Southern Manitoba libraries battle defunding attempts over sex-ed content in children's books
Community member says requests 'not a censorship issue,' argues books constitute pornography
It's been a long year at the South Central Regional Library.
A push that began last summer to remove a few children's sexual education books from the southern Manitoba library system has since bubbled up into accusations its staff are pedophiles, as well as a campaign to defund the library — leaving some of its exhausted librarians considering quitting, the library's director says.
"The far-reaching effects [are] not that visible to the public — you know, we still function and we still open doors," said Cathy Ching, who heads South Central Regional Library, a network of five libraries in southern Manitoba communities.
"My staff are tired, my council members are tired. Staff sometimes don't know who's going to walk in the door and give them a hard time."
Last fall, the library ruled it would not pull three kids' books from its shelves following complaints they were explicit and encouraged children to engage in sexual activity.
One of those books — It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, Gender, and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley — was moved to the young adult section. The other two — What Makes a Baby and Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth — stayed put.
But it didn't stop there, Ching said. Librarians started hearing about how they were "promoting pornography," and that "we as staff were child sexual groomers and pedophiles." A March library board meeting was forced to end early when people showed up with signs, she said.
Delegations also started presenting at council meetings across the seven municipalities that fund the library's branches in Altona, Manitou, Miami, Morden and Winkler, requesting they withhold that funding until the library reviews its policies around children's books containing what presenters described as sexually explicit materials and child pornography.
Ching said the library has already reviewed its policies — and there's no need for changes.
In some communities, council agreed.
The Town of Altona rejected the delegation's request, saying council was confident the library took the initial book challenges seriously. The Municipality of Pembina, which includes the community of Manitou, also declined to defund the library, citing its value for residents.
'Bombard' councils on issue: delegation member
But in the city of Winkler, Mayor Henry Siemens asked the library's board in a letter to adjust its policies to reconsider how books "that deal with issues around children and sex" are displayed, after council members became "alarmed at the graphic sexual act depictions and descriptions" in some of them.
The March 20 letter requested a response by later this month.
Siemens said council has no plans to consider defunding the library, which he called a valuable resource — but he wants a respectful dialogue that considers everyone's perspective.
"I'm not 100 per cent certain that we're necessarily looking to make everyone happy. In a perfect world that would be the case, but rarely is the world perfect," he said.
"I think the biggest piece would be, should [these books] be somewhere else in the library, potentially?"
Christine Ronceray, a mother of five who was part of the delegations presenting on the topic in communities including Winkler and Winnipeg, said her concern stems from her view that content in the books violates sections of the Criminal Code on obscene materials and invitation to sexual touching involving minors.
"This is not a censorship issue. This is having books that align with the Criminal Code of Canada," said Ronceray, a former school board trustee in the Swan Lake-area Prairie Spirit School Division, which includes the community of Manitou.
"This is about showing pornography to children, so I'm not taking the right away from anybody to read books, but I am upholding the laws."
She also took issue with two other books in the library's collection.
One was All Boys Aren't Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson, a coming-of-age story about a queer Black person.
The other was Let's Talk About It: The Teen's Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan, a graphic novel with sketches that include depictions of genitals, intercourse and masturbation.
Ronceray said she wants a change in library policy that would see those kinds of books removed from the shelves.
On a recent appearance on a podcast that describes itself as "plandemic-sponsored" and says it highlights guests who "take an unpopular stand and aren't afraid to take radical responsibility," Ronceray encouraged people to call their libraries and "bombard" their municipal councils with messages about library content.
"You can give them an email every day. You can send them a phone call every day," she told the host.
"Bombard — they need to hear this. We need to apply the pressure. Once it gets onto the agenda, then we can speak to it."
Ching said the titles in question are widely published, award-winning books. And while it would "make life easier for all of us" to meet the demands to remove them, it's out of the question, she said.
"As a public library, our obligation to our community and our patrons is to provide something for everyone," said Ching.
"This is what we struggle with. Because if you take away these books or any books that a group targets — [that] they say are wrong or illegal or pornographic or whatever they want to call it — they're taking someone else's right to access away."
'Appalling' logic: library group
At their core, the challenges at the South Central Regional Library are about a much bigger issue: intellectual freedom, or the right to access information from different perspectives without being restricted, said Melanie Sucha, president of the Manitoba Library Association, which advocates for libraries in the province.
She disputes the argument the availability of some challenged books violates a parent's right to choose what a child reads.
"We find that appalling," she said, calling it an "inconsistent position" that suggests "these people are not truly interested in their own exercise of freedoms, but are perhaps more so interested in taking freedoms away from others."
The effects of these kinds of challenges go beyond whether a certain book is on the shelf — because libraries themselves aren't only about books, Sucha said.
They're also spaces where people can access things like computers and community programming they might not otherwise get.
"That is very much the core of library work," she said. "When a library worker is pulled into constant and repeated challenge and having to defend decisions over and over again, it detracts from that core mission."
Issue extends beyond Manitoba
While it's still not clear whether other Manitoba libraries will see similar challenges, the library association has started developing tools to help libraries navigate those types of issues — whether they're large branches with lots of staff, or small rural ones with only a few people.
"In Manitoba, there are so many library systems that are … quite small. They might have catchment areas of, you know, less than 1,000 people," said Richard Bee, the association's advocacy director.
"You have a lot of other factors that come into play aside from just ... the core principles of intellectual freedom" when the debate happens in a small community where everyone knows each other, he said.
"How do I talk to them in such a way that I don't ostracize myself from the community, almost?"
James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University, said Manitoba isn't the only province dealing with these issues.
There have been similar library challenges in New Brunswick, and branches in parts of B.C. and Ontario have started getting letters from people threatening prosecution for obscenity and child pornography over certain books on their shelves, he said.
In a more extreme case, RCMP were contacted about allegations that books in school libraries in Chilliwack, B.C., contained child pornography earlier this year. Police said "while the material may be deemed inappropriate or concerning to some people, it does not constitute child pornography."
Heated battles over efforts to restrict books in the U.S. are likely part of what's driving similar challenges across Canada, Turk said.
In response, the centre has developed intellectual freedom courses for libraries and profiles on challenged books. It has also started tracking library challenges in an online database — allowing everyone from librarians to researchers to the public to see how they differ across communities and over time.
'Come and talk to us'
Ching said she's not sure what will happen next for her library system in southern Manitoba, but she plans to stand her ground on its decision.
"Everything was handled appropriately. Our policies are legitimate, our books are legal, and yet we are forced to defend ourselves over and over again," she said.
While the situation has been stressful, Ching said there have also been bright spots — like the support they've had from community members, and the fact the library's circulation and new membership numbers continue to grow.
"We have had a lot of people come in and say, 'Show me these books.' And then when they see them, they're like, 'Oh, that's what it is?'" she said.
"All we want people to do is be open-minded, come and talk to us. That's what we do, is share information."