A public library north of Toronto is refusing to display an exhibition by a local artist unless it excludes pictures and statements protesting elected officials Doug Ford and Donald Trump.
Photographer and poet Yafang Shi is the creator of Fire II, an exhibition of photographs documenting women’s rights marches over several years, set to be displayed on a gallery wall at the Aurora Public Library from March 6 to April 15.
The exhibition was meant to coincide with International Women’s Day, but the library now says it won’t display her work unless she removes three photos and heavily edits her artist statement.
“I put my heart into this expression to prepare it for my community to see, so it was heartbreaking,” Shi said of the library’s decision, adding the library has typically been very supportive of her work.
Shi says the library took issue with a picture of a protester holding a sign saying “Stop Ford!,” a picture of a sign reading “Ford erodes freedoms,” and a picture of a protestor with a sign that includes a sketch of male genitalia.
The library also asked Shi to adjust her artist statement to exclude any language mentioning Donald Trump as well as the statements “Without gender equity, freedom is empty” and “Only when the world is feminist does it become equitable, just, violent-free and peaceful.”
Lawyer calls move breach of freedom of expression
In an email to CBC Toronto, the library said that because it is a publicly-funded institution, “We do not participate in partisan politics. This is why the reference to specific politicians cannot be included.”
Martha Jackman, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa, says the move is a clear breach of Shi ‘s constitutional rights.
“There is absolutely no question that the library is violating Ms. Shi’s freedom of expression, guaranteed under Section 2(b) of the Charter,” said Jackman, who focuses on constitutional law in Canada.
Jackman says the library’s position is ironic because governments in Canada are bound by the Charter, and given its public funding, the library would be perceived as a government entity.
“It’s a publicly-funded, public institution, and so the Charter applies to absolutely every decision that it makes,” said Jackman.
The library told Shi on March 6 said she could not include “direct political commentary on a sitting politician.”
Shi says that’s confusing, as other collages in the exhibition are extremely critical of governments, including regimes in both Iran and China — both the subject of historic recent protests.
“The library said you can include that part, but cannot include the protest about workers’ rights here or abortion rights here. It doesn’t make sense at all,” said Shi.
Last summer, hundreds protested outside U.S. consulates in various Canadian cities after Roe v. Wade was overturned in the U.S. Later that year, thousands demonstrated in front of Queen’s Park after the Ontario government imposed contracts on 55,000 CUPE members and banned education workers from striking.
Shi’s exhibition included images of both.
‘Where is basic democracy?’ artist asks
The library also pointed CBC Toronto to a policy that states it “retains the right to determine the suitability of any proposed exhibit on its premises and reserves the right to accept or refuse a display, or to change, cancel or remove a display at any time, at its discretion.”
But Jackman isn’t convinced, saying just because a policy is in place does not make it Charter-proof.
Jackman says if the Town of Aurora doesn’t intervene, the provincial government should fix the problem.
The Town of Aurora declined to comment on the matter, saying Aurora Public Library is an independent and non-profit organization.
“In an ideal world where our constitutional democracy is functioning properly, Premier Ford should be telling Aurora to tell the library to stop violating Ms. Shi’s freedom of expression,” said Jackman.
CBC News Toronto reached out to the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, which is responsible for administering the Public Libraries Act and developing provincial policies for public libraries. The ministry did not respond.
Shi suggested including a disclaimer saying she is solely responsible for the work, but says the library refused. That’s despite their public art policy stating, “An exhibit does not imply an endorsement by the Aurora Public Library Board or its staff.”
Shi has so far not agreed to the library’s censored version of her work, saying feminism means paying attention to women protesting all around the world, including in Canada.
“If the premiers and governments can’t be criticized for their policies, where is the basic democracy?” Shi wrote in a March 6 email to the library.
Shi also says she asked the library before including photos of the March 4 protest. In an email seen by CBC News, the library told her, “It’s up to you re: what you are submitting.”
Artist could file Charter claim, lawyer says
Jackman says Shi could file a Charter claim against the library, but the funding for such processes is very limited, leaving many to rely on pro bono work or appeal to civil liberties organizations.
She says there was a similar case in the run-up to B.C.’s provincial election in 2005, when British Columbia Transit — also a publicly-funded institution — refused to carry political ads critical of the province’s then-government on the outside of its buses.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously in 2009 in favour of the Canadian Federation of Students and the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, two groups responsible for the bus ads.
Shi says the library’s position surprised her as they have run past programs and exhibitions supportive of women’s rights.
Nevertheless, she wants the library to have clear policies in place that allow for freedom of expression, even when the expressions are critical of government.
“I told them it’s not just about my particular expression,” Shi said. “It’s about policies and the principles.”
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by PostX News and is published from a syndicated feed.)