‘You’ve got to start at home’: How the Thunder Bay library is fighting racism

In a city known for systemic inequalities, the library has made inclusiveness a priority
By Jon Thompson - Published on Mar 11, 2020
Sam Bird, Thunder Bay Public Library’s Indigenous-relationships supervisor, at the Brodie Street Resource Library’s Indigenous Knowledge Centre. (Jon Thompson)

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THUNDER BAY — When the Thunder Bay library board held public consultations in 2018 to develop its new strategic plan, it asked residents about their goals and concerns for the city. Head librarian John Pateman says one issue was front and centre.

“We found racism was top of the list from everybody — Indigenous and non-Indigenous,” he says. “Interestingly, non-Indigenous people framed it more as a safety issue. They didn't ‘feel safe’ in certain places in the city, including Brodie library, whereas Indigenous people obviously just named it for what it is: racism.”

When the 2019-23 strategic plan was finalized, it enshrined anti-racism as an institutional goal. In a city known across Canada for anti-Indigenous racism, the library, as Tanya Talaga put it in a 2019 Toronto Star column, has “stood out from the rest” and “emerged as an unlikely hero.”

The effort to make the library system more welcoming and inclusive started in 2016, when the board hired recent college graduate Robyn Medicine, from Rainy River First Nations, as an Aboriginal liaison intern (the position became permanent the following year). The first self-identifying Indigenous employee of the 75-person staff, she sought a mandate from the broader Indigenous community by striking the first Indigenous advisory council of any library in Ontario (Toronto developed one in 2017).

“I didn't want to speak for the Indigenous community of Thunder Bay, although I did grow up using the library as well. But I needed to hear from them,” Medicine says. “We did leave it open because we have such a high Indigenous population that we would like to give as many people as we can an opportunity to share their feedback and input and be involved in something that's for the community. If we were to limit ourselves to ‘only seven people can be on this committee,’ it would limit what we could do.”

One of the council’s first moves was to arrange for smudging ceremonies to be allowed in library facilities. In its first year, it produced a relationship-building and reconciliation action plan. Last summer, it organized the Maawandoo’itiwin Language Gathering, a daylong event featuring Anishinaabemowin language instruction and family-friendly workshops on such subjects as podcasting and puppet shows. 

Under the board’s direction, the geography of the collection itself has changed. Indigenous literature is no longer categorized according to the Dewey decimal system in either the adult or the children’s sections: over the past two years, it has been moved to Indigenous Knowledge Centres — separate areas where material can be more prominently displayed — and placed under new classifications. When author Drew Hayden Taylor delivers a talk at the Brodie library this month, he’ll find his 2004 book, Futile Observations of a Blue-Eyed Ojibway, in the knowledge centre under “Social Conditions”; in most libraries, it’s under “Indians of North America – Canada – Humor.”

Indigenous-relationships supervisor Sam Bird — who serves as lead on Indigenous resource management and procurement and manages relations between the library, the city, and the Indigenous community — says that such topic headings as “First Peoples history,” “food sovereignty,” and “Kwe (Women)” are designed to be culturally focused, browser-friendly, accessible paths to learning from an Indigenous perspective for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

“It's all the way down to the level of reclaiming the library organization,” says Bird, who is, apart from Medicine, the only Indigenous person on staff. “[The board] wanted it to be accessible to the public. Indigenous people were saying, ‘We don’t use the library, because we don’t know how to find anything.’ So they were moving away from more academic terminology. Since I’ve been here, we’ve added a few more topic headings, and I’ve been trying to include more in the language. We have a topic heading called ‘Aki,’ then, in parentheses, ‘the land.’”

Artist Kevin Belmore updates his Instagram account at a computer in the new Anishinabek Employment and Training Services office in the basement of the Waverley library. Above is displayed a series of art works, painted by Belmore himself, that portray the Seven Grandfather Teachings. He uses the space for some part of every workday.

“It’s a shared-office-space kind of feeling for members who are affiliated with it. There’s a community of people who use this,” Belmore says, pointing at emblems emblazoned on the opposite wall that represent nine First Nations near Thunder Bay (there’s additional space for future partners). “So you just see this as an extension of your community because if we didn’t have it here, a lot of us would have to go other places — and this one’s specifically for us.”

The non-profit — which helps people gain education and skills to re-enter the workforce — officially opened its first office at Waverley in August 2019 and intends to open another at the Brodie library in 2021. “I think some of the future successes of working with Indigenous peoples will begin with recognizing we’re all treaty people,” says AETS executive director John DeGiacomo. “When we start to understand that, and when organizations like ours get out there instead of keeping in our own space, we’ll all be better off.”

Pateman points to the wide-ranging benefits of the arrangement. “Fundamentally, the relationship we have with AETS and the library could have been a transactional one where we’re the landlord and they’re the tenant in our basement: we give them space and they give us money,” he says. “The partnership goes way beyond that. It’s about our values and vision. We serve the urban Indigenous community, which has a high level of need, and we’re meeting those needs together with seamless delivery. AETS is doing the training piece, and the library has all the resources to support that — under one roof.”

While the library has been cited for its progress, Pateman himself says that more needs to be done: in spring 2019, he told city council during his regular report that the library remains a racist institution and that long-term, grassroots efforts will be required to make the space reflect the needs of the population.

“Once you’ve decided you’re going to pursue institutional racism, you have to start with your own institution first,” Pateman says. “You can’t just point the finger out there and say it exists across the road. You’ve got to start at home, in the philosophy of embedded white privilege and power, which is present in all white colonial settler institutions. Why wouldn’t it be? It’s the foundation of all of this.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

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

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