The Quebec Booksellers Association, which represents more than 100 independent bookstores in the province, is scrambling to deal with a controversy over posting book recommendations from premier Francois Legault.
The association posted the recommendations last Wednesday as part of a series promoting reading and Quebec authors.
It then deleted Legault's list of picks Friday, after some people complained online about giving the premier a platform.
Today, the association reposted the list and apologized, after even more people complained about censorship.
"I made the decision too quickly to remove some social media posts," the association's director, Katherine Fafard, said in a statement released today.
"I realize it was a mistake and I apologize for it. It was not my intention to hurt anyone nor censor anything, because it goes against the association's core values and our commitment to freedom of expression," Fafard's said.
Legault reacted to the reversal on Facebook.
"Frankly, the decision of the association to remove my reading suggestions didn't make any sense," Legault said.
"We can't accept that a handful of radical militants tramples on our freedom of expression to defend their dictates. This is going way too far," he continued, adding he was relieved the association had changed its mind.
Legault includes controversial book on list
Since the spring, the association has posted more than 150 videos on Facebook of well-known Quebec personalities talking about their book recommendations, accompanied by a list of their picks.
Last Wednesday it was Legault's turn. Among his picks were works by well-known Quebec writers such as Dany Laferrière, Marie Laberge and Denise Bombardier.
But Legault also added a book by Journal de Montréal columnist Mathieu Bock-Côté, L'empire du politiquement correct, a book that he had already controversially endorsed.
In the book, Bock-Côté rails against diversity, immigration, the transgender movement, and the anti-racism movement, suggesting all have contributed to the erosion of Quebec's identity and a culture of political correctness that's out of control.
In an interview with the QMI news agency Sunday, Fafard said many people complained after the association posted Legault's picks.
Farfard told QMI some people were unhappy with the association giving a platform to Legault, who has steadfastly denied the existence of systemic racism in Quebec, and in particular to Legault's endorsement of Bock-Côté's book.
The association decided to assuage the critics by removing the list of Legault's picks from its Facebook page and other social media platforms.
But it left in place the video of Legault discussing his recommendations.
The association added a disclaimer to that video, noting that the opinions expressed were solely Legault's. No such disclaimer has been added to any of the other videos posted as part of the series.
Accusations of censorship
Many columnists slammed the association's decision.
"I hit the roof. I was incredulous. I was flabergasted!" 98.5 FM columnist Lise Ravary told CBC in an interview Monday.
Sophie Durocher, wrote a column in the Journal de Montréal with the headline "Honte aux censuridiots!", which translates as "Shame on the censoridiots!".
"When you sell books, you sell free expression. You sell ideas. So when booksellers themselves become censors, to me it's a very bad turn of things," Ravary said.
"François Legault is the premier of Quebec! He's not somebody on the fringes of some right-wing whatever," Ravary continued.
"There's no justification for what they did," she concluded.
'Bad response to criticism'
Fabrice Vil, a Montreal activist and writer, agreed with Ravary that the association bungled the whole situation, but he doesn't believe it was censorship.
"It was bad crisis management and PR management, but it's not censorship," Vil told CBC in an interview Monday.
"We're very quick to talk about censorship, when basically what we're talking about is a bad response to criticism," Vil said.
"Many organizations and institutions fail to responsibly acknowledge and deal with criticism that comes from racialized minorities," he continued.
Vil said he doesn't believe the association muzzled Legault, because it left his video online. And he noted that Legault, as premier, has the benefit of many other platforms to express his views.
Vil wondered whether it was appropriate for the association to invite Legault in the first place.
"It's a delicate issue to invite the premier. Yes he does share about the books he likes, but he also shares his political views," Vil said.
"It's not a private association's mission or mandate to add to the government's platforms," he added.
Fear of Backlash
Vil said the association's decision to remove Legault's list and add a disclaimer to the video only made things worse.
He said it's part of a larger problem of institutions being ill-equipped to deal with accusations of racism, which leads to overreactions that often heighten controversy.
He cited recent examples such as The University of Ottawa suspending a professor for using the 'n-word' in class, and Radio-Canada pulling an old episode of the sitcom La Petite Vie from its streaming service because it contained racial stereotypes. After criticism, Radio-Canada reversed course and reinstated the episode, but with a disclaimer.
"My impression is there's fear of backlash. So instead of dealing with the situation, establishing dialogue, taking into account the positions, and finding common ground, there's basically the fear that takes over," Vil said.
He said invariably impulsive reactions motivated by fear create controversy.
"Those are controversies that we don't need, and that are a waste of energy," Vil said.