Celebrating Freedom to Read Week

by Lesley-Anne Longo

Published at 2017-02-23

Next week, from February 26 to March 4, we will be observing a very important event in Canadian culture: Freedom to Read Week. Freedom to Read Week is a project run by the Book and Periodical Council (BPC), which is an umbrella organization for Canadian associations that are or whose members are primarily involved with the writing, editing, translating publishing, producing, distributing, lending, marketing, reading, and selling of written words.


More specifically, Freedom to Read Week is organized each year by a special committee within the BPC: the Freedom of Expression Committee. They do a very important job in monitoring censorship issues in Canada as they arise, and creating information kits each year to educate Canadians on issues of intellectual freedom.


Freedom to Read in Canada

By global standards, Canada is often viewed as a free country, but many people may not realize that there are instances of censored and challenged books within our borders too. Books and magazines can be banned at the border, and book challenges can result in a variety of books being removed from shelves in Canadian schools, libraries, and bookshops—and you may never even hear about it.


The freedom to make our own reading choices is a freedom that must be staunchly protected so that Canadians can decide for themselves what voices they want to listen to, what stories they want to hear, and what information they want to seek out. The BPC keeps a list of books challenged in Canada, and the titles run the gamut from reference works to children’s picture books, and they are challenged for an ever-increasing variety of reasons.


Sometimes protecting our freedom to read can reveal a crossroads that we must face—what if we find a book distasteful on more than just the grounds that we don’t like the language, or think the graphics might be too violent? Some books out there may offend by their very existence, especially when they may take unorthodox or socially unacceptable views on the topic of sensitive or horrific events from the past. I came across one such book in the BPC’s challenged books list, and was interested to see how the challenge was resolved. In the end, the library that included the book in its collection decided to keep the book:


The books, although “deemed offensive,” fell within the mandate of the collection: to provide comprehensive resources for research, including resources that may be beyond what is “culturally acceptable,” to show the full range of information and debate about an event or issue.

Defending Canadian citizens’ right to read is not always easy, especially when some books may go against our society’s moral code, as in the above example. Protesting book bans is easier when the banned book is Harry Potter or The Handmaid’s Tale—less so when we struggle with the book’s content on a personal moral level.


But that is why Freedom to Read Week exists. Banning books is a slippery slope, and one that we do not want to slide down. The purpose of Freedom to Read Week is to encourage Canadians to consider and “reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom” (even when that commitment is difficult), which is guaranteed to them under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.


Freedom to Know

Remember, many of the most controversial books in our history are now regarded as classics—the Bible, Homer’s The Odyssey, a variety of works by Shakespeare, Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, even Beatrix Potter’s children’s classics The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny. All these books were, at one time or another, considered scandalous, even dangerous. And maybe they were—The Origin of Species certainly turned both the scientific and religious communities upside down when it was published, and it changed history. The knowledge and progress contained within won out.


In the end, books, and the ideas they contain, should not be feared. We should do our best to trust that when confronted with “controversial” subject matter, we have the critical thinking skills necessary to decide what the truth is for ourselves. As John F. Kennedy once said of America,

If this nation is to be wise as well as strong, if we are to achieve our destiny, then we need more new ideas for more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries. These libraries should be open to all—except the censor. We must know all the facts and hear all the alternatives and listen to all the criticisms. Let us welcome controversial books and controversial authors. For the Bill of Rights is the guardian of our security as well as our liberty.

I would tend to agree. Our strength as a society will not come from fewer ideas, and less knowledge—it’s quite the opposite. And we Have Freedom to Read Week to thank for keeping that fact alive and kicking.  


How can you get involved? Try participating in Freedom to Read Week events!