Toronto library defends allowing controversial memorial service to go ahead

Toronto's city librarian says her department did its due diligence and sought legal advice before deciding to allow a memorial service for a lawyer of Holocaust deniers and white supremacists to proceed.

City librarian says decision to allow memorial organized by white nationalists was difficult

A memorial for Barbara Kulaszka, seen here in 1990, was held Wednesday night at an Etobicoke library branch. (CBC)

Toronto's city librarian says her department did its due diligence and sought legal advice before deciding to allow a memorial service for a lawyer of Holocaust deniers and white supremacists to proceed. 

"We felt it was important to us to allow it," said Vickery Bowles, who told Matt Galloway on CBC Radio's Metro Morning that she and her staff understood the concern.
City librarian Vickery Bowles says a staff member was on hand at the controversial memorial to ensure there would be no hate speech. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)

Bowles said they felt they couldn't deny library access to people based on views and opinions expressed by individuals in the past.

"It not only contravenes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the principles of intellectual freedom, but it's also the cornerstone of the library's mission and values," she said.
The staff member was instructed to shut the event down and call police if there was any hate speech. (CBC)

The memorial service for Barbara Kulaszka, of Brighton, Ont., was held at an Etobicoke library branch on Wednesday night.

The librarian turned lawyer, represented a roster of Holocaust-deniers, including Ernst Zundel and Marc Lemire, leader of the Heritage Front — a white supremacist group.

Bowles said staff met with the organizers before the event to reiterate what their expectations were — that there would be no hate speech. 

About 20 to 25 people attended the event and one library staff member, who Bowles said was instructed to call police and shut it down if there was any hate speech. 

'They failed their regular patrons,' union says

The president of the Toronto Public Library Workers Union, Maureen O'Reilly, considers Bowles's decision an insult to the public. 

"They failed their regular patrons," she said. 

As a librarian herself she says she understands the principles of intellectual freedoms but, "In situations like this we need to look back at how it affects our community of users." 

Local councillor John Campbell is also disappointed the library gave its stamp of approval. 

"There's a fine line between freedom of speech and hate speech," he said.

Bowles said she and her staff did not take the path of least resistance and said Thursday that it would have been easier to cancel the event.

But she didn't, it went on as planned.

"We preserve our democratic society by making it available to people with a wide range of ideas and viewpoints including those which some consider unacceptable," she said, rejecting what one of her critics, Warren Kinsella, accusing the library of providing a platform for Neo-Nazis.

"This was a memorial service. If this had been a white supremacist rally we wouldn't have allowed it," said Bowles. 

Backlash considered 'un-Canadian'

Paul Fromm says that the attendees, as taxpaying citizens who paid for the room, had every right to be there. (CBC)

Paul Fromm, the organizer of the event is a self-proclaimed white nationalist and described Kulaszka as a vigorous defender of "free speechers," — a label embraced by alt-right extremists.

He considers the online backlash a crusade on free speech.

"I'm rather disappointed that a small group of people made such an issue about what's a memorial," he said.

"Somebody has died and people wanted to honour the person who has died. It seems almost un-Canadian to want to shut it down."

Library to review event booking policies 

O'Reilly said having a memorial is fine, but some attendees' past and current views could have been controversial enough to legally deny the event from happening at the application process. 

"The organizers have a very long and public record of their activities," she said. "And in the policy, they have to be respective of the principles and culture of a Toronto public library."

Mayor John Tory said he will ask the Toronto Public Library to review its room rental policies in the wake of what happened. 

Bowles said she welcomes that idea. 

"I respect what the mayor has suggested and his opinion on the situation and we will be doing a review of our own policies, and the contracts that people have to sign," she said. 

With files from Alexandra Sienkiewicz and Metro Morning