The last few weeks, our constant companions have not only been virus and contagion but protest as well. Around the world, people have been expressing their indignation openly and freely in reaction to the injustices they have seen committed, particularly against members of the black and indigenous communities. In so doing, they are exercising one of the most fundamental of their democratic rights, that of freedom of expression, both in person and in print.
In Canada, that right, though not absolute, is guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982, a document that in turn has its origins in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the General Assembly in December of 1948. The man responsible for the first draft of that foundational declaration was the Canadian lawyer, scholar, and human rights’ advocate John Peters Humphrey (1905-1995) of Hampton, New Brunswick.
While most of us would like to believe that Canadians have always stood for the freedom of expression that we enjoy today, the facts tell a different story, particularly with regards to the control of print media. Beginning in the seventeenth century, with the banning of Molière’s Tartuffe in Quebec City, the struggle for literary expression has been ongoing. The works of Balzac, James Joyce, Margaret Laurence, and Margaret Atwood have each seen legal and community challenges in Canada, as have titles by some rather more surprising authors such as Morley Callaghan and W.O. Mitchell. As custom and standards have evolved over time, so has the response by Canadians to what constitutes suitable accommodation for self-expression. That process is necessarily open-ended and is certainly not without tension.
My latest lecture, Stop the Presses: A Brief History of Literary Censorship in Canada, looks at the ways in which the nation whose birthday we commemorate next week has a long record of imperfectly, but consistently, making this democratic ideal a reality.
- P.J. Carefoote, Department Head, Rare Books and Special Collections