Sunday, April 20, 2008

Unfinished business

A big shout out to some courageous Canadians today, the owners of Little Sisters bookstore in Vancouver who have spent the better part of twenty years standing up for freedom of expression in Canada. They have put their store up for sale. Read the report and give your head a shake. Their store has been subjected to countless abuses, principally the seizure of books they were importing by Canada Customs. They have been bombed, twice. A restaurant below the store was bombed. A film made about the store and sought to be shown in Vancouver in 2002 was singled out and held up by the government from showing until protest overrode what appeared to be a capricious decision. And if you think that a gay bookstore importing books would be something that wouldn't be a problem in Canada in this day and age anymore, not so much:
The store emerged from the obscurity of a downtown Vancouver back street to national prominence in 1985 when Customs officers began seizing books.

In 2000, the Supreme Court of Canada finally ruled in the store's favour. From then on, Customs would have to justify its actions.

But in 2004, the store again alleged Customs had violated that ruling with new seizures.

This time, though, the money to fight the government was becoming scarce.

Customs appealed a June 2004 decision by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Bennett that the government pay advanced costs for the store's fight against the seizures.

Bennett ruled the "issue transcends the interests of Little Sisters and touches all book importers, both commercial and private."

Her decision was rejected by the B.C. Court of Appeal and this time, Little Sister's lost at the high court.

In January 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada denied the store's appeal and Bennett's order for advanced funding.
And in Stephen Harper's Canada, where the Court Challenges program has been axed by the Conservatives and which provided funding for Charter litigants to challenge the government - an incredibly costly endeavour that the majority of Canadians do not have the resources to do - well, the days of the Little Sisters of the world challenging such seizures may be coming to an end. Conservatives believe that only those who can afford to go to court should be able to do so. Note what the Supreme Court said in its 2007 opinion where it rejected the government funding of the bookstore's costs:
But even as they rejected advance costs for the store, the top court justices acknowledged the fight Little Sister's has spearheaded.

"Given that 70 per cent of Customs detentions are of gay and lesbian material, there is unfinished business of high public importance left over from Little Sisters No. 1," they wrote.

"Systemic discrimination by Customs officials and unlawful interference with free expression were clearly established in the earlier case and numerous Charter violations and systemic problems in the administration of Customs legislation were found."
Deva has praise for the justices who he says took the cases seriously, but he warns the cost of free speech is high when you're fighting the government.

"Throwing that light on this very sort of insidious and backroom kind of activity is very, very important," he says. "In the future, my concern would be is no one would be willing to take on and do what we did because of the mounting costs.

"It is very important work and I think it is important for all Canadians."
Canadians owe these little store owners, who demonstrated that one person can make a difference, a big debt of gratitude.