21 February 2011

Freedom to Read Week – Monday

Lt.-Col. John Merner (Ret'd)

Some chilling words from "Censorship Canada" by Hawley Black, published in the December 1980 edition of Saturday Night:
Like the Vatican in the old days, Canada has an index of forbidden material. Ours is a filing cabinet of index cards, kept by Customs and Excise officials on the sixth floor of the Connaught Building just around the corner from the Château Laurier. The keeper of the index, in effect the chief of Censorship Canada, is Lt.-Col. John Merner, a sixty-two-year-old retired army officer who bears the official title Head, Prohibited Importation Section. Along with a departmental lawyer and a couple of clerks, Merner protects Canada from books, films, videotapes, and other materials that he believes (as Section 99201-1 of Schedule C of the Canada Customs Tariff puts it) "treasonable or seditious or of an immoral or indecent character."


If a customs decision goes against you, you can appeal. But you may find yourself catalogued among the 100,000 names contained in the Customs Intelligence File. If your appeal fails, the government can destroy the material and you lose your court costs. If your appeal succeeds, the government returns the material to you – and you lose your court costs anyway. Not many people appeal.


When I visited the office recently, the Head, Prohibited Importation Section, and his helpers were busily keeping Canada free of material that might subvert the civil order or endanger morals. They were doing so in something close to secrecy, protected by a bureaucratic wall that can be penetrated neither by parliament nor by the press, or even by the minister of revenue himself. Other censors – such as the Ontario film censors – find themselves regularly embroiled in headline-making conflicts, but all is quiet in the Connaught Building. So far as an outsider can determine, there are not even internal struggles over what to censor. Only once in ten years, Merner recalls, has the minister of revenue – it was Robert Stanbury – actually fought one of his decisions. And, says Merner, "He lost."
Funny he never married.

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