To cut or not to cut

Once, its scissors were everywhere. Now, the Ontario Film Review Board is accused of not cutting enough

January 22, 2021
Toronto Star
By Kelly Toughill

Liberal MPP Dianne Poole started paying more attention to the Ontario Film Review Board after coming home one day to find her 14-year-old son watching Basic Instinct, a film about a bisexual woman whose male lovers are killed with an ice pick as they reach climax during intercourse.

"This is not the kind of thing I want my son to see, but he can rent restricted movies at the store any time he wants," Poole says.

Suddenly the complaints of a handful of persistent women's groups took on a new urgency for the Eglinton MPP, who is the watchdog for women's issues for the Ontario Liberal party.

The Ontario Film Review Board is at a crisis, wracked by dissent from within, criticized from all quarters from outside.

Consumer Minister Marilyn Churley rises weekly in the Legislature to defend her board and her ministry against allegations they are allowing increasingly violent and pornographic films to be shown in Ontario and failing to enforce the province's most basis censorship laws.

Once upon a time, the board was widely criticized for taking too sharp a knife to films released in Ontario. Today, the opposite is true. The ratings decisions, the makeup and mandate of the board are quickly becoming one of the thorniest controversies for Queen's park MPPs of all political stripes.

On one side are Poole, Progressive Conservative MPPs Margaret Marland and Elizabeth Witmer and a handful of insistent lobby groups that want the board to clamp down on both pornography and mainstream violence, saying those films encourage violence against women and behavior problems in children.

On the other side is most of the establishment: the minister, film board chair Dorothy Christian, several civil rights and arts groups.

The one thing they all do seem to agree on is that the board is quickly losing its clout as new technologies let consumers bypass its control. Even Churley and Christian say they worry that technology like VCRs, video games and computer billboards could soon make the board irrelevant unless its mandate is changed.

"I have a satellite dish at my home in Barrie," Christian says. "When I look at what's available there, sometimes I think what are we doing? It becomes overwhelming when I think about the whole proliferation of technology."

The Ontario Film Review Board is charged with screening all films and videos shown in the province to make sure they meet "community standards". Films are rated to protect children from seeing overtly violent or sexual films and some films are labelled with special warnings to tell viewers they contain things like nudity, coarse language or adult themes.

Adult sex films are judged on specific criteria that ban child pornography and violent explicit sex. The board can order scenes cut from a film or order the film banned in Ontario if it violates the guidelines. That's the way it's supposed to work, but consider this:

Ratings are ignored for almost all videos rented or sold in Ontario. Although most have been rated by the board, the video jackets often don't display the rating and there is no simple way for parents, children or store owners to figure out who is supposed to be able to see what.

  • The board has no power to rate or censor other forms of entertainment, such as computer bulletin boards and video games.

Witmer introduced a private member's bill to expand the board's powers after a video game came on the market in Ontario showing monsters chasing and dismembering a woman. The game, which featured live actors, not animation, has since been withdrawn. Her bill did not pass.

  • The ministry has not laid one charge under the Theatres Act in almost four years. There is only one enforcement officer to investigate all complaints, though a supervisor also has the legal power to investigate and the ministry has promised to hire a second officer sometime soon.
  • Several people -- including the owner of a chain of video stores specializing in pornography -- have complained that some porn distributors are releasing their films without going through the board.

Statistics seem to back that up. Although Churley believes the number of films and videos available in Ontario has exploded, the number reviewed by the board dropped by more than 20 percent last year.

Christian says she has no hard evidence that porn distributors are circumventing the board, but wouldn't be surprised to find it's true.

"If (the ministry) isn't going to have an enforcement body monitoring them, why should distributors submit their product for review? Again, it comes back to the question of what are we doing here if our jobs are rendered meaningless?"

Last year, all three political parties endorsed a resolution by Poole calling for stiffening the powers and responsibilities of the board. Her resolution called for more inspectors, more penalties against unlicensed distributors, stricter ratings and a sticker system to make sure consumers know the rating of all videos sold or rented in Ontario. Despite receiving unanimous approval in the Legislature nine months ago, and despite the controversy in the last two years over pornography and violence in films, none of the recommendations have been adopted.

One board member quiet this winter because she couldn't stomach what was being approved by her colleagues. Another asked not to be reappointed because the daily faire of emotionless sex and graphic violence was too painful.

"I had nightmares about this stuff, I still do," says the former board member, who asked not to be identified by name. One video showed a man penetrating a woman with his fist. "He was wearing a wristwatch and his whole arm was going inside her, very hard. It had to have damaged her. The film wasn't approved, but from that moment on, I had a very hard time going back to the board.

"As a woman, seeing all these brutal things happen to women again and again and again is very hurtful. I was always middle of the road, but now I see this stuff as hatred to women. It's a fundamental change in me."

Pat Herdman is co-founder of an anti-pornography group called the Coalition for the Safety of Our Daughters. She is a persistent critic of the board and has filed a human rights complaint against it for approving films "depicting violence against women".

Contrary to those who think the board's work is increasingly irrelevant, she thinks its work is vitally important. "A culture is shaped by the stories it tells," she says. "If the stories it tells its children and its citizens are violent, it will be a violent culture."

Herdman flatly accuses the board -- and the ministry -- of child abuse. "Exposing children to violent images is harmful to them," she says. "Children have the right to grow up without being traumatized for profit." She is particularly upset by the violent content of mainstream films marketed to children and teens, films like Jurassic Park, Dracula and Terminator II. Herdman wants the board to rate films according to how much violence they contain and wants professionals in child development appointed to the board.

Christian says the board has become much more vigilant about rating violent films so that children can't easily see them. "Society's whole attitude towards violence has really changed in the last few years," she says. "That has affected how the board does its job."

Most important of all, Herdman wants the board to scrap the decades-old concept of "community standards" and instead look at whether a film will cause harm to society. "It used to be acceptable community standards to beat your wife or to drink and drive," she says. "Now we recognize those things cause harm and we don't allow them any more."

She vehemently believes that violent films affect a child's behavior and that the availability of pornography affects how women are treated in society.

Her argument is rejected by many, including Christian, Churley and civil rights lawyer Alan Borovoy.

"For every study that shows a video affects behavior, there is another than says the opposite," says Christian.

"Censorship as a panacea for solving these kinds of problems doesn't work," says Churley. "What we need to do is give more information to the public."

Borovoy, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says even if films can be proved to cause harm to society, they shouldn't necessarily be banned. "Democracies don't use state coercion to influence what we think: they use state coercion to influence what we do," Borovoy says. It might be said that cultists in Waco, Texas, were influenced by their exposure to the Bible. And what dubious behavior might be influenced by viewing the evening news?"

Where Herdman and others were once huffily dismissed as prudes trying to clamp down on others' sexuality, they have gradually found powerful allies.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court adopted the same argument to change the definition of obscenity. In the landmark Butler Case, the court said material is obscene if it could cause people to hurt others, even if the material appears to meet community standards.

MediaWatch, a group that monitors the media, largely agrees with Herdman's coalition though it has stopped short of calling for any ban. It wants the board to create a dozen or more new ratings to make sure children don't see films that might hurt them.

The head of MediaWatch, Meg Hogarth, is a former president of the Alliance of Canadian Television and Radio Artists, the country's largest entertainment union. "One of the problems with community standards is, how do they set it?" Hogarth says. "It all depends on who is on the board."

Most films are reviewed by a panel of three of the board's 30 members, though more may view it on appeal.


Criticism intensified last spring when the board decided to dramatically loosen the guidelines for adult sex films shown in Ontario.

Films containing explicit sex have been allowed in Ontario since the late 1980s. In May, the board voted to allow films that show bondage, slapping buttocks, simultaneous penetration of the anus and vagina, insertion of foreign objects and ejaculation on the face, as long as the sex was clearly consensual and no harm appeared to be done to those involved.

When Marland raised the new guidelines in the Legislature, hundreds protested. A month later, the board reconsidered its decision and decided not to implement the new guidelines. Instead, they have been put on hold until the board reviews all guidelines for all films, including things like violence in children's entertainment.

Christian says that review probably won't be finished for at least another year, when she will no longer be chair.


When Churley first took over the ministry of consumer and commercial relations in March, 1991, the Ontario Film Review Board was not a major public issue. But, ironically, it was one of the first questions she was asked in the Legislature, when the notoriously tough Tory MPP Robert Runciman demanded to know what the novice minister planned to do about widespread pornography in Ontario.

Churley didn't make any overt promises, but she did agree there was a problem. "I do believe there is a link between pornography and violence against women," she said just eight days after taking the oath of office. "It is a very important question. It is a personal priority of mine and I will be looking into it very soon."

That was almost three yeas ago.

In September, 1992, Churley suggested that some films carry a special label warning of violence against women. A few months after that, she seemed to endorse a report calling for a widespread new sticker system for videos. So far, none of the promises or proposals has been kept.

Churley says the only reason for delay is that the issues are "enormously complex". Yet other far more complex issues have been solved by her government in far less time. While she has been mulling over the issue of stickering videos, her cabinet colleagues negotiated a cost-cutting social contract with 950,000 workers, pushed through a controversial employment equity law and drafted an ambitious reform of the social assistance system.

"I know it seems like a long, long time," Churley says. "But these issues are enormously complex, enormously complicated. There are many people who must be consulted, many different things that must be taken into consideration."

She said she hopes to make recommendations to cabinet soon, perhaps this spring.