Battle with Aurora Public Library continues as minority artist advocates for human rights policy
The standoff between artist Yafang Shi and the Aurora Public Library (APL) continues because Shi believes she has been treated unequally due to her public confrontation with the library and demands a formal apology from the library, while advocating for a review of their policies.
Shi’s exhibition for women’s rights to commemorate International Women’s Day was censored by the library on the day of the installation because of some “inappropriate content” criticizing Doug Ford and Donald Trump.
After two weeks of fighting, the library decided to proceed as is, but the argument did not conclude with the uncensored exhibition.
On April 17, the exhibition was taken down without an artist interview video about the exhibition, Shi said, claiming the library has erased the history of her exhibition on social movements for women's rights on its website.
Normally, APL would schedule an artist interview video to promote the display during the exhibition, but according to Shi, the library did not make the prescheduled artist video for her since she has been publicly urging the library to apologize and change its censorship practices.
“They are not only violating my constitutional right to freedom of expression, but also violating my equal rights under the Ontario Human Rights Code as a woman of colour. It is absolutely censorship, discrimination and reprisal.”
Councillor Ron Weese, who is also a board member of APL, refused to comment on the issue. “This is in the hands of the Library Board Chair and CEO. Ms. Shi’s objections have been noted and will be managed through the Library Board’s authority in the matter,” said the councillor.
However, neither the board chair nor the CEO of APL has responded to any inquiries from yorkregion.com since the end of March.
Associate professor Sonia Lawrence, from Osgoode Hall Law School in York University, expressed her support for the notion that the library should offer the artist interview if that is their usual policy.
Libraries are subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and in particular the guarantee of freedom of expression in Section 2(b) of the Charter, but this guarantee is not absolute, Lawrence explains. Section 1 of the Charter says it can be subject to “such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
“I think the library’s initial attempt to prevent certain parts of the work from being on display and the delay in mounting the exhibition would constitute a violation of the Section 2(b) right,” she said, adding that she suspects that the library’s eventual decision to allow the exhibition is a recognition that they were on very shaky legal ground.
A previous report indicated the library considers itself a publicly funded institution that does not participate in partisan politics and raised concerns about critique of “sitting politicians” through the art, but “this kind of critique, critique in the context of democratic politics, is at the core of the protection of freedom of expression,” Lawrence added.
Shi said she has been having sleepless nights and stressful times since March 6, worrying that the women’s voices from social movements would be silenced. She believes that being accountable and transparent and giving a public apology to her and the community is the first step that the library should take to move the matter forward.
“I would like to call for the establishment of a Human Rights Policy for the Aurora Public Library as the Toronto Public Library has done to ensure the library’s policies and practices are Human Rights Code-proof,” she said.
Professor Lawrence agrees with Shi that clarity on this point in the APL policies is important to prevent future problems.
The artist vows to fight to the end because it is not her personal battle any more. “The positive institutional changes from my painful experience are what I would like to see.”
Scarlett Liu, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Economist & Sun