After months of debate over the demands of a group of citizens to defund the local public library, Winkler’s municipal council has reached a decision.

At a July 11 public meeting, council voted six to one in favour of adopting a resolution which they hope will effect change on the library board and appease its strident adversaries.

Earlier this year, the Winkler group petitioned council for a defunding strategy after the library refused to remove three sex and gender education books, geared toward children. According to the group, the books’ illustrations were pornographic in nature and unfit for children.

While council hasn’t gone so far as to withdraw the city’s share of public funding from the South Central Regional Library (SCRL), they have assigned one councillor, Don Fehr, to the SCRL board. Fehr, to date, has been a vocal ally of the defunding group.

Additionally, they will select one Winkler resident to fill another opening on the SCRL board.

The resolution created by council concludes as follows: “Therefore be it resolved that the City of Winkler council instruct these appointed board members to exert influence as members of the SCRL board of directors to create policy whereby graphically sexually explicit books be moved from the children’s section to another section of the library as appropriate so that children will not stumble across them but they remain available to parents who wish to use them as an educational resource.”

Overreach of Power

Cathy Ching is the Director of Library Services for SCRL and a member of the board. Ching says that she’s not surprised by council’s move, but in her view it demonstrates a definite overreach of power.

“There’s been clamouring for something to be done and the resolution makes it look like they’re taking a harder line with us,” Ching told The Citizen. “But as a municipal council, that is not their job. Their job is to fund us and leave the running of the library to the appointed representatives.”

The SCRL board is a 15-member committee comprised of seven council members and seven citizen members from the various municipalities they represent: Morden, Winkler, Altona, Miami, Manitou, Stanley, and Rheinland. Ching is the final member.

She says there’s nothing unconventional about Winkler council’s appointment of a board member. In April of this year, the previous council board member resigned his position, leaving it open until the July 11 meeting. Around the same time, the board also lost their Winkler citizen representative, leaving a complete void in representation from Winkler.

What is unusual, she says, is for a municipal council to create a resolution regarding the SCRL which clearly is intended to affect policy. As for the council member appointed, Ching feels it was strategic.

While council has never threatened the library with defunding, they have made requests that the library review their Collection Development Policy (CDP), which determines the books the library purchases and the sections in which these books are shelved.

The three books at the centre of the group’s complaints were located in the junior non-fiction section based on the age range they are written for. One has since been moved to the young adult non-fiction section.

According to Ching, there’s nothing about their CDP in need of review, as it follows the guidelines set out by the Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA).

The sexual education books being questioned by Winkler parents are widely recognized across North America to be legitimate and award-winning resources. Their categorization, which determines where they should be located in a library, is predetermined by a professional cataloguer to make life simpler for librarians everywhere.

“What [Winkler council is] asking for, according to their resolution, is to develop a policy that the books that they feel are not inappropriate for children are moved to a different section outside of where they are intended to be,” Ching says. “That’s our concern. Moving books to where they’re not intended to be, or out of reach, is censorship and that’s something we do not support.”

Based on a statement from the CFLA, they’d be likely to agree.

“Libraries have a core responsibility to safeguard and facilitate access to constitutionally protected expressions of knowledge, imagination, ideas, and opinion, including those which some individuals and groups consider unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable,” the CFLA states. “To this end, in accordance with their mandates and professional values and standards, libraries provide, defend and promote equitable access to the widest possible variety of expressive content and resist calls for censorship and the adoption of systems that deny or restrict access to resources.”1

Ching sees another issue with council’s carefully worded resolution: the ambiguity of the phrase “graphically sexually explicit books.”

According to Ching and her staff, the sexual education books being referenced by the group use age-appropriate illustrations that they feel completely comfortable displaying in the sections where they are currently located.

“Their interpretation of ‘graphically sexually explicit’ is different than my interpretation, or someone [else’s],” Ching says. “So who’s to make the call?”

But if the SCRL were to allow Winkler council, or special interest groups, to sway policy, it would likewise affect the other branches located in Morden, Altona, Miami, and Manitou. As a regional library system, policy created for one is policy created for all.

Ching says that a couple of council members from other municipalities have approached her staff on behalf of their constituents, specifically regarding these books, but no other council so far has challenged their policies and procedures.

Since the SCRL was first formed in 1965, and for as long as sexual education books have been in publication, Ching says this is the first time anyone has challenged their existence in the SCRL libraries.

“The loudest voice is not always right,” she says. “The impression [the defunding group] have left people with is that we have libraries full of filth. The comments go around that we support pedophiles and child grooming and that’s just harsh. Especially when our library [staff are mostly] women.”

The Petitions to Defund the Library

In March, a spokesperson for the defunding group, Karin Banman, presented council with a petition signed by more than 1,700 Winkler residents. By July, another petition was put before council which included a large number of Winkler business owners.

Councillor Don Plett’s name also appeared on that petition.

According to city manager Jody Penner, the petition was for council’s consideration only and required no specific response since it was not an officially recognized document under The Municipal Act.

But the wording of the petition was clear in its expectation.

Signees to the petition were requesting that tax dollars be removed from all SCRL branches “on the basis of SCRL’s continued criminal acts of distributing materials that contain pornography… and instruct on the sexual touching of minors which contravenes the Criminal Code of Canada.”

Strong Sentiments from Council

Most of the seven council members provided an open response to their vote on July 11.

Councillor Don Fehr indicated that the last few months of council debate over the issue have been emotionally charged. He says that regretful things have been said.

“We would like to see the library grow in a positive and moral [way] in our community,” Fehr concluded.

“How did we ever get to a place where we have to discuss whether or not this material should be allowed in our library?” asked councillor Peter Froese. “How did we get to a place where these books were ever even selected to be in our libraries? Who asks for this material? The books in question should never have made it through the library doors. But now that they have, it seems they can’t or won’t be removed.”

Councillor Michael Grenier shared equally strong sentiments.

“Do I like these books that are being challenged?” Grenier asked. “Absolutely not. I feel the same way about them as I would about Mein KampfFifty Shades of Grey, the literary works of Charles Manson, and many more. But by only moving the books, we’re doing nothing more than chasing the bogeyman.”

Mayor Henry Siemens made an emotional appeal to parents everywhere to be vigilant on behalf of their children.

“We as adults… need to be aware of what our children are reading,” said Siemens. “We have a limited opportunity to exert influence into our children’s lives and it is vital that we do so… Our representatives on that board will be tasked to exert influence as they can, but they still need to be fully functioning members of that board… It is our intention to help the library be stronger tomorrow than it is today.”

These four council members, along with deputy mayor Andrew Froese and councillor Don Friesen, voted in favour of accepting the resolution as worded.

Control and Power

Councillor Marvin Plett was the only one who stood opposed.

“I am personally opposed to all forms of pornography,” Plett told council. “SCRL does not have any pornography on their shelves. Calling books pornographic does not make it so. Censuring books based on content that some find objectionable can have far-reaching and unintended implications.”

He reminded council that it is outside of their general practice to create resolutions that direct intermunicipal boards to seek specific outcomes. In his opinion, it would be better to withhold this resolution altogether lest it be perceived to some as a threat.

Ching couldn’t agree more. But even if people believed the sexual education material to be of a pornographic nature, the best way to deal with it, she says, is not to put pressure on the library but to take it to the courts for a judge to decide.

“We shouldn’t have to defend the books,” Ching says. “The South Central Library has not done anything wrong or illegal.”

Unfortunately, Ching doesn’t believe this fight is going away anytime soon. This special interest group is determined to get a win, she says, and they’ll keep going until they get it.

“With the provincial election coming, the rhetoric is going to get louder and stronger and when this election is over they’ll gear up for the federal [election],” Ching says. “Their aim is to chip away at the confidence in the municipal government. It’s not about books. It’s about control and power.”

By Brenda Sawatzky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jul 20, 2023 at 21:45

This item reprinted with permission from   The Citizen   Niverville, Manitoba
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