Nova Scotia

Pride breaks with Halifax libraries after controversial book kept on shelves

Halifax Public Library's decision to keep a controversial book on its shelves, containing what advocates call transphobic misinformation and hate speech, has led to local backlash and a break with Halifax Pride.

'This book is definitely debating the existence of trans people': Halifax Pride

Halifax Public Library says it will not 'censor' Shrier's book from its collection. (Vernon Ramesar/CBC)

Halifax Public Library's decision to keep a controversial book on its shelves, containing what advocates call transphobic misinformation and hate speech, has led to local backlash and a break with Halifax Pride.

A community petition was launched last month to remove Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters by Abigail Shrier from library shelves. 

But on Thursday, Halifax Public Library released a statement saying it has decided to "not censor" the book and keep it in circulation.

In light of this, Halifax Pride announced Friday they were ending their partnership with the organization. They had also urged the library to remove the book and review its collection development policy that guides which books are brought into the library's collection.

This separation means there will be no library events planned for the 2021 festival. Halifax Pride says it will refrain from booking library spaces until this issue is addressed with some combination of internal review, policy change and training.

Amazon and the Ottawa Public Library are also keeping the book despite recent calls for it to be removed.

Chris Cochrane, vice-chair of Pride’s board of directors, says they are calling for Halifax libraries to change their collection policy. (Halifax Pride/Chris Cochrane)

Chris Cochrane, vice-chair of Pride's board of directors and transgender and non-binary committee lead, said this was not a step the group took lightly.

"(As a) trans person, I'm not going to debate my existence, and this book is definitely debating the existence of trans people," Cochrane said Saturday.

In a perfect world, Cochrane said Pride would like to see the book removed. But if that can't happen, they are hopeful acquisition policies could still be changed.

"Until they do so, then we're going to have to stay where we're staying," Cochrane said.

At least one author, Tom Ryan, has said he will cancel his upcoming library-sponsored presentation out of concern for the LGBTQ teens he writes about.

Mila McKay started the petition — which had more than 1,100 signatures as of Sunday — to pull the "transphobic" book in April after noticing 25 people had placed a hold on two copies.

She said her immediate reaction was fear for the children and youth who might be around the people who read it, so she began conversations with Halifax Public Library management about how she felt the book was a safety issue.

"The impact of this book on, like, even one kid is potentially their life," McKay said Saturday. "This is to me, it's like a canary in the coal mine. I'm really nervous about what the requesting of this book means for the larger discourse and sort of attitude that is ... growing in Halifax."

Mila McKay started a petition to have Halifax Public Libraries pull 'Irreversible Damage' from their shelves, but this week the library has said the book will stay. (Mila McKay)

Transgender Canadians are already more likely to report they have experienced violence since age 15, and more likely to have seriously contemplated suicide in their lifetimes. They were also more likely than Canadians who aren't transgender to have been diagnosed with a mood or anxiety disorder.

That's according to a Statistics Canada study conducted in 2018, released in a report by the Canadian Centre for Justice and Community Safety Statistics last September.

During talks with the library, McKay said that she was told one of the reasons the book was brought into the collection was based on the integrity and reputation Shrier has as a journalist.

The library said they decided to keep the book after assessing it against their collection policy and the Canadian Federation of Library Associations' statement on intellectual freedom.

"Public libraries exist to provide equal access to resources for everyone and support individuals' freedom to seek information and form their own opinions. When we act to suppress access, we engage in censorship," the statement said.

The library said they are working to identify additional resources and new ways to promote "the most recent and relevant trans-affirming works in our collection," and work to provide space and build connections to support the transgender community.

"We can work together, collaboratively, to elevate trans voices, and create more compassion and understanding for marginalized experiences. We know our conversations will continue," the library said in its statement.

Halifax Public Library declined an interview request Saturday.

Professor Jacqueline Gahagan of Dalhousie University in Halifax says Shrier's book should be held up as an example of misinformation and criticized, but not taken out of library collections. (Brian Mackay/CBC)

Jacquie Gahagan, a professor of health promotion with Dalhousie University in Halifax — whose research includes LGBTQ health and gender — sees the book as harmful "junk science" that should be openly discussed, but not pulled from the library.

"I don't know that taking the book out of the collection is necessarily going to resolve the bigger problem, which is transphobia and trans hatred," they said.

Instead, Gahagan said this could be an opportunity for the library or others to host conversations about why the book is harmful, and keep the conversation going in an accessible space.

"I completely appreciate how devastating it is to have books such as this in public spaces. But taking it out of that public space just means that conversation is happening someplace else," Gahagan said.

Recent clashes between libraries, community

Other cities have seen similar divides between the public and libraries.

The Vancouver Public Library was barred from Vancouver's Pride Parade in 2019 after hosting a talk at the central branch from controversial writer Meghan Murphy.

In Toronto, a group of writers, Mayor John Tory and other politicians voiced their disappointment in the Toronto Public Library for hosting Murphy in 2019, while Toronto Pride said there would be "consequences" to their relationship with the library.