“I spent four years of my time, partly because I was drafted, but also because [we] felt that for once we were involved in a just war,” he testified. “We were attacking the very people who burn books and destroy books, either in public or in secret, and I have been opposed to that ever since.”- Pierre Berton
I had forgotten Mr. Berton's appearance before the Supreme Court on behalf of Little Sisters some six years ago. I was reminded by an article in Xtra! West recently. Berton's appearance was another opportunity for him to speak up against censorship and he did not disappoint.
Many Canadians know Pierre Berton from Front Page Challenge and his biggest book, The National Dream (CBC made it into a mini series). In all Berton wrote in excess of 50 books during his life. Mr. Berton passed away at the age of 80 earlier this year.
Little Sisters Book & Art Emporium
From Xtra! West
The morning after the taping of Front Page Challenge, Little Sister’s lawyer Joe Arvay introduced the day’s first witness with unusual fanfare.
“My lord, I thought it might be appropriate to have the next witness testify behind a screen,” said Arvay, “and give your lordship twenty questions to guess his identity. But then I thought maybe it wouldn’t be appropriate. So my next witness, without any concealment, is Pierre Berton.”
At 74 years, a robust six-foot-three, with trademark bow tie and white hair, Pierre Berton reeks of Canadiana. After almost 40 years on network TV, Berton’s face was deeply embedded in the mainstream consciousness; he was also a prolific print journalist. But it was Berton’s literary accomplishments that formed the bedrock of his national reputation: several Governor General’s Awards for popular histories (notably, his saga of the CPR railroad, The Last Spike), plus a Stephen Leacock Medal for humour (Just Add Water).
It would be hard to imagine a personality better equipped than Pierre Berton to lend a respectable air to Little Sister’s case. While solidly liberal and urbane, he also represented an orthodoxy: that of the white, middle-class, heterosexual man. The side of Berton that emerged during his Little Sister’s testimony—perhaps less well known to his game show audience—was his strong commitment to civil liberties. For Berton, the Little Sister’s case was inescapably linked to his experience as a soldier in World War II.
“I spent four years of my time, partly because I was drafted, but also because [we] felt that for once we were involved in a just war,” he testified. “We were attacking the very people who burn books and destroy books, either in public or in secret, and I have been opposed to that ever since.”
Berton spoke effortlessly on the merits of Richard D Mohr’s Gay Ideas, published by Beacon Press in 1992 and seized by Canada Customs in April 1993. A philosophy professor at the University of Illinois, Mohn had difficulty finding a publisher for the academic text, which covered scandalous topics like civil rights and the politics of culture and identity. Gay Ideas was originally scheduled for Canadian distribution by Oxford Union Press, but they declined the book. The apparent problem? Mohr’s analysis of the erotic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, which were reproduced in the book, made Gay Ideas a likely candidate for a Customs seizure.
After exploring Gay Ideas, Arvay asked Berton to step back and consider the impact of censorship on the community.
“Well, I’m a member of a large constituency,” Berton said. “It is a constituency of people who write books and read books. We believe that books are the essence of our culture, that without a literature, a country has not only no soul, it has no reason for being … Literature … will be the basis on which we are judged as a civilized community, and we are very upset when people try to infringe upon our freedom either to write or to read.”
Please go to Xtra! West for the rest of this bit of Canadiana and significant testimony in support of another Canadian Icon, Little Sisters!