An unlikely hero
Fifty years ago, members of the Thunder Bay Public Library would have come to their local branch to read the latest periodicals, discover a new novel, or pore over old maps and newspaper clippings. On a Friday in 2019, the people of Thunder Bay can walk into their public library and be seen by a nurse. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they can meet with a social worker. And on any day of the week, the public can access Indigenous Knowledge Centres. This may not be the traditional model for a library, but the Thunder Bay Public Library (TBPL) is no longer a traditional library.
As is the case in many Ontario communities, Thunder Bay is experiencing change. In particular, as noted in multiple inquiries and reports, the city is facing the challenge of confronting racism and the tragic deaths of young Indigenous students. As residents seek a more open, safe, and inclusive future, the TBPL has made itself central to this reality. In 2018, the library developed an action plan to implement the recommendations from the Seven Youth Inquest into the deaths of seven Indigenous high school students and the Calls to Action from the more recent National Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRC).
Indeed, the library has emerged as an “unlikely hero” wrote Tanya Talaga in a March 2019 column in the Toronto Star.
A bold plan
The library’s action plan is a strong and bold commitment and acknowledgement to decolonize library policies and services. In the words of John Pateman, the Chief Librarian and CEO of TBPL, “TBPL recognizes, accepts and acknowledges that racism exists in Thunder Bay and at TBPL” and that “a strong anti-racism response is the answer.”
With the support of the library board, newly appointed Indigenous Liaison, Robyn Medicine, the Indigenous Relationships Supervisor, Samantha Martin-Bird, and the TBPL Indigenous Advisory Council, the organization began to transform itself from a place of mere lending and returning books to a place of connecting, healing, and building community.
Today, each of the TBPL’s four branches has an Indigenous Knowledge Centre—a dedicated section that protects, preserves, and supports Indigenous languages and cultures. The Elders-in-Residence program provides traditional counselling. At the Waverly branch, a partnership was formed to share space and resources with Anishinabek Employment and Training Services. And at the Brodie branch, near City Hall, nursing and social work services are available once a week for library patrons.
A hopeful future
The TBPL initiatives now provide a welcoming community hub for the residents of Thunder Bay, and they have helped inspire broader changes in the city. In 2018, the TBPL, the police service, and nine other civic institutions signed an Anti-Racism and Inclusion Accord committing to meet the TRC’s Calls to Action and to develop and maintain respectful relations with Indigenous governments, organizations, and individuals. A year later, the Accord’s founders invited representatives of the business and non-profit sectors to join them—all signs that the work of the TBPL continues to gain momentum.
When I visited the library on New Year’s Eve in 2019, the city was cold and more snow was expected in the forecast. But inside, I found staff and members of the public who were warm, engaging, and passionate about their work.
I often talk about the exceptional diversity and strengths of Ontario, and of how telling stories is key to beginning to understand one another. In the TBPL, these stories have a home. They are there in the leadership who were determined to change the status quo of the library system and create something more impactful. They are there in the nurses and social workers who leave their traditional offices and come to the library to meet people on their terms. They are there in the Elders, who come to share their knowledge and language with all those who wish to learn.
The same curiosity that drew people to libraries 50 years ago exists today, only now that curiosity is being met with innovation and opportunity. TBPL captures the strength of social cohesion and the potential of economic prosperity by creating a space that welcomes everyone. It was clear to me, as we looked ahead to 2020 in Thunder Bay on New Year’s Eve, that the residents have the tools to create a bright and resilient future and that by going forward together they will get there. The library is a great place to begin this journey.Sustainability