Skip to main content

Jim Deva pauses for just a moment before answering how Little Sisters bookstore will fare now that he is abandoning his 20-year legal fight against Canada's border police.

"It will depend on how many books they allow us to have," says the 56-year-old, with a slight clench of the jaw.

For a man who has spent two decades and a half a million dollars fighting customs officialdom, that is an extraordinarily tough sentence to utter -- and a bitter concession.

Unless a deep-pocketed donor materializes shortly, Mr. Deva said, he will be giving up his case against Canada Customs, leaving it up to the government to decide which titles appear in the gay and lesbian bookstore.

After winning a partial victory in 2000, Mr. Deva and Little Sisters had again sued Canada Customs, specifically on how it handled a cross-border shipment of two books and two comics deemed obscene, and thus banned, in 2001 and 2003.

The larger issue, said Mr. Deva, is that customs officials target material for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender readers.

"We've been fighting for respect for our images and our sexuality," he said.

But that legal question will go unanswered now: Mr. Deva said he simply cannot afford to continue after Friday's decision by the Supreme Court.

In a 7-2 decision, the top court upheld a ruling from the British Columbia Court of Appeals denying advance funding for his suit. The ruling said the case should not receive advance funding because it does not meet the test of having issues that relate not just to the litigant but to the general public.

Although the legal fight seems set to expire, Mr. Deva is convinced that his scrap with Customs will continue.

For years, Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium had endured mysterious delays -- even disappearances -- in shipments of its books and magazines.

Often, boxes would be clumsily resealed and reading material obviously disturbed.

The store caters to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender customers, with 3,000 square feet of retail space displaying sex toys, erotica, fiction and ill-tempered bumper stickers.

About half of the books in stock are sex manuals, including how-to missives for sadomasochism, and it is that part of Little Sisters' inventory that is typically targeted by Canada Customs.

Those unexplained disruptions stopped while litigation was active, Mr. Deva said, adding that he believes Customs did not want to add to the evidence before the court by intercepting shipments.

In 2000, when Little Sisters won its Supreme Court case, shipments began disappearing within two weeks of the verdict.

"It starts with shipments we can't find," Mr. Deva said, predicting that Customs will intensify its scrutiny.

Derek Mellon, spokesman for Canada Border Services Agency, said he did not wish to comment directly on a case still before the courts.

But he said the agency has a constitutional duty to prevent obscene material from entering Canada. "We remain committed to fulfilling that obligation."

The Supreme Court may have ruled that the case does not have a broad public interest, but supporters of Little Sisters feel strongly otherwise.

Billeh Nickerson, a Vancouver author and poet, said the struggle at Little Sisters is all too familiar for him.

"Gay artists are used to being treated in this manner. You can either give up or keep doing your art and ignore these homophobic policies."

The majority in the Supreme Court ruling said anyone applying for advance funding must have exhausted all other options.

Mr. Nickerson has helped out on fundraisers for Little Sisters in the past, but so far he doesn't have plans to donate any cash for a renewed legal struggle.

For his part, Mr. Deva said he would need hundreds of thousands of dollars to carry on -- an amount that is simply not possible to raise, even with the most enthusiastic of supporters.

And he is demonstrably frustrated that the verdict has been rendered not by judges but by bank balances.

"It's absolutely justice denied," he says.

Interact with The Globe