Chirp…Chirp. Listening for the Northern Mockingbird

Disclaimer. With a new book in the offing, for some time I’m going to be blogging about educational media censorship. The first book was NO SCHOOL FOR SUCKERS: Textbooks, Political Censorship and Mind Control in a Democracy, in 2014.

Now it’s eight years later and the new book is Canadian Mockingbird: Textbook Censorship and Scandal in the Great White North. There’s a manuscript in  a safe place. But the printing is not quite ready to go. My thorough editor Eric Mills and I have completed the first round edit. Still there’s a second round edit. Authorities are reviewing the text as well.

When that’s done, all that will be left is platforming and promotion. I’m going to discuss the publisher another day and instead begin describing why you’d want to read Canadian Mockingbird anyway. Why read Jeremy’s book? Why read at all?

To recall Ontario’s Ministry of Education practiced secret censorship of its submitted textbooks, in contravention of Canada’s domestic and international agreements, including the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, then Canada’s 1960 Bill of Rights and its 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

If you once attended either public, separate, residential or reserve day school in Ontario, and to a less extent English Canada, this story is about you. In part. Quebec’s treatment as a suppressed subject is topical. What’s being discussed are the textbooks you could have used at school but more commonly weren’t allowed to read. What textbooks were withheld after panel choice? What was suppressed?

To recall here’s a list of censored titles I have so far promoted on Art & Commodity and on Twitter. But this is just a snapshot of a larger problem.

Unacknowledged Censorship

Following majority recommendation by panels of subject experts, Ontario’s public school textbooks were censored in a regular and ongoing fashion. They were quietly and deceptively suppressed. Hundreds of books. My sample is from the 1960s to 1980s. This is the period just after open competition commenced. Production was ramping up, year after year. My book’s evidentiary base is focused on textbook evaluations held at the Archives of Ontario (AO). They’re a small fraction of what once existed, in the era before FOIA legislation, or FIPPA in Ontario for Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy.

Relative to the publishers’ files preserved at McMaster University’s Archives, remaining  Ministry file counts are small. The Ontario Government was a funnel for the publishing industry. The sector flourished at the front end of open textbook competition. A lot of industry’s output ended up at the Textbooks Branch to be evaluated. You see references in the publishers’ files, sometimes cross-listed but sometimes all alone. There are more discarded evaluation files than those remaining. If eight percent of submissions were censored, remember that hundreds of books were being submitted early on after 1960.

Most of the Ministry’s rejected evaluation files weren’t transferred to the provincial archives for preservation in the days before retention legislation was passed with FIPPA in 1988. Although there is a sample to characterize and detail, it’s only part of what was censored. It’s necessary to contemplate why anything was left at all to indicate corruption. That’s covered in the book.


Canadian Mockingbird centres on the Ontario Ministry of Education as “the censor.” But others exist. Mark Cohen discusses other actors. He also considers relationship between “prior restraint” and “post publication punishment” in his 2001 book Censorship in Canadian Literature. This is a great approach. The author, the publisher, the bureaucrat are all thinking about the consequences of inclusion and censorship.

Not only do I believe that censorship can occur both before and after a work’s publication; I would go further to argue that censorship can occur even before the work is written.1

Books that were suppressed outright are only part of the story.

Mark Cohen – Censorship in Canadian Literature, 2001

Strategic alterations are also made to avoid rocking the boat. These are censorship-like activities, that can sometimes be documented. We know they happened. It’s not a conspiracy theory. As with whole book suppression, this in-line choreography is ongoing but the statistics are less available as for books that were majority recommended by peer review and then entirely canceled.

One of the publisher’s roles is market making. And if your largest customer, in Canada the Ontario Ministry of Education, won’t buy your book if it makes the wrong argument, as a publisher it’s necessary to concern yourself with that customer’s interests. Prior restraint could result in increased readership and sales. Tens or hundreds of thousands of copies in the case of Ontario’s Ministry of Education.

For the education officer on the inside, the concerns are different. What if they lose their manager’s trust and are passed over for promotion. To avoid doubts, the officer must internalize the department’s concerns while contemplating their own loyalty to freedom of expression. The publisher balances their push for profitability, their authors and customers.

British Warfare in 1812, 1837-38

To demonstrate publisher self-censorship we’re featuring an image that John W. Irwin was concerned about including in the final edition of Daniel G. Hill’s 1981 The Freedom Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada. Irwin was president of the former publisher Book Society of Canada. He was from a publishing family, son of publisher John C. W. Irwin. Daniel Hill was Ontario’s first full-time Director of Human Rights.

Prior to submission Irwin telephoned Ontario’s curriculum department about the acceptability of an American cartoon. The lithograph featured British officials encouraging Indigenous and Black combatants to destroy American property on their behalf. In the case of Black combatants, the premise was that the British plotted to destabilize American society by encouraging slaves to flee and war on their behalf. Britain had only abolished African slavery in 1833, and then only in part, after over two hundred years of its practice in the Americas.

“Give me plenty rum, Gubner | Head, I catch you more | Scalps !” “No Quarter, no prisoners! | Hurrah! for Queen Victoria!” “LIBERTY to the NEGROES” “Gorra [sic] – mighty! | me burn all de [sic] farming utensil !”

Irwin called the Ministry knowing that the anti-British perspective could be problematic. The image was withheld. Irwin’s concern was prescient. Even if it made him a censor, it may have been a necessary decision as a business owner. Prior restraint rather than post publication punishment. Even after proceeding without the image—it wasn’t in my birthday present of a copy—the book had some trouble making it through the Ministry. Six of seven reviewers had recommended The Freedom Seekers but assigned officer Clemens decided it should only be a reference. Why? Because it didn’t cover a sufficient portion of any history guideline and the language was too difficult.

Given Hill’s position at the Human Rights Commission though, the Ministry would have been opening itself up to controversy. The project received $10,000 from the 1979 Learning Materials Development Plan and then another $5,000. Clemens’ superior J Fraser, in consultation with Assistant Deputy Minister R.A.L. Thomas, overruled. As Officer Burke later explained, there may have been reservations “on the basis that history guidelines have limited references to the Black community and therefore the book deals with only a small portion of courses.” The “book [also] provides History students with new information relevant to manageable topics in Canadian History.” Burke recommended the text for grades nine, ten and senior years as well.


  1. Cohen, Mark. Censorship in Canadian Literature. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001, p.12.