Celebrating Freedom to Read Week: Censorship in Canadian Poetry and Fiction

To celebrate Freedom to Read Week, we highlight censorship and dissident voices in Canadian poetry and fiction, sharing a few of Talon’s contributions to intellectual freedom.


Stephen Collis

In the fall of 2014, Vancouver poet Stephen Collis was served a $5.6 million dollar lawsuit for protesting and defending Burnaby Mountain against the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain oil pipeline. The Kinder Morgan lawyer used Collis’s poem as evidence against him.

Lynne Quarmby and Collis received the Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy. As part of the lecture, Steve said:

For me personally, one of the most instructive, and chilling, moments was having my writing read aloud in the BC Supreme Court, by Kinder Morgan’s lawyers, accusing me of conspiring against their company. “Underneath the poetry,” the lawyer said of a blog I had written (and I quote), “is a description of how the barricade was made”—thereby unintentionally echoing the famous Situationist slogan: sous la plave, la plage (under the paving stones, the beach). It was a good day for poetry—it mattered enough to be cited in court—even if it was a bad day for this one poet.


In a poem, we can say public things we otherwise do not have the opportunity or occasion (or perhaps even freedom) to say, and we can address situations, individuals, the body politic and even abstract entities in ways that would not otherwise make sense. And yet, this imaginary by which we speak to that which it is often impossible to speak is a crucial political imaginary too. Democracy, I would argue, is nothing less than a mechanism to allow impossible speech: the collective speech of and between communities, the speech of and to large and abstract forces that affect us all in the broadest, and therefore sometimes decidedly intangible, ways. Such speech is absolutely necessary to our social wellbeing, and while “publicness” seems to be something which has been steadily eroded over the past three or four neoliberal and austerity-filled decades, poetry and other literary arts remain a place where the voice of honest indignation (as William Blake called it) is kept alive.

Read the rest of Collis’s lecture on his blog.

This fall, Talon will publish Once in Blockadia, Stephen Collis’s fifth collection of poems.

More Canadian poetry that has previously been challenged:

  • In 1987, Canadian Poetry: The Modern Era, an anthology edited by John Newlove was challenged for inclusion in high school curricula due to “anti-establishment attitudes.”
  • In 1994, New American and Canadian Poetry, an anthology edited by John Gill was also challenged for anti-establishment attitudes and the “presentation of sex and four-letter words in a positive light.” It was removed from a high school in Sechelt, BC, replaced after review for inclusion, and then stolen.


Jane Rule

In 1964, after 22 rejections from publishers, Jane Rule’s Desert of the Heart was finally published. It was adapted for film in 1985 as Desert Hearts. One would think Rule’s work was ready to receive acceptance from many communities, but in 1990 her novel, The Young in One Another’s Arms (first published in 1977) was temporarily seized at customs en route from the States to the Glad Day Bookshop in Toronto. Rule’s novels are now lesbian classics, and were groundbreaking for their depictions of lesbian love, questioning of heteronormativity, and criticism of societal convention.

In the context of routine seizures of books destined for LGBTQ bookstores, and the explosion of a bomb in the front stairwell of Little Sister’s Bookstore in 1992, Rule spoke about censorship and government policy in the documentary, Fiction and Other Truths.

In 2011, Talon published Taking my Life, Jane Rule’s autobiography.

#FTRWeek: events of interest

  • CBC unveiled Secure Drop, “a web-based system that allows whistleblowers to confidentially reach CBC journalists.”
  • In April, Simon Fraser University will host “Edward Snowden: Big Data, Security, and Human Rights,” bringing Snowden to speak via webcast to an audience at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Acknowledgments to FreedomtoRead.ca’s list of Challenged Works.