Southern Manitoba libraries face funding threats over failed book bans


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Calls from a small group to ban several children’s books about sex and gender education and defund their southern Manitoba library system have reached a fever pitch, locals say.

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Calls from a small group to ban several children’s books about sex and gender education and defund their southern Manitoba library system have reached a fever pitch, locals say.

South Central Regional Library (which has branches in Altona, Manitou, Miami, Morden and Winkler) received a book challenge in July, seeking to remove three books from the shelves, citing “illegal and pornographic” imagery.

Topics discussed in What Makes a Baby and Sex is a Funny Word (both by Cory Silverberg and illustrated by Fiona Smyth) and It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, Gender and Sexual Health (by Robie H. Harris) include gender, sexuality and how to give consent, and are aimed at children and young adults.

In the fall, the SCRL agreed to move the latter to the young adult section but left the other two where they were.

It was hard to imagine at the time the complaint would snowball into calls to defund the branches entirely, director of library services Cathy Ching said Monday.

“They’re award-winning (books) and of value for educating, and they’ve been in our library for years, some of them, and checked out numerous times and never a complaint,” she said.

“So the fact that something as seemingly incongruous as a book challenge has become all-consuming is a bit shocking for us.”

In the time since, protests have ramped up, as speakers take to council meetings across the province to voice their stance.

A SCRL board meeting in March was forced to end early as people piled in, some carrying signage.

In Winnipeg, an executive policy committee meeting March 16 became heated and calls for decorum rang out, after a delegate who handed out material deriding some library materials as pornography included comments deemed “beyond just coded language and hate speech” by Coun. Sherri Rollins.

In Winkler, council fielded questions from residents on whether the city planned to pull funding from the library during a public budget hearing March 14.

“How does this council justify spending taxpayer dollars that they know are being used to create an unsafe environment for our community?” said Karin Banman, who had a failed run for school trustee in 2022.

“Why does council continue to fund the South Central Regional Library, which continues to purchase and distribute materials that contain child pornography and that instruct on sexual touching for minors?”

The resulting discourse has seeped into interactions between residents and library workers at some branches, Ching said, leaving southern Manitoba library workers “spooked.”

“It’s the constant wondering what the comment is going to be or when you pick up the phone, if it’s just going to be somebody having a rant about that we are promoting pornography and child grooming, and we’re all pedophiles,” she said.

“Face-to-face, you can possibly engage in a conversation, but when it’s the the ones that hide behind the anonymity, that is hard.”

Winkler Mayor Henry Siemens sent a letter to the SCRL on behalf of council March 20, expressing concern over “graphic sexual act depictions and descriptions contained in some children’s books in the library.”

It requested SCRL review its policies around how it places books in the library, but emphasized council was not attempting to censor or remove books.

“We recognize that in any good library system, that there needs to be materials for everyone, and that any one group being offended by what’s there certainly doesn’t change the need for the fact that others may find those books valuable to have,” the mayor said.

“So from our end, it makes no sense at all for us to get involved in that other than from good governance point of view in terms of where we spend our monies.”

Ching said the SCRL has reviewed its collection development policy three times since July.

“For the councils to ask us to review a policy that has been well-reviewed and looked at by the director from the Centre for Free Expression, (who) said it’s a very well-written policy, it just seems like — what else do you want us to do?” she said.

“We can’t do anything more to the policy because it’s for all. We’ve been asked, ‘Well, maybe you can move them to a different location.’ So, what location? A back room?”

While similar calls to ban books make headlines in the U.S., the Manitoba Library Association is watching the local discussion closely, advocacy director Richard Bee said.

“To the degree that South Central Regional Library is facing, this is, I think, new for Manitoba,” he said.

While there have always been channels for residents to discuss what books should be in their local library and where, Bee called using the system to push personal beliefs “concerning.”

“What’s happening now seems to be not so much related to the actual materials themselves as it is an enforcement of this group’s own personal beliefs and ideals onto their community,” he said.

“Because the challenges have been made, the processes have been reviewed through the library system, but this group is still continuing to push to have these materials removed further for their own ends, basically.”

Ching pointed to literature distributed by Action 4 Canada, a B.C.-based activist group that rallies against topics ranging from climate change to “critical race theory” as being behind the booklet many in southern Manitoba are using as a guide.

The 36-page document, which is filed under “political LGBTQ activism” on the group’s website, lists books it accuses of sexually explicit or pornographic. Several of the books southern Manitoba protesters are calling for the SCRL to remove are included in the document.

“You can find the exact pictures that they are putting in their pamphlets and presenting to councils on that site that are in the books,” she said. “But obviously, there’s not any follow up to the pictures… it’s pre-packaged.”

Ching said the SCRL will continue to stand its ground on the decision to keep the books as they are, but added the group is a loud, small minority — out of the 45,000 people the SCRL serves across its branches, 34,000 have a library card.

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Malak Abas

Malak Abas

Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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