British Columbia

25 years ago, this LGBT landmark in Vancouver took on 'big brother' and won

It's been 25 years since Little Sister's began a years-long court battle that ended in a landmark decision against the Canadian Border Services Agency. 

Civil rights association says Little Sister's fight against CBSA represents 'fight against government censors'

Little Sister's Book and Art Emporium was co-founded by Jim Deva and Bruce Smyth in 1983. (Exploding Boy/Wikipedia)

A bookstore at the heart of Vancouver's gay community is marking a milestone this month — it's been 25 years since the beginning of a years-long court battle that ended in a landmark decision against the Canada Border Services Agency. 

Little Sister's Book & Art Emporium has been serving the LGBTQ community on Davie Street since 1983. The store sells erotic, instructional and self-help books, as well as gifts and sex toys. 

A few years after it opened, its owners Jim Deva and Bruce Smythe began to notice irregularities with their shipments, most of which came from the U.S.

Don Wilson, the store's current owner and a long-time supplier at the time, says many books never made it, others had pages ripped out and some shipments were held indefinitely at the border.

Little Sister's Bookstore and Art Emporium first opened in 1983. Don Wilson took it over in 2011. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Meanwhile, other bookstores with some of the same literature had their shipments come through. 

"It would seem like they were being pinpointed because it was LGBTQ-related," Wilson said. "It was sort of like, OK, big brother is trying to knock everybody down." 

Charter challenge

Eventually, Deva and Smythe decided they'd had enough.

Little Sister's, along with co-plaintiffs the B.C. Civil Liberties Association filed a constitutional challenge against the CBSA alleging that it was violating the store's freedom of expression rights.

It took four years until the store made it to B.C. Supreme Court. 

Here's a CBC News story from that time in October 1994:

A store that serves the gay community in Vancouver finally got its day in court. 2:08

The judge ruled that the CBSA did wrongly destroy the store's materials. However, the judge said that was justified under Section 1 of the Charter, which guarantees rights and freedoms within "reasonable limits prescribed by law." 

The B.C. Court of Appeal later upheld that decision. It wasn't until the store went to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2000 that a judge finally agreed the CBSA had unjustifiably discriminated against Little Sister's. 

"It meant really that, OK you can't take down the little guy," Wilson said.  

Fight against censorship

Megan Tweedie, a staff lawyer with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which represented the store through all those years, says the case still resonates today. 

"Little Sister's really represents a fight against government censorship and homophobia," Tweedie said. 

 

Little Sister's Bookstore and Art Emporium on Davie Street sells books, sex toys and gifts aimed at Vancouver's LGBTQ community. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

The court also struck down a provision that left it up to importers to prove the materials were not obscene. Because of the case, the onus is now on customs officials to prove that they are. 

Today, store owner Wilson says Little Sister's remains a mainstay of the LGBTQ community. The store and its contents are no longer as controversial as they once were, but Wilson says the business is still going strong. 

"I think it will be here long term," he said.

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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