The Waterloo Catholic District School Board (WCDSB) in southwest Ontario has recently come under fire after a leaked memo suggested that the school board would be placing restrictions on certain books with LGBTQ2S+ content.
The memo mentioned four books by name, all four of which include LGBTQ2S+ characters or themes. It stated that school libraries must catalogue these as “professional” or “PRO,” as they “don’t align with the Family Life curriculum.” The memo further explained that “Before JK-Grade 6 students may borrow these books from the library, a teacher must provide the Catholic context.”
“This is how homophobia works. It’s just plain and simple,” says Syrian-Canadian author Danny Ramadan in an interview with Xtra. His book Salma Writes a Book was targeted in the memo. “They’re restricting access to specific books based on the context that it’s queer.”
Ramadan’s story follows a young Syrian girl from a religious family trying to understand why her family is estranged from her queer uncle. He says that he wrote this book to show kids that religion and queerness “can coexist with neither identity denied.” The other books mentioned in the memo were Princess Pru and the Ogre on the Hill by Maureen Fergus, which includes a family with two dads; The Mystery of the Painted Fan by Linda Trinh, which explores gender expression and identity; and Jude Saves the World by Ronnie Riley, which has a non-binary main character.
“This is not just about the children who identify as queer themselves,” says Ramadan. “This is also about ensuring that the children who identify within the mainstream identities are aware that queerness exists in the world.”
Although the memo does not instate a direct ban, as the books may still be available in schools, Ramadan is concerned that these restrictions will reduce the possibility for students to discover his book.
“How would an eight-year-old know to go and ask a teacher for a book about queerness?” he asks. “How would they know to go and ask about Salma Writes a Book if the book is on a higher shelf only accessible by teachers, and if the teachers are denied the ability to provide fair representation of the book to their students?”
In an interview with the Toronto Star, WCDSB senior manager of communications Lema Salaymeh explained that the Family Life curriculum begins in Grade 7 and 8. She further explained that these restrictions were put in place “to avoid any students reading subject matter that maybe is not intended for them.”
Patrick Etmanski, president of Waterloo Catholic Teachers, tells Xtra that “while any discussions about sexuality, gender and gender identity are guided by the Ontario curriculum, Catholic teachers maintain our firm commitment to engaging in learning and discussions that honour and respect the dignity and value of all individuals.”
Since the memo was leaked two weeks ago, many actors within the literary sphere have decried the restrictions imposed on these books. The publishers of the four books (Scholastic Canada, Annick Press and Owlkids Books) issued a joint statement condemning the move, writing that they “stand unequivocally behind our authors and illustrators.” The Association of Canadian Publishers and The Writers’ Union of Canada, of which Ramadan is the chair, have both urged the WCDSB to immediately remove the restrictions on these four titles.
In addition to depriving students of exposure to diverse stories, Ramadan is concerned that these restrictions could affect the authors’ careers. All four books were short-listed this year as part of a program called the Forest of Reading. In this program, participating schools purchase all the books on the short list so that students can read them and vote for them to win various awards. If some books are placed in restricted areas, students are less likely to read and vote for them, putting these books and their authors at a disadvantage compared to their competitors. Ramadan says that TWUC is in contact with the Ontario Library Association (OLA), which runs the Forest of Reading program, to discuss, in Ramadan’s words, “what they can do to ensure that the award keeps its integrity despite this homophobic situation.” In a Nov. 13 statement, the OLA said that they are “deeply concerned by the growing number of attempts to restrict access to books by some school boards.”
Ultimately, though, it’s the students whom Ramadan is most concerned for.
“Students are being denied the ability to read something that might reflect who they are.”