The Customs Hurdle

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that everyone has  “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.” However, this does not extend to material that is criminally obscene. The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA)  has a mandate to “prevent obscene material from being imported into Canada.”  The courts have ruled that prohibiting books and movies from entering the country is a justifiable infringement of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. There are conditions, including the requirements that heterosexual and homosexual material must be treated equally and review of material must be completed within 30 days. Full details of how obscenity is determined are available in CBSA Memorandum D9-1-1.

CBSA also publishes a quarterly list of items reviewed as possible obscene material or hate literature, and whether the items were admitted or prohibited. You can obtain the lists by email. Please note that some of the titles listed may be considered disturbing.

Unlike the review boards, the CBSA does not appear to maintain ongoing records of films reviewed. As a result, it is not unusual to see older titles turn up on the list, or for titles to turn up repeatedly. Occasionally films that have already been rated for distribution turn up on the review list. For example, the 1980 porn hit Taboo and its sequels repeatedly turn up as prohibited films, however they have been classified, i.e. accepted, by the Ontario Film Review Board. The list also illustrates the fine line that exists between legal and illegal material: sometimes some films in a series are admitted, while others are prohibited.

The inconsistencies are a source of concern, as is the inclusion of books and comic books. On the other hand, free speech has limits. By publishing the standards, and the material reviewed, the CBSA is being as transparent as possible while maintaining its requirement to keep illegal material out other country. Whether all of that material should be illegal is another matter.

By trc

Freelance writer, freelance editor, web consultant, and film studies scholar.

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