On behalf of the Poet Laureate of the City of Edmonton and the Youth Poet Laureate of the City of Edmonton, we would like to issue a statement regarding the recent communications made by the Edmonton Public Library. Last week, the EPL released a statement that showed advanced sympathy for the Toronto Public Library, who recently chose to allow a transphobic speaker to use their venue. In doing so, they failed to uphold their own policies and beliefs around the sanctitude of libraries and the promotion of safe spaces that are free of hate. We are worried and concerned that this show of support from EPL’s CEO means that the EPL would have no problem platforming controversial, hate-mongering speakers in the future under an essentialist understanding of “free speech” that fails to hold parties accountable for the consequences of their words. As poets, we believe strongly in the transformative power of the word, and hold the use of words in public spaces in the highest regards, understanding that what we do has an impact on those around us, people who we try to uplift and protect.
In 2019, the Poets Laureate signed agreements detailing the services we would provide to the City (through the agent of the Edmonton Public Library). Part of this agreement includes acting as literary ambassadors for the City of Edmonton to audiences both within and outside the city. In the spirit of the agreement, we find that it is important to maintain that the platforming of individuals who advocate hate in our literary communities is not a neutral position, nor one that supports both free speech, and the necessary accountability to the consequences of that speech. In fact, providing a venue to those who would advocate for gender essentialism and debating the constitutional human rights of transgender people, as the Toronto Public Library chose to do, is an example of deliberate actions that actively hurt and uplift hate speech and hateful transphobia in our communities.
The EPL has not hosted such an event, and for that we are glad. However, our current rental policy for our public institution has been supported by alarming language that shows that what happened in Toronto Public Library is within the realm of possibility here. Unless there is a deliberate choice to maintain that our events at EPL will not promote hate, and that we will not allow groups promoting hate to book our venues, we fear for those members of our society who are most marginalized being further hurt and put at risk.
We were also tasked with advocating strongly for the literary arts. Transgender artists are rallying together to advocate for their own human rights, and we know without a doubt that their voices are essential, and must be uplifted, in order for our literary ecosystem to continue to thrive under a commitment to truth.
We hope that the EPL Board will choose to engage with the general public—but especially individuals and groups from marginalized communities, because they are the ones who would experience the fallout from hate speech—in order to add a public-facing element to the event room booking policy that acknowledges that the library will not allow groups promoting hate to book library venues. We stand with transgender writers and hope that the EPL takes proactive action in this matter.
Nisha Patel, Poet Laureate for the City of Edmonton
Timiro Mohamed, Youth Poet Laureate for the City of Edmonton