of Library Associations’ National Forum, we cohosted Dr. Lucy Santos Green. A key highlight of this talk included sharing of the Get Ready Stay Ready Community Action Toolkit, rich with curated resources to help library professionals to learn more about (and fight back) censorship’s impact on education and society.

On May 18, 2023, the Manitoba Libraries Conference welcomed Megan Fultz, in-house legal counsel for the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, as opening keynote. Ms. Fultz reiterated and spoke to the Commission’s May 17 Statement on the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia.

On the final day of the Conference, May 19, 2023, member panelists spoke to Book Challenges and Intellectual Freedom: Experiences and Insights from Manitoba’s Public Libraries – the highest attended event over the three-day conference!

On May 23, 2023, Melanie Sucha (MLA President), Richard Bee (MLA Director-at-Large Advocacy), and Erika Martin (MLA Member, Director Western Manitoba Regional Library) spoke as a delegation to the Brandon School Division Board of Trustees. This delegation presented in response to a May 8 call from a member of the community to consider the removal and future censorship of books with content focused on gender identity, sexual health, and sexual orientation from BSD school libraries. We presented alongside 29 other delegations: several MLA members, Board and staff tuned into the meeting in-person or by livestream. Livestream recording is available online from the BSD website with MLA’s delegation at 50:54.

MLA is satisfied with the Brandon School Division’s response, voting 6 to 1 on a motion to reject the call to form such a committee and affirm respect for gender diversity in the Brandon School Division. That motion is as follows:

The Brandon School Division Board of Trustees rejects the call for the formation of a committee of parents and trustees to examine books in our school libraries. The Brandon School Division Board of Trustees strongly reaffirms our Administrative Procedure 4535 Human Diversity. Brandon School Division Board of Trustees supports learning environments that respect and embrace diversity, that create welcoming and safe spaces, raise awareness and learning, support and protect everyone, including transgender and gender diverse people, and others who have not yet identified. Respect and safety are for everyone, in every school, however 2SLGBTTQQIA+ people (particularly transgender individuals) typically experience higher rates of harassment, discrimination, suicide, as well as poor mental and physical health outcomes. Creating school environments that respect and affirm gender diversity will empower all students and employees. Gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation are protected rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Manitoba Human Rights Code. The Brandon School Division Board of Trustees recognizes the importance and life‐changing role that inclusive educational environments can play in building the personal resilience of transgender and other gender diverse students and their families.

The MLA Board has received positive feedback from members and partners on the delegation’s presentation and we have agreed to make our notes available below. We would like to highlight that this messaging was crafted with support from our Board, our staff, and our members, who contributed generously their expertise on this issue.

Melanie Sucha: Good evening. My name is Melanie Sucha, I am Chief Information Officer at Brandon University, and President of the Manitoba Library Association. With me tonight is Richard Bee, Manitoba Library Association’s Director-at-Large – Advocacy, and Erika Martin, Manitoba Library Association Member and Director of the Western Manitoba Regional Library. The Manitoba Library Association provides leadership in the promotion, development, and support of library and information services in Manitoba for the benefit of our members, the library and information community, and the citizens of Manitoba.

We have joined together as Manitoba Library Association’s delegation to respond to the May 8, 2023 call from a member of the community to consider the removal and future censorship of books with content focused on gender identity, sexual health, and sexual orientation from Brandon School Division school libraries. As with other recent censorship challenges in Manitoba libraries, we wholeheartedly reject this proposal.

Richard Bee: My name is Richard Bee, and I have been working in the library profession for 15 years. For 10 of those years I worked at Brandon University’s John E. Robbins Library, and I graduated from BU in 2015. I also possess a Masters of Library and Information Studies, conferred upon me by the University of Alberta in 2017.

At the previous BSD Board meeting on May 8, a delegate gave a presentation where they falsely equated 2SLGBTQIA+ materials selected for school libraries as being a source of “pedophilia” and “child grooming”. They also falsely equated this material as being pornography, falsely invoked the Criminal Code of Canada, and, under the dubious pretense that these materials are harmful for students, asked for the removal of materials already in school collections and that a committee of parents and trustees be formed to prevent materials with this content from being added into school library collections in the future.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines censorship as being “the action of preventing part or the whole of a book, film, work of art, document, or other kind of communication from being seen or made available to the public, because it is considered to be offensive or harmful”. This definition of censorship precisely defines what the May 8 presentation called for, which is the censorship of library materials that the individual delegate considers offensive and supposedly harmful to others.

This delegate’s presentation, which could be reasonably labeled as hate speech in addition to being a call for censorship, is an affront to our association’s guiding principle of Inclusivity and Acceptance. It is also an affront to the basic human right to intellectual freedom, which is the core principle for libraries regardless of what community they serve.

For a school division to even consider censoring information for children when they are most in need of the very information being targeted for censorship, is a moral and ethical outrage that cannot be accepted in modern society.

Erika Martin: My name is Erika Martin, I am Director of Library Services for Western Manitoba Regional Library. I am an MLIS trained Librarian with approximately 12 years of experience working in Public, Government, Hospital and School Libraries. I worked in Neelin High School Library for 2 years, and loved every minute of it!

Fundamentally, whether they are public or school based, libraries are inclusive spaces that aim to provide access to information that is inclusive of our communities. The resources found in libraries have been chosen carefully to be diverse and answer questions on different groups, emotions, thoughts and concepts. Books provide solace to those that have shared circumstances, they provide valuable information, teach empathy and understanding and help people freely form their own ideas and opinions.

Children are inquisitive, curious and they chat amongst themselves. We can’t control conversations they have on the school ground. But when some of those conversations bring out questions about what that all means, the information sourced from an award winning, age-appropriate book on sex education (like Sex is a funny word by Cory Silverberg, for example) is a far superior source than what they may Google on their tablets/laptops at home.

Each subsect of libraries organizes their collections in a way that is appropriate for their patrons. For public libraries this is the more commonly known “Dewey Decimal system.” School libraries follow this method as well, and often elementary school libraries are organized with age group/grade groups in mind. Pathfinders and staff help guide students to appropriate areas of the library.

I will note in the past few years there have been cuts to Teacher-Librarian roles, Library Technician positions and over all a tendency towards filling the roles with part-time EFTs with individuals with no library training. The Manitoba School Libraries Association website notes that collection diversity in schools is best achieved when supported by a qualified Teacher-Librarian. So, IF there is a concern on library collections and how they are presented, organized, and selected I would urge that rather than strike a committee aimed at removing titles, perhaps focus should be placed on ensuring those working in school libraries are provided relevant library focused training that allows their work to align with BSD policies. I do not support the censorship of these books, and these topics. I do not believe in censorship of books, period.

Melanie Sucha: Manitoba Library Association has been involved with response to library censorship and library defunding attempts in the province for several months. Such calls are not only contrary to our profession’s values – as Richard has mentioned. These are not only contrary to the aims of public libraries and public schools, as Erica has described. These calls are so deeply misleading, false, contradictory in their nature that we indeed question if there is not something else at play. These calls are advocating a version of freedom that comes at the cost of everyone else.

In discussing the community member’s call to Brandon School Division with respected peer organizations: Brandon Pride, Brandon PFLAG, SERC; with Brandon University faculty and Senate; with the Western Manitoba Regional Library Board; and with our association members: we conclude that such calls are deliberate attempts to propagate hate and bigotry. These calls attack the professionalism, credibility and intentions of writers, publishers, librarians, teachers, leaders and any organization or individual who doesn’t share a narrow worldview. These calls oppose access, equality, diversity, inclusion, equity and dignity. These groups want to deny the experience and very existence of people in our communities and province and will pressure local institutions and leaders to act on false narratives feeding off any moral panic they can create. It will not stop with books.

The Manitoba Human Rights Commission issued a statement on May 17, 2023, including the following: “The call to remove books depicting 2sLGBTQIA+ experiences does not reflect the goals of and purpose behind our public school system. It not only undermines our ability to teach acceptance, respect and understanding – it also makes learning environments for 2sLGBTQIA+ youth and their families isolating and unsafe, and allows for the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes.” The Manitoba Human Rights Commission spoke with Manitoba Library Association at our association’s conference on May 18, 2023 and reinforced this statement – lack of representation and information in a library collection, deliberate or not, passively excludes groups in that library’s community – it harms. The elimination of representation and information – is a deliberate, knowing harm – actively depriving community members of their sense of belonging within that community, and with the information they need to be healthy and safe.

The immediate direction forward for BSD is clear: entertaining these calls to review materials for removal would be wrong, and would be a violation of the human rights of students in our public school system. Don’t; it’s that simple.

The longer term actions for BSD and for our community must also be considered. The public presentation on May 8 itself was a galling request; the Board is structured in a way to provide public engagement and public transparency; utilizing these engagement and transparency processes to bring forward hateful positions is an abuse of process. The comments by Trustee Sieklicki following the presentation were out of line with the procedure of this Board on presentation responses. Both actions were a gross breach of Policy 11 of this Board, Respect for Human Diversity.

These actions have created hurt in this community. These actions have made members of our community question their belonging, their safety, their right to exist in this community. There is work to be done, repairs to be made, and trust to be gained. There are people and organizations here who want that work to be done and will help those repairs to be made. This Board has every opportunity to make this a positive turning point.