Niisaachewan had never had a library. Here’s how they got one

Thanks to a partnership between First Nations and an Ontario non-profit, Indigenous communities are welcoming new libraries
By Shelby Lisk - Published on Mar 09, 2020
The Niisaachewan library, which officially opened last month, currently offers more than 1,000 books. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Kerr)

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For years, Bernice Major had to drive 30 minutes to Kenora to pick up library books for her children. “It was tiring, especially when you’re at work all day, then you get home and you’ve got to race to the library to get the book before it closes,” says Major, a councillor in Niisaachewan Anishinaabe Nation and mother to 10-year-old twins who love to read.

Major had always wanted a library for her community. In 2018, she met Terri Meekis, a councillor in Wabauskang First Nation, 200 kilometres northeast, and heard about the library it had opened there in 2017 thanks to a partnership with a charity called SchoolBOX.

The Almonte-based SchoolBOX was founded in 2006 to support education for children in Nicaragua. To date, the organization has built 85 libraries across that country, with help from Canadian volunteers and donations. In 2012, Meekis travelled to Nicaragua with the group for a build. In 2017, she went back, this time bringing along her nine-year-old daughter.

“When we were there, the community shared a lot,” says Meekis. “They shared their food and their culture, and we did a cultural exchange … I actually did a round dance at the end.”

On the 2017 trip, Meekis told SchoolBOX director Sarah Kerr that she wished her own community could have such an opportunity: only 46 of the 133 First Nations communities in Ontario have public libraries, and Wabauskang wasn’t one of them. Funding can be a major obstacle: municipal tax revenue, which First Nations don’t have access to, is the most significant source of funding for public libraries in Ontario. According to Sarah Roberts, a researcher at the Ontario Library Association, tax revenue accounts for 95 per cent of public-library budgets; First Nations libraries, though, rely solely on provincial grants administered by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport (on average about $2,600 annually) and federal money allocated for on-reserve education. As of 2017, only 22 of 45 First Nations libraries reported receiving operating funding from the band council.

So Kerr decided to expand the program’s reach. “It’s kind of an awakening for Canadians,” she says. “It’s great that we can be global citizens and empower kids all around the world, but we also need to be looking in our communities and our neighbours here and collaborating.”

The result was SchoolBOX North, a project that aims to establish libraries in First Nations communities in Canada. The Wabuaskang First Nation library, housed in the community’s youth centre, was its first project.

Major believed the concept could work in Niisaachewan, too. Meekis connected her with Kerr; in November, the community started transforming an unused bay in the local fire hall into its first library. Officially opened last month, the facility currently offers more than 1,000 books.

“The funds for the Niisaachewan Learning Centre came from generous families and companies from Almonte, Ottawa, Toronto, Victoria, and Vancouver who all believe that education is the key to break the cycle of poverty and empower kids,” Kerr says. “A small grant from the ETFO Humanity Fund helped, as well as donated scholastic points from retired teachers. It was truly a grassroots effort.”

In communities, such as Wabuaskang nor Niisaachewan, that don’t have an elementary or high school, the library can become a hub for learning. “It’s about the books, and it’s about the language, and it’s about the education,” says Kerr. “But it’s also just about connecting the community: creating a space where kids can come in and elders can tell their stories in an oral format.”

The library in Niisaachewan is home to the Seven Generations continuing-education program, which is designed to help people receive their high-school diplomas, and to the family well-being program, which provides supports for Indigenous children and youth in child welfare or youth-justice systems and their families.

In Wabauskang, SchoolBOX supplied more than 500 books, along with furniture, iPads, e-readers, and artwork. In Niisaachewan, as well as the books, they provided furniture, a laptop, a printer, and toys and children’s resources. As the library is now registered with the Ontario Library Association, it can access funding to update its collection and pay for a librarian.

The Niisaachewan team stocked the library with Indigenous authors, including some from their own community. “It’s not everywhere that you have Indigenous authors and illustrators, and these books, available to you,” says Major. “When I was growing up there was nothing close to that in any of the libraries that I could find, and it never even occurred to me that there were Indigenous authors or illustrators.”

“We just listened to Bernice and the vision that she had for her community,” says Kerr, who notes that SchoolBOX is in the consultation phase with a few communities for upcoming projects. “We’re not trying to invent something out of thin air. It’s just building off of the local capacity and these amazing women who are working so hard for their own kids.”

Major says there’s already an interested candidate for the librarian position and that youth in the community have asked whether they can volunteer.

In the meantime, she and others take turns running the space. “It’s my night to keep the library open later tonight,” says Major. “And we’re going to play board games. We’re going to try Taboo. I play Taboo with my girl and her friends at home, and they think it’s so much fun, so I told her to bring her friends down to the library tonight.”

This is one of a series of stories about Indigenous issues brought to you in partnership with Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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