Libraries are usually quiet.
Librarians, not necessarily so.
The women who hold that position in all but two of the 48 First Nations in Ontario which even have libraries might be excused for feeling some occasional fits of frustration. To say that their efforts are not appreciated is a large understatement.
One participant in the Fall Gathering of First Nations Librarians in North Bay said her library had been moved seven times in a year or so. Others talked about acting as free day-care or taxi services for the kids who use their facilities.
Then there’s the money issue. Typical of the ludicrous way in which Canada micro-manages Indian Affairs files, First Nations are not allowed to raise taxes for public library development. That leaves already cash-strapped communities beholden to the Ontario Ministry of Culture and Tourism for a paltry $13,000 annual allowance to pay people operating a service that has been universally recognized as essential for literally thousands of years.
This is why James K. Bartleman -- whose first library was the village dump outside the Muskokas village of Port Carling where he learned to read from trashed comic books – told the World Library and Information Congress in 2008 that: “Reading was the great leveller in my life. And it’s the same thing for people around the world. No matter how poor you are, if you can read and have access to a library, you’re as rich as the wealthiest because you have access to entirely different worlds, worlds that allow you to escape the world of poverty and racism. Reading is truly magic.”
Mr. Bartleman has walked his library talk. The man from Mnjikaning First Nation who went on from humble beginnings to become the first citizen of a First Nation to be appointed Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor and who represented Canada as an ambassador on five continents, led a campaign that collected over two million books for First Nations in Ontario. He established a summer reading camp program in 28 fly-in First Nation communities, and donates the considerable proceeds from his popular two memoirs and a new fictional novel about a residential school survivor to his foundation that promotes Aboriginal literacy initiatives.
During my remarks on a panel at the North Bay gathering, I suggested that the librarians enlist the help of such high-profile book-boosters as Mr. Bartleman to publicly endorse their efforts to secure moral and financial support. A couple of years ago a “Speak Up for First Nation Public Libraries” campaign was launched, featuring posters of First Nations role models such as Carla Robinson, Derek Miller, and Waneek Horn-Miller. A website was also established, but the campaign failed to achieve the attention hoped for by organizers.
This may be why librarians included a panel about “effective communications” on the agenda of their October gathering. Specifically, the panel was titled “How to Present Yourself in the Way that Decision Makers will Hear.”
Chief Marianna Couchie of the host Nipissing First Nation territory, had some good strategic advice for the group, suggesting they needed to put together really well-thought-out proposals if they hoped to convince their band councils that libraries deserved a healthier share of scarce community funds. They had to know their facts – how many community members were using their facilities and services – and lay out a good business case for more funding. They need to form committees of committed community members, who can broaden support and suggest new ideas.
Nipissing’s Glenna Beaucage was cited as an example of someone who makes their library more than a collection of books, constantly offering a variety of programs on culture and language designed to draw both young and older community members to her facility.
Former Anishinabek Grand Chief John Beaucage told the librarians to remember that, no matter how important they feel their issues are, band councils are inundated with requests from community members who all think that their issues should be a top priority. He agreed that libraries should be considered as part of a First Nation’s educational portfolio.
National Chief Shawn Atleo is apparently on the same wave length, saying in a recent news conference that he has met with First Nations librarians across Canada, and that libraries are part and parcel of the joint Canada-AFN process to create a national education plan for First Nations.
Nobody in the room disagreed with the premise that libraries should be treated as essential services in First Nations.
And no-one would dispute points made on the Speak Up website about the direct benefits of good library service: supporting the success rates of First Nations students; contributing to higher literacy rates -- which translates directly to an increase in Canada’s Gross Domestic Product; fostering a stronger sense of First Nations’ identity and individual empowerment; providing information that can encourage healthier lifestyles.
This seems to be the case with many First Nations issues; everyone agrees there is a problem, but nobody seems to do anything to fix it.
Invariably, solutions require more political will and fewer platitudes. It’s one thing for federal Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan or Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to say that First Nations youth are entitled to the same quality education as everyone else in Canada. It’s another for such elected leaders to do what is required to make that happen.
Locking them in a room for a few hours with a bunch of frustrated First Nations librarians might be just what it takes to get things moving.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.