Undercover Censorship: Exploring the History of the Regulation of Publications in Canada

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date


Source Publication

Interpreting Censorship in Canada. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1999.


Censorship; constitutional law; Freedom of Expression; Prior Restraint


The history of the censorship of publications in Canada is, for the most part, a hidden history. Apart from relatively rare criminal prosecutions, and in contrast to the regulation of film, video, radio and television by provincial and federal administrative bodies, there has been little in the way of visible, public regulation of publications. This paper begins the process of shedding some light on a few of the institutional mechanisms through which censorship of publications has been carried out in Canadian history. Another is to argue that the topic of censorship is best conceptualized broadly, as the exercise of power in relation to the creation or dissemination of knowledge. We should evaluate the exercise of power in relation to publications by asking who is exercising power, over what expressive materials, according to what criteria and procedures, for what purposes, and in whose interests. When we do, the problems with how the regulation of publications has been carried out in Canada become apparent. Power over publications has been exercised by persons with questionable authority, training or expertise, according to procedures that are largely hidden and unaccountable, by deploying criteria that are vague and indeterminate if specified at all, usually for the purpose of forestalling perceived challenges to the existing moral or political order. Ironically, these weaknesses are largely a product of the difficulties in liberal democratic theory and practice of regulating the content of publications openly. Where political pressure is exerted towards suppression, concerns about censorship, and a lack of consensus about its appropriate mechanisms and forms, have led the state away from criminalization, and, ironically, towards less visible, less accountable forms of regulation. The result is that too many Canadians have been either uninformed or complacent: so long as the exercise of power over publications has been invisible, there has been nothing to worry about.

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