Algoma U history professor explores decades-old movie scandal

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Bruce Douville works on an essay on the 1979 blasphemous libel charges brought against a local movie director for daring to screen the Monty Python film ‘Life of Brian’

A local religious historian delves into a controversial incident that took place at the Sault decades ago.

Bruce Douville, a history professor at Algoma University, works on an essay about a contentious incident at the Station Mall in 1979 – when a movie director was charged with blasphemous libel for daring to show the movie Monty Python Brian’s life.

Douville’s draft on these circumstances will soon be sent to McGill-Queen’s University Press for review. If published, his article would be included in a series of essays describing Canadian history.

According to the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library, the Reverend Michael Eldred, an Anglican priest from Richards Landing, brought private charges of blasphemous libel against a local cinema and its manager for showing the British comedy in November 1979.

The theater manager and the Villa Theaters in Toronto were implicated for showing the film which satirized organized religion and was the subject of controversy around the world.

Under Article 296 of the Penal Code, anyone who commits blasphemous defamation is liable to imprisonment for up to two years. (The law was officially repealed by the federal government in 2018).

The controversial case ultimately never went to trial, as charges were dropped against the film’s director in January 1980, two months after they were filed.

Douville says those charges should never have been brought in the first place.

“Spending two months between November and January wondering if you were going to be convicted of blasphemous libel, what impact is that going to have on your freedom, your job, your life, your finances?” he said. “I can only imagine it must have been a horrible, dark time for the director of the film.

Douville has spent the pandemic compiling information about the incident by digging through archival sources and contacting families involved in the case.

“I was drawn to this subject originally because, having grown up in Sault, I knew that something had happened at the time involving the censorship of Monty Python. Brian’s life“, he says. “I knew that there had been a controversy about it. I wasn’t sure of the specifics, but I knew there was local history worth exploring.”

In May 2021, Douville presented his research as part of a conference organized by the University of Toronto entitled “Between Postwar and Present Day: Canada, 1970-2000, Local, National, Global”.

He explains that one of the most interesting bits of the story is the fact that there were very few reported cases of blasphemous libel in the country during the 20th century, and almost none after the 1920s.

“It was probably the last case in Canada and it was probably the last time anyone was charged with it,” he says.

Douville thinks Sault’s movie-related events still matter today, especially after last week’s near-fatal attack on award-winning author Salman Rushdie in New York City.

Since the late 1980s, Rushdie has faced criticism, backlash and death threats for his novel. satanic versesas some groups, especially members of the Muslim community, considered his literary work to be blasphemous for the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad.

“As we saw in the Rushdie incident, there are still people who take blasphemy against their God so seriously that they would be willing to cause immense suffering and immense human fallout,” Douville said. “It ties into the whole issue of free speech.”

Douville explains that the freedom of speech specified by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is an important pillar of our society, especially in cases like the Monty Python movie and localized spinoffs that have garnered national attention.

“When we use the law to silence expressions that offend us, we are on dangerous ground,” he says. “Free speech is the foundation of a democratic society, and that includes standing up for the rights of those who don’t care about the things we hold most dear.”

“If you’re not allowed to make fun of certain aspects of a particular religion, then it’s not a religion worth taking seriously,” he continues. “True religion should never be so fragile.”

Douville intends to complete his draft in September, then send it to McGill-Queen’s University Press for review.

He hopes the article will then be published as part of an academic collection of essays on Canadian history between 1970 and 2000.

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