Ten years ago, the Maritime Film Classification Board made the news when it banned Anjelica Houston’s Bastard Out of Carolina, an adaptation of the acclaimed novel about child abuse, from local screens. That decision was soon overturned by bureaucrats further up the chain of command—Nova Scotia’s government runs the censor board on behalf of the Maritimes—and as the movie was released to video stores and libraries, the board retreated to the comforts of the shadows. Every year since then, I resolved to find out more about the censors. Every year I did nothing about it. Until 2006. With confidence bolstered by the Freedom of Information laws, last year I asked questions that revealed wonders never before seen in public. And I’m so happy with how my resolution turned out, I’ve come up with a way to share it. This 2007 action item goes out to justice minister Murray Scott: To encourage all Nova Scotians to purge their lingering questions, please, Mr. Scott, resolve to lower the cost of a Freedom of Information request from $25 to $5.
I admit this isn’t an original idea. Nova Scotia’s high FOI fee has been a target for criticism since John Hamm’s Progressive Conservatives hiked the price from $5 in 2002. A higher charge amounts to building a higher fence around government affairs, and while that might be useful for keeping the public’s prying eyes out of official business, it undermines the whole democratic ideal of responsibility and accountability. Hamm’s government sold out the public trust for an extra 20 bucks. But today’s PC government, with its different premier, might recognize the opportunity to invest in the public.
In November, when the interim Liberal leader was the latest critic to speak out against the $25 fee, justice minister Scott said he’d look into it. I phoned the minister to find out if that was just a brush-off. Scott assures me he asked his office to research the effects of FOI charges. He admits this topic isn’t the highest priority for his staff—presumably the conflict of interest charge that Scott was cleared of just this week was among the front-burner items—but “as soon as they’re done, they’ll get the information to me.” He’ll read the report and decide on changing the fee.
A lower FOI charge won’t automatically make the province more open and efficient. Those benefits come when citizens demand accountability, and the lower fee is simply removing a barrier to such participation. With the film censors, I didn’t even have to use FOI, although knowing I could count on the law for backup is the only reason I bothered asking questions about the board’s members and workings. And what did I find out? As often happens with information that’s guarded for the sake of being guarded, the film board’s secrets are mundane.
To the best of my knowledge and web-surfing ability, the current makeup of the Maritime Film Classification Board has not been published anywhere before. The 12 censors are: Myrna Adams-Mood, Victor Amirault, Claudia Clarke, Ulysse Cottreau, George Fraser, Aileen Heisler, James MacArthur, Irene MacInnis, Mary MacLeod, Irma Mullen, Alf Nielsen and Carmen Rafuse.
More shocking is the form they fill out when they rate a movie. The paper sheet has tick boxes for describing violence (such as blood letting, whipping, harm to animals) or sex (suggestive, group, homosexual, other) a movie portrays. There is a tick box for “blasphemy” and another for “criminal techniques.” But to get specific about language the “film classification advisor” has to make ad hoc lists in the margins. For last fall’s release of Shortbus, the John Cameron Mitchell flick wherein Sook-Yin Lee enjoys a real orgasm, one censor flagged swears like “hell,” “shit” and “Jesus” which the other didn’t bother with. Maybe this is the secret worth hiding: Our censors don’t know when they’re supposed to give a shit.