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  • felicia rembrandt

Conflict in the Library: Are the Foundations Cracking?

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

by felicia rembrandt

The Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA) has a long history supporting and defending Canadians’ rights to access literature of all viewpoints without censorship, but recent events regarding books on gender ideology reveal cracks in the foundations.

The library in Canada has identified itself as a defender of freedom of speech since 1974, when the predecessor organization, the Canadian Library Association, first put out a position statement. This statement, revised in 2016 and reviewed in 2019, specifies the sources libraries use to justify their free speech mandate.

In the Statement on Intellectual Freedom and Libraries, the association states:

The Canadian Federation of Library Associations recognizes and values the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as the guarantor of the fundamental freedoms in Canada of conscience and religion; of thought, belief, opinion, and expression; of peaceful assembly; and of association.

The Canadian Federation of Library Associations supports and promotes the universal principles of intellectual freedom as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which include the interlocking freedoms to hold opinions and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

In accordance with these principles, the Canadian Federation of Library Associations affirms that all persons in Canada have a fundamental right, subject only to the Constitution and the law, to have access to the full range of knowledge, imagination, ideas, and opinion, and to express their thoughts publicly. Only the courts may abridge free expression rights in Canada.

The first challenges to libraries on the issue of gender ideology involved rental of their meeting rooms in 2019. In response to discussion about whether to allow Feminist Current founder Meghan Murphy to rent a meeting room, the CFLA wrote a letter to the Vancouver Public Library, supporting the VPL decision to rent space to Murphy. The letter states:

Discussions of restricting access and filtering information available to the public, once associated with countries governed by totalitarian regimes, are now creeping into local communities in Canada, where libraries are finding themselves not only defending the core values of librarianship, but democratic society as a whole.

Two months later it issued a general statement on the third-party use of library space reiterating the library’s position that freedom of speech is a core value that the library will uphold. And just to be sure that future and wanna-be protestors got it, they issued the following clarifications:

The Library posts a permanent notice, in the languages commonly used in the community, near the meeting rooms and spaces stating that the library does not advocate or endorse the viewpoints expressed in meetings or by meeting room users. The Library posts a disclaimer statement outside the meeting room or facility in use, making it clear that the free expression being exercised does not necessarily reflect the views of the Library.

And when Meghan Murphy dared to rent space at the Toronto Public Library in October, they again put out a paper supporting that library. So much for 2019.

freedom of speech: 2

trans-censorship: 0

In 2020 non-Canadian Abigail Shrier unwittingly took up the baton with the publication of her book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. This is a book legacy media refused to review and which Amazon directed searchers away from. As Shrier wrote in the forward a year later, “if you entered search terms for it after it became available, Amazon would helpfully suggest that you read a different book – one of the hundred celebrating medical gender transition for teenagers.”

In 2020 and 2021 libraries started adding Shrier’s book to their collections. It garnered an unprecedented 19 challenges by library patrons (next was Gender Queer, which received 3 challenges), as documented in the 2021 Intellectual Freedom Challenges Survey. In its report, the CFLA noted that the media, both social and mainstream, contributed to the controversy.

In addition to a twitter thread responding to the Toronto Public Library’s holdings, CTV ran a story on a challenge to the book at the Ottawa Public Library. A flurry of challenges followed.

The report also noted that another book, Helen Joyce’s Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, was challenged only once, in British Columbia, despite being reviewed positively in Feminist Current, being the subject of a petition, and receiving coverage in the Halifax Examiner.

The report concludes that “It is difficult to say whether CTV coverage or the fact that incidents occurred in central Canada is the more crucial factor.”

In response, the CFLA put out a statement in support of libraries who chose to add this book to their collection.

As well as reiterating the library’s support for freedom of expression, the statement adds a reminder to the people who work in the libraries, stating that “employees, volunteers and employers as well as library governing entities have a core responsibility to uphold the principles of intellectual freedom in the performance of their respective library roles.”

Was this a pre-emptive warning to staff? If so, it failed to stop a group of library workers, almost all affiliated with university libraries, from getting together and publishing a Google document titled Open Letter to the CFLA Board on Intellectual Freedom. By including the names of their workplaces, these library staff members showed they must believe their institutions supported them. The document begins with their general position:

The Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA) positions itself as the “united voice of Canada’s Libraries.” However, we are not united behind the three position statements put out by CFLA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee since 2017, all of which defend works or events that are critical of trans peoples’ gender expression. Using Intellectual Freedom only to defend transmisia does not reflect the views of many in the CFLA’s affiliated membership …

First paragraph – two oddities. First, no one is criticizing anyone’s gender expression, which is simply the manner of costuming one’s body and making up one’s hair and/or face. Second, has anyone heard of “transmisia?”

According to a library employee who contributing information for this article, this letter appeared one morning and appeared to have been taken down later that afternoon! The link that was used to share it no longer worked. But, it was kept and logged.

In its more detailed “background information” section, the letter states such gems as:

  • The most recent statement is in defense of inclusion of a work that spreads medical misinformation and has been recognized as “violent” by the American Booksellers Association…

  • choosing not to collect books that dehumanize marginalized communities isn't a mechanism of controlling controversy, rather it focuses on reducing harm…

  • This maximalist view of Intellectual Freedom does not recognize power imbalances in our society and the fact that “all persons do not have equal protection under the law"…

  • Precarious library workers in the public sector are more likely to be a part of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.

Here is the CFLA's response:

Again, we are aware that our position on this particular issue is not unanimous within the Canadian library community. However, unanimity is often not possible. Instead, CFLA-FCAB’s governance model relies on a board nominated by member associations to represent the interests of the broad library community, with advice and input from representative committees of experts.

And in response to this, the Manitoba Library Association put out its own letter, in which it said:

We have heard feedback from our membership that they are dissatisfied and disagree with CFLA’s stance on this issue. There are concerns that the CFLA Board is not listening to its members, or providing a forum for members to voice their perspectives.

As a provincial library association, we would agree that MLA has a role to play in bringing members to the discussion and encouraging CFLA to listen. People need an opportunity to be consulted and heard by CFLA. What CFLA does reflects on MLA, and we need to do the right thing by our members in giving them a voice.

What is concerning is that this time the CFLA justifies its position by pointing to the board it is responsible to. It is concerning that the CFLA’s position could change when the board changes, and it is concerning that a member association is not content with the CFLA’s mandate to “rel[y] on a board nominated by member associations…”

What is most concerning is that the library staff population is changing, and some library workers will eventually become administrators and board members. We have to ask if the staff of university libraries are the canaries warning us of the impending collapse of free speech.

Universities are hotbeds of queer theory, post-modernism, and social justice programming. Canada has only seven library studies programs. At UBC, for example, the Masters in Library and Information Studies program has four “pathways,” one of which is called “Community and Culture.” Students who choose that pathway learn about “lgbtq+ studies” and “social justice librarianship.” The University of Western Ontario’s Masters in Library and Information Studies program offers a course called “Information Equity: Social Justice in a Network Society.”

In 2022 we were still safe, as the CFLA issued yet another position paper in January of last year in which it reiterates its commitment to freedom of expression.

But new developments this year are disturbing. Wendy Wright, Chair of the CFLA Intellectual Freedom Committee, stated in a March press release, “Over the past two years, libraries have been under increasing pressure to censor materials and programs, particularly those with LGBTQA2S content.”

Coming right after an RCMP investigation found that certain books in the Chilliwack school libraries did not constitute pornography, the report by the Intellectual Freedom Committee


Several libraries have received notices from organised groups incorrectly referring to certain books as “child pornography” and trying to intimidate libraries into removing them by stating they are breaking the law. Other groups petition Town Councils to defund the libraries if they refuse to remove the books in question. These tactics align with those used by more than 50 organised groups in the United States in recent years which have contributed to their record high in book bannings and challenges.

The list of challenged book up to August 22 (the latest available) lists only a few challenges to children’s books with “queer” content, Fred Gets Dressed by Peter Hill, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, and Heartstopper by Alice Oseman among them.

Yet Wright seems offended at increasing parental disapproval over LGBT-themed books. Without evidence she claims some of these books are “incorrectly” referred to as pornography and ties the concerns of Canadian parents to American-organized groups. Is Wright buying into the narrative that there is a world-wide conspiracy of “transphobia” and that all attempts to have children’s books deemed pornographic are simply attempts at transphobic intimidation?

Just this month, a school board library head, Shane Stagg, was captured on video arguing “we must challenge that gender is rooted in biology.”

When all the library workers are woke, will they continue to feel that freedom of expression is the highest good?

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