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‘We’ve been fighting for respect for our images and our sexuality,’ Jim Deva, co-founder of Vancouver’s Little Sister’s bookstore, of the lengthy battle against censorship. (JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail)
‘We’ve been fighting for respect for our images and our sexuality,’ Jim Deva, co-founder of Vancouver’s Little Sister’s bookstore, of the lengthy battle against censorship. (JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail)

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Jim Deva was a champion for gay rights, free speech Add to ...

Jim Deva opened the Little Sister’s bookstore in Vancouver in 1983. When he ordered material for his gay and lesbian customers, the shipments were delayed, seized and destroyed by customs agents.

For nearly two decades, Mr. Deva and Bruce Smyth, his life and business partner, along with store manager Janine Fuller, fought an epic battle against state censorship in the courts. The conflict became known as Little Sister’s versus Big Brother.

The battle made the articulate and irrepressible Mr. Deva a familiar figure in Vancouver, where he was celebrated for his tireless activism. He was credited for pushing the Vancouver police into adopting a helpful, rather than antagonistic, relationship with the gay and lesbian community.

The news of the accidental death of Mr. Deva at the age of 63, after a fall from a ladder at his home, brought tributes from politicians. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson praised him as a “kind heart who spoke up for the marginalized.” In Ottawa, Hedy Fry, the Liberal member of Parliament for Vancouver Centre, hailed her constituent for his “unflagging belief that the goal of equality was worth the fight,” while Libby Davies, the New Democratic MP for Vancouver East, told the House of Commons that Mr. Deva “held the door for many to come out.”

More than 1,000 people attended a memorial service at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church six days after his death, including a police honour guard and senior officers. The Vancouver Men’s Chorus sang Never Turning Back and Everything Possible. The mayor described Mr. Deva as a “city builder,” while a city councillor likened him to Harvey Milk, the gay San Francisco politician who was assassinated in 1978.

On several occasions, Mr. Deva rallied the community in protest. He led marches after Aaron Webster, a gay photographer, was beaten to death in Stanley Park in 2001. Seven years later, when a man holding hands with another man was punched in the face and knocked unconscious by young thugs, Mr. Deva took part in a rally dubbed Hands for Justice.

“Defying society – I think that is our role as queer people, as gay people,” he once said.

Whether stocking shelves at the bookstore, or bustling along Davie Street in Vancouver, the balding, bantam-sized Mr. Deva readily engaged in conversation on most any topic. He was especially spirited in promoting honesty in discussions about sexuality. He could be blunt and frank, but playful, too.

For this year’s Pride parade, he dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz in a white blouse and blue gingham dress. He posed with uniformed police officers in a photograph tweeted by Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu.

Such an alliance would have seemed unthinkable when Mr. Deva first arrived in Vancouver from his native Alberta in the late 1970s.

James Devaleriola was born on Dec. 10, 1950, in Calgary and raised on a farm near Morrin in rural Alberta, about 25 kilometres north of Drumheller. He earned an education degree in English literature at the University of Calgary before coming to the conclusion that his job prospects in his home province were limited.

“They weren’t really fond of out gay high-school teachers in 1974,” he told the Xtra newspaper last year. “I would have to go out into the country and become a teacher and go into the closet.”

While still a student, he had a summer job working as a fur buyer for Hudson’s Bay Co. at Fort Simpson in the Northwest Territories. There, he met Mr. Smyth, who purchased groceries for the store. The pair canoed the Mackenzie River after work, taking advantage of the late light in the North’s short summer.

In 1977, the couple moved to Vancouver, a city known to be friendlier to gay people, though far from a sanctuary. It was a time when gangs of ruffians cruised West End streets to hassle and beat passersby, crimes that the police showed little interest in investigating.

That same year, an early gay-rights case made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada: In a 6-3 decision, the judges ruled that The Vancouver Sun, the largest circulation newspaper in Western Canada, could discriminate by refusing to publish an innocuous classified advertisement from a gay newspaper.

Unable to get a teaching job, Mr. Deva subsisted for a short time on welfare before being hired as a sales clerk in the tourist district of Gastown at a store selling board games and other amusements.

He and Mr. Smyth were eager to open a business of their own, however, and considered a shoe or clothing store before settling on books. Mr. Deva would later testify in court that he had found clarity in struggling with his own youthful confusion about his sexuality by reading The Joy of Gay Sex and other literature.

“These books changed my life,” he testified. “They gave me direction. They gave me a sense of worth. We are dealing here with people’s lives.”

In the spring of 1983, the two men, joined by friend Barb Thomas, opened Little Sister’s Book and Art Emporium – a grand name for a few cramped rooms on the second floor of a converted house at 1221 Thurlow St. in the West End. The men lived in a small room in the house with their cat, whose name they borrowed for the fledgling business. At about this time, Mr. Deva removed the final four syllables of his family name. He simply did not want to have to spell it again and again. (He also took his mother’s maiden name, Eaton, as a middle name.)

Little Sister’s soon became a popular drop-in and was known as a safe gathering place for gays and lesbians. The store played host to readings and book launches. It was a venue to purchase tickets to other events, while bulletin boards in the store allowed customers to advertise services and accommodation.

In May, 1985, a shipment of 30 copies of Bad Attitude, a lesbian magazine, destined for Little Sister’s was seized by Canada Customs (now the Canada Border Services Agency) as obscene material. The store considered a legal challenge, but balked at the cost of retaining a lawyer. Then, in December, 1986, customs seized an order of 77 magazines and 548 books destined for sale during the busy holiday season. Having paid $6,000 for the order, and now unable to sell the goods, Little Sister’s was in danger of going out of business. The owners organized a public protest.

“We were afraid for our existence at that point,” Mr. Deva told the Sun in 1994. “We knew we had to fight it, and we have been fighting it ever since.”

In 1988, after Little Sister’s launched a legal challenge with the support of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the federal government acknowledged it had erred in restricting delivery to the store of The Advocate, a U.S. gay news magazine, for alleged obscenity in two advertisements.

Media coverage of the dispute brought a high profile to the store, which endured three mysterious bombings by percussion grenades in 1987, 1988 and 1992. Mr. Deva narrowly avoided injury in one of the attacks. Several employees quit, fearing for their safety. The bombings were viewed by the gay and lesbian community as another in a string of homophobic attacks.

The bookstore launched a legal challenge to Canada Customs’ censorship in 1990. Four years later, shortly before the trial was to begin, the government announced it would no longer consider depictions or descriptions of anal sex as grounds for prohibiting material from entering the country, which was hailed as another victory in the store’s long, expensive campaign.

The bookstore endured seizures of its stock even in the days before the case went to trial, including the withholding of a biography of the playwright and composer Noel Coward, as well as an edition of letters exchanged by the Romantic poets Byron and Shelley.

The Supreme Court of British Columbia was told that titles destined for Little Sister’s were detained by customs inspectors even though the same titles were available at other Vancouver bookstores, as well as at the public library. Earlier, the Civil Liberties Association had asked Celia Duthie, proprietor of Duthie Books, to import several titles that had been prohibited when Little Sister’s ordered them. When she did so, the volumes were inspected by customs, but not seized, she testified in court.

The court was also told that customs could be inconsistent, as agents continued to withhold copies of Pat Califia’s Macho Sluts, a series of frank fictions exploring lesbian sadomasochism, even after the work had been determined not to be obscene.

Under questioning by his lawyer Joseph Arvay, Mr. Deva testified that the seizures were “silly and insulting” and “harassment.” He said a book espousing safe sex, titled Safe Stud, was detained, while an earlier version titled Stud had not been.

Customs also withheld 50 copies of The New York Native newspaper, which Mr. Deva testified included important and difficult-to-find information about HIV and AIDS. Customs also seized a book titled The Men with the Pink Triangle, a history of homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps.

The court also heard eloquent testimony from British Columbia author Jane Rule, whose own works had been seized. Other testimony included a mix of bureaucratic regulations and earthy magazine titles. Citations of “tariff code 9956 (a),” “Form K27,” and “memorandum D9-1-1” were interspersed with descriptions of such periodicals as Dungeon Master. A moment of levity was provided when Mr. Arvay pointed out that the statute Customs Canada cited to detain material also prohibited imports of “any live species of the mongoose family … oleomargarine … and second-hand mattresses.”

In 1996, Justice Kenneth Smith found that “a disturbing amount of homosexual art and literature that is arguably not obscene has been prohibited.” He ruled that Canada Customs had violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but upheld the agency’s right to seize obscene material – a bittersweet victory for the bookstore.

Little Sister’s won another partial victory in 2000, when the Supreme Court of Canada, in a 6-3 decision, agreed that customs had unfairly targeted the store. Within a year, however, border agents began seizing sadomasochist works destined for the store. Mr. Deva and Little Sister’s again challenged the seizure of two books and two comics deemed obscene.

He finally abandoned the legal battle in 2007, when the Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the B.C. Court of Appeal denying funding for the suit. It was a tough concession after two decades and $500,000 in legal fees.

“We’ve been fighting for respect for our images and our sexuality,” he told The Globe and Mail at the time.

Little Sister’s had meanwhile moved to larger quarters around the corner on Davie Street, where it remains a landmark of the Davie Village neighbourhood. It has survived when other bookstores have closed, thanks to well-stocked shelves of gifts, greeting cards and sex aids.

In recent years, Mr. Deva conducted workshops on masturbation to audiences he described as older straight couples. He was not embarrassed to speak frankly about sexuality and urged others to do the same.

Mr. Deva died on Sept. 21, when he fell from a ladder while trimming bamboo. He leaves Mr. Smyth, his partner of 42 years; and three sisters, Deanna Notland, Trudy Spray and Wanda Hampton. He was predeceased by a brother, Robert Devaleriola.

In April, Mr. Deva and Ms. Fuller received the Gray Campbell Distinguished Service Award from the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia for their contributions to the industry. They were recognized not only for their battle against censorship but also for their promotion of local authors.

Mr. Robertson, the Vancouver mayor, has said the city is considering an appropriate honour for Mr. Deva.

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