Racism vs. censorship: Winnipeg Public Library grapples with comic complaint

·National Affairs Contributor
Tintin is a widely popular character, but some of the books featuring him have come under fire. (Reuters)
Tintin is a widely popular character, but some of the books featuring him have come under fire. (Reuters)

The Winnipeg Library has pulled copies of the comic Tintin in America to review the portrayal of indigenous peoples in the 85-year-old book.

It’s a sensitive case that pits censorship against historic racism in a city recently branded the most racist in Canada.

But can we really sanitize the past? And should we?

“You don’t really serve anybody’s interests by whitewashing the past; by pretending that bad things didn’t happen,” Franklin Carter, who is from the Book and Periodical Council’s Freedom of Expression Committee, told Yahoo Canada News.

The best solution is to move the books to adult sections and allow the historic portrayals to inform public discussion today, he said.

“Adults can learn how perceptions of aboriginal people have changed over the years, and they can learn something about stereotypes,” Carter said.

Neither Chapters nor the Winnipeg Public Library responded to requests for comment.

Four years ago, new editions of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” caused an uproar. Offensive racial slurs were replaced by the terms “Indian” and “slave.”

First published in 1884, Huckleberry Finn appears on lists of the greatest American novels and lists of the country’s most banned books.

The Twain classic has been challenged in Canada, too, according to the Freedom to Read association.

That list also includes “A Jest of God” by Margaret Laurence, “Lives of Girls and Women” by Alice Munro and “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” by Mordecai Richler.

Racism against First Nations is an undeniable fact of Canadian history. As such, it has a presence in some Canadian literature.

When the city of Whitehorse considered naming a street after Klondike chronicler Jack London two decades ago, the author’s portrayal of First Nations in his 50-odd books and short stories derailed the plan.

In Winnipeg, the original complaint about Tintin was made to a local Chapters store. The store removed the contested comic briefly but put the book back on the shelf after determining it does not violate store policies.

That prompted the public library to pull the book and conduct its own review.

First published in 1931, Tintin in America takes place in part in Redskin City. Native peoples are referred to as “red Indians” and the stereotypes continue from there.

The Tintin comics have been published in more than 70 languages and sold more than 200 million copies. Cartoonist Herge is considered a master but even in his native Belgium, his books have come under fire.

Three years ago a man went to court seeking an injunction against the distribution and sale of Tintin in the Congo.

The court found the book – while offensive – did not violate anti-racism laws, in part because there was no malicious intent.

The United Kingdom’s Commission for Racial Equality disagreed. In 2007 the commission asked bookseller Waterstones to stop sales.

“Whichever way you look at it, the content of this book is blatantly racist,” said a commission report.

Waterstones did not comply. The book was moved from the children’s section to adult graphic novels.

It’s the simplest solution, Carter said.

“Adults who are supposed to be more discerning and critical readers can read the book there and the book will still be available to the public,” he said.

“There are ways to resolve the problem without actually resorting to censorship.”

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