State-imposed censorship has manifested itself in many ways throughout Canadian history. Limits on speech were incorporated into the Criminal Code in relation to treason, sedition, blasphemous and defamatory libel, disruption of religious worship, hate propaganda, spreading false news, public mischief, obscenity, and indecency. In its more extreme form, censorship could be imposed through the War Measures Act and the Official Secrets Act to protect the integrity of the state. Provincial and municipal governments could also restrict gatherings, performances, exhibitions, demonstrations, public speaking, and displays of texts and pictures on billboards. Defamation laws limited a person’s ability to criticize others, and copyright laws regulated publications.
When censorship was imposed by the state, its agents could include police, customs officers, post office workers, censor boards, and public prosecutors. Police banned demonstrations, dispersed public gatherings, and arrested people on picket lines; customs officials seized films, books, and magazines at the border; the post office refused to forward obscene material; censor boards banned obscene films and regulated content; and prosecutors indicted people for speech offences. The federal customs bureau was a primary tool in the service of censorship, but no list of its proscribed titles was ever made publicly available, and thus we do not know the full scope of its banned literature. Censorship generally focused on two categories: depictions of behaviours that undermined public morals (mostly sexual material) and expressions of unpatriotic ideas. During both world wars, the state imposed severe limits on the publication of materials that could undermine the war effort, and in the early years of the Cold War, it censored institutions such as the National Film Board for perceived pro-communist sympathies.
Canada’s first, and perhaps most famous, legal case on free speech dates from 1937. In that year, the Alberta Social Credit government passed the Act to Ensure the Publication of Accurate News and Information, as part of a major legislative package to regulate the provincial economy. In effect, the law would have required newspapers to disclose their sources, name their writers, and print government-supplied “corrections” of any critical coverage. Papers that violated the law could be punished with a large fine and a ban on publishing restricted information. The Accurate News and Information Act was unquestionably the most blatant peacetime attempt to gag the press. In 1939, the Supreme Court of Canada found that the law was ultra vires (beyond) the powers of the Alberta government, ruling for the first time that provinces could not unilaterally restrict fundamental freedoms. Justice Lawrence Cannon accused the provincial government of imposing a doctrine that “must become, for the people of Alberta, a sort of religious dogma of which a free and uncontrolled discussion is not permissible.” [Alberta Press Bill, 1938] Writing one of Canada’s most cited legal decisions, Justice Lyman Duff argued that “even within its legal limits, it [public discussion] is liable to abuse and grave abuse, and such abuse is constantly exemplified before our eyes; but it is axiomatic that the practice of this right to free public discussion of public affairs, notwithstanding its incidental mischiefs, is the breath of life for parliamentary institutions.”
Such barefaced attempts to censor speech, however, have been rare in Canada. Restrictions on speech more commonly take the form of laws that regulate film and literature. In 1954, the Catholic Women’s League, women’s farm unions, and the University Women’s Club, in conjunction with the Alberta government, established an Advisory Board on Objectionable Publications. The board convinced the four main magazine wholesalers to submit to its decisions regarding the publication of unacceptable material. Within ten years, it had censored 168 magazines. In Ontario, a similar arrangement was reached between the provincial government and civic and religious organizations to form an Obscene Literature Committee in 1960 to censor published materials in the province. Distributors, who feared prosecution for carrying obscene material, welcomed the board as a way of avoiding expensive legal proceedings and submitted to its decisions; by 1964, the board had recommended the banning of 112 periodicals and 97 pocketbooks. Quebec was the only other province in Canada to possess a censor board for literature, and like its Alberta and Ontario counterparts, it was operated by private citizens who advised dealers with the support of the provincial government. Although the remaining provinces had no censor boards, informal censorship mechanisms existed there during the early 1960s. The attorneys general of Saskatchewan and New Brunswick had managed to ban twenty-eight books simply because they had been banned elsewhere. In Nova Scotia, a magazine publisher removed eighty publications following a threat by a popular gospel preacher, Perry Rockwood, to drag him to court. During the same period, Newfoundland banned twenty-three “girlie magazines” that had been seized from a drugstore, and Prince Edward Island removed eight magazines following a threat from home and school associations to take court action. At the time, only British Columbia had no plans to ban obscene books.
In 1962, the Supreme Court of Canada (Brodie, Dansky, Rubin v. The Queen) heard an appeal of a Montreal court’s decision to ban Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a novel by D.H. Lawrence. The case challenged the federal Criminal Code provisions on obscenity, and though it reached a confusing decision, with seven separate judgments, it nonetheless resulted in a partial liberalization of the contentious obscenity laws by allowing experts to testify on the merits of impugned literature.
During the 1960s, provincial film censors were far more prolific than those who dealt with literature. The degree of censorship varied considerably from province to province. By 1963, as Malcolm Dean notes in Censored! “the average serious film circulating in Canada would be classified Restricted with a few minor incisions in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. In Alberta, it would be ‘chopped to pieces’ or banned. Saskatchewan would badly cut the film. Manitoba would merely cut it. And the Maritimes would condemn it outright.” Every province sported its own film censorship board in the 1960s, although most changed the name to “classification” board. In theory, the boards concentrated on rating films, not on banning them, but in practice this approach worked equally well in keeping undesirable films out of the marketplace. In Censored! Dean writes, “Classification simply means that films deemed unacceptable must be re-submitted with further cuts until they can be approved by a provincial board. The difference between ‘classification’ and ‘censorship’ is simply that boards which classify films do not provide their own editing services for distributors.” Since film censors did most of their work in secret, they were not required to justify their decisions. Alberta’s censors insisted in 1959 on eliminating the word “floozie” from a movie titled Shadows, and they banned Marlon Brando’s 1953 classic The Wild One for being a “revolting, sadistic story of degeneration.” Alberta was the only province to ban Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein in 1974.
1847: Customs Act
1892: Criminal Code (obscenity, sections 179 and 180 – later, section 163)
1959: Amendments to the Criminal Code introduce a new definition of obscenity
1962: Brodie, Dansky, Rubin v. The Queen,  S.C.R. 681 (the Lady Chatterley’s Lover case)
1985: Luscher v. Deputy Minister, Revenue Canada, Customs and Excise,  1 F.C. 85
1992: R. v. Butler,  1 S.C.R. 452
See also Georgia Straight
Clément, Dominique. Canada’s Rights Revolution: Social Movements and Social Change, 1937-82. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008.
Dean, Malcolm. Censored! Only in Canada: The History of Film Censorship, the Scandal Off the Screen. Toronto: Virgo Press, 1981.
Petersen, Klaus, and Allan C. Hutchinson, eds. Interpreting Censorship in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
Powe, L.A. “The Georgia Straight and Freedom of Expression in Canada.” Canadian Bar Review 48, 2 (1970): 410-38.