Drawing the line

Editorial cartoons continue to make headlines around the world for being controversial, yet very few Canadian cartoonists have had their works ‘killed’ by an editor. What allows Canadian cartoonists to draw uncensored?


Bob Rae, while running for the Liberal Leadership Campaign, went skinny dipping with Rick Mercer.

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By Christopher Doody

Al-Qaeda is offering a $100,000 reward to anyone who kills Lars Vilks, $150,000 if he is “slaughtered like a lamb.” Vilks’ crime? Drawing a cartoon.

On August 18, 2007, Nerikes Allehanda, a Swedish newspaper, published a cartoon by Vilks of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad’s head on the body of a dog.

The drawing follows the now infamous “cartoon crisis” that began on September 30, 2005, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran twelve images depicting Muhammad. Protests and riots followed, killing hundreds.

This February, three men were arrested in Denmark for allegedly planning to assassinate Kurt Westergaard, a cartoonist who drew one of the Muhammad cartoons in 2005. In protest of the assassination attempt, Denmark’s five major daily newspapers republished Westergaard’s cartoon.

These events show the power of editorial cartoons — even years after they are drawn. As Michael DeAdder of Halifax’s former Daily News says, Muhammad has become “the biggest of all taboos.”

“It’s bigger than calling anyone Hitler. It’s bigger than putting anyone on the cross – to the possible disgust of the other religions, that think that their religions’ taboos should be of equal consequence.”

In Canada, however, cartoonists have much less to fear in regards to what they draw.

A cartoon concerning the Pope’s death might get spiked; a cartoon of a politician picking wings off a fly will get you sued; and the most offensive published cartoon will simply produce enough e-mail to crash your server.

While no Canadian editorial cartoonists have bounties on their heads, they still acknowledge that there is a line between what is appropriate to draw, and what is not. Their role is to understand the limitations of the line, the consequences of crossing it, and knowing when crossing it is necessary.

Brian Gable, of the Globe and Mail, explains that he rarely has a cartoon censored by an editor.

“I don’t have a spiked cartoon that to me is truth that was muzzled, and that should have made it out to the public,” he says. “I just haven’t had the experience of feeling like a French freedom fighter in WWII, with the truth being held back by the Nazis.”

Other top Canadian editorial cartoonists agree with Gable. They have all had very few cartoons spiked by an editor. They say that their years of experience has taught them where the line stands, although they agree it is a hard thing to define.

It changes from newspaper to newspaper, from province to province, and from day to day.

“Tastes change, concepts change, and usually, this is a wonderful thing,” says Terry Mosher, of the Montreal Gazette. “Usually the more a topic is discussed, the more open people are about it, and they are more open to having some sort of satirical comment on it.”

Taboos in cartooning do exist. Graeme MacKay, the cartoonist for the Hamilton Spectator, summarizes them as: “Wild sex . . . religion, and the monarch to some degree.”


“I know where my line is, but I try to cross it every day,” says DeAdder, “but only far enough that the editor will accept.”

DeAdder’s editor at the former Daily News was Jack Romanelli. Before coming to the Daily News, Romanelli had been an editor at the Montreal Gazette with Mosher.

Romanelli says that as an editor, he trusts his cartoonist’s judgment and experience. His confidence in DeAdder was clear — he doesn’t require DeAdder to show him his cartoons everyday.

“He shows me a cartoon that could potentially be controversial, or cause a lot of reader feedback,” Romanelli said in an interview before his paper was shut down. This is more a courtesy than a requirement, so that he can be prepared for angry phone calls from readers.

“Cartoonists are like columnists,” he said. “You wouldn’t tell a columnist that he has to follow a newspaper’s editorial position, and the same thing goes for cartoonists.”

If cartoonists were simply to follow all the rules that an editor imposed, cartooning would die out.

“It is a really vicious capitalistic world out there, and you have got to keep people’s attention, and if you turn into a lukewarm puddle of nothing, people won’t read you, and you’ll go broke and disappear,” says Gable.

Some cartoonists, like Mosher, take pleasure in trying to see how much they can sneak by an editor.

“There’s a sort of gleefulness in actually getting something in, because I think any good cartoonist has a bit of rascal in him or her,” says Mosher.


Bruce MacKinnon, of the Halifax Chronicle Herald, thinks the location of a newspaper affects what is acceptable content.

For example, Montreal is more liberal than Halifax, he says.

“Mosher will have naked politicians in the paper, for no particular reason other than he just wanted them naked. It wouldn’t even necessarily be pertinent to the cartoon. But it would make it funnier, I am sure,” he says.

“I have certainly drawn mostly naked politicians before, but even now, people object to that. Even if you don’t have their nasty bits, the wedding tackles, or anything like that, showing.”

While more conservative rules might be in place in Halifax, and other parts of the country, it is possible to skirt around them.

In the late 1990’s MacKinnon drew a cartoon on the Unity Conference.

“I did a cartoon of a bull in profile, and it was wearing a brassiere, and the overline read, ‘useless as a unity conference.’ What I was saying of course, was ‘useless as tits on a bull.’ Which is an old expression, but I am not going to get ‘tits’ into the Chronicle Herald. But through illustration I was able to say it, without actually typing it out. It was completely acceptable and there was never any question that it would get published.”


Understanding where the line is, and how far it can be crossed, is essential to a cartoonist’s livelihood.

“If I’m going to spend five to six hours on a cartoon, I’d rather it be printed than be spiked,” says MacKay.

Aside from a wasted day’s work, the consequences of drawing a controversial cartoon in Canada vary.

“In 2006, I had one cartoon axed, but I got an award for it,” says DeAdder, who won the Golden Spike award in 2006.

The cartoon, which ran after the death of Pope John Paul II, depicted a smoke cloud rising out of a chimney in the shape of a hand, giving the middle finger. The overline read, ‘Cardinals send a message to moderate Catholics.’


The Golden Spike award is presented yearly by the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists to an editorial cartoon that was inappropriately spiked. DeAdder was the first Canadian to win the award.

“So I was thankful that I had it axed. When I came back from the award banquet in the States,” he says “I went immediately and thanked my editor for axing my cartoon.”

MacKay drew a cartoon on the same theme as DeAdder’s — it depicted the Pope ascending to heaven in the Popemobile. The Hamilton Spectator did not run the cartoon, although several other newspapers across the country did.

MacKay says that he thinks the cartoon was spiked because his editor was new, and did not understand where the ‘line’ should be drawn.

Even when a controversial religious cartoon is published, such as a cartoon drawn by DeAdder in August, which placed the late Jerry Falwell in hell, the response is tame. No-one died as a result, and no bounty was placed on his head.

“[The cartoon simply] garnered 500 e-mails to my home address,” he says. “It crashed my e-mail.”

In Canada, it seems that the worst scenario a cartoonist faces is being sued in court.

In 1978, the Victoria Daily Times published a cartoon by Robert Bierman that had the British Columbia Minister of Human Resources, William N. Vander Zalm, picking wings off of a fly.

Vander Zalm sued for damages, claiming that the cartoon had libeled him. Vander Zalm won the case, and Bierman was ordered to pay $3,500 in damages. The British Columbia Court of Appeal later overturned the case, on the basis that the cartoon was fair comment.

Two years ago, Syed Soharwardy, president of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, filed a human rights complaint against the editor of the Western Standard, after the Calgary magazine published the controversial Muhammad cartoons. Soharwardy withdrew the complaint filed with the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission in February, 2008. By then, the Western Standard had stopped publishing a paper edition and turned into an online magazine. Editor Ezra Levant has threatened to sue Soharwardy for the money he spent fighting the complaint.


While most journalists abide by some version of an ethical code, the very nature of the satirist’s art makes a code for editorial cartoonists next to impossible. “If we have a code, it’s to not have a code,” says DeAdder. “Our job is not to set boundaries, our job is to break out of them.”

Newspapers and editors need to accept this in order to keep a cartoonist on staff.

“I know that when they came up with the code of ethics at my newspaper, they spent two years, three years doing this, so it’s a very good piece for journalism,” says Mosher. “But I went to the fellow afterwards and I said, ‘Look at all these rules you have on the business of telling the truth. I mean, we lie and we cheat. We put words in people’s mouths that they wouldn’t actually say. What are you going to say?’ And he just sat there and said ‘Go away. I don’t want to know about this.'”

Newspaper editors have to rely on cartoonists’ years of experience, and their judgment, to ensure that cartoons will not produce the outrage that both Denmark and Sweden have experienced.

DeAdder says that the difference lies in being responsible. “The Jyllands-Posten in Denmark, the whole raison-d’être behind it, was to provoke. As cartoonists, we want to provoke, but provocation for provocation’s sake is not what we are about.”

“Pissing people off for the sake of pissing people off, I don’t really see the point in that,” says MacKinnon. “I’m all for pissing people off, if I’m making a strong point, and people are on the other side of the argument.”

Yet, while the Danish cartoon crisis was seen by some as a dark day for cartoons, it also demonstrated the true purpose of editorial cartooning.

“I assumed [Flemming Rose, the editor of Jyllands-Posten,] was living a life of bodyguards and fear, 24-7,” says Gable. “He wasn’t at all. He said that he and his wife have no security guards around their house. They live in, what they feel, is perfect safety.

“In Denmark, because of the cartoon crisis, there has been a whole bunch of discussion in the Islamic community, as well as the rest of the community, and people were really moving forward, which [Rose feels is] a vindication of the very act of running those cartoons — in that it promoted discussion.HaHamH

“Ideally, [as a cartoonist] you’d like to add to the conversation,” Gable says. “You are just participating in the noise that goes on in the world . . . and hope that it gets through to your readers.”