Indigenizing Library Services in Canada’s Prairie and Pacific University Libraries

On September 18th, 2014 I had the privilege of participating in a meeting dedicated to Indigenous library services in university libraries. Hosted by MacEwan University in Edmonton as a component of the semi-annual meetings of COPPUL Prairie and Pacific university library directors and deans, the meeting was intended to assist in the planning, delivery and promotion of culturally appropriate services to Indigenous students in collaboration with Indigenous faculty, students, Elders and community members.

The setting for the meeting was stellar: MacEwan University is composed of a series of stunning, visually striking buildings set on the north end of Edmonton’s downtown, on land once occupied by a grim rail yard. Now, combined with a remarkable and colourful variety of high-density housing and shopping adjacent to and across the street from the campus, the whole district is thriving and pleasantly pedestrian-and bicycle-friendly, despite the heavy traffic.

Of course, it was not the decades-old industrial heritage of the land which concerned, inspired and energized us that day, but rather the University’s presence on Treaty Six Territory, the traditional lands of the Plain and Woods Cree, as well as other tribes of the Treaty Six Confederacy. The day began with a blessing delivered by MacEwan University’s Elder-in-Residence Jerry Wood (Cree) whose infectious smile and sparking eyes welcomed us as he asked the Creator’s blessings on our discussions. Of special and profound significance is that Elder Wood is a drum-keeper; while he did not play the drum (which was stored in its carrying bag) he spoke of its 150-year history and origins, and of his obligations to carry it during his Earth-Walk until it can be passed on to another person able to carry it forward and live in a good way.

In attendance were several of the Indigenous librarian/authors featured in Deborah Lee and Mahalakshmi Kumaran’s recently-released book, Aboriginal and Visible Minority Librarians: Oral Histories from Canada, including Camille Callison (Tahltan, University of Manitoba), Jessie Loyer (Cree-Metis, Mount Royal), Kim Lawson (Heiltsuk-Kitasoo, University of British Columbia) and Mary Weasel Fat (Blood, Red Crow Community College), as well as Lee herself (Cree-Mohawk-Metis), Indigenous Studies Librarian at the University of Saskatchewan.

However, most of the participants — including myself — were non-Indigenous Canadians, an unfortunate irony not lost on those in attendance, not least of whom being Brendan Edwards, Librarian for the First Nations University Library and author of Paper Talk: A History of Libraries, Print Culture, and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada before 1960. The skewed demographics in the room led to considerable discussion over the course of the day regarding the low number of Indigenous students choosing librarianship as a profession, a condition partially owed to dysfunctional Constitutional arrangements in this country. Reserves are a federal responsibility and public libraries a provincial one — conditions leading inevitably to a dismal lack of public libraries on reserves, and ensuring that First Nations children have no (or minimal) contact with or access to libraries, or librarians.

A noteworthy exception is the award-winning Kainai Public Library on the Blood Tribe reserve in Standoff, Alberta, which opened in February 2013 through a partnership between Standoff’s Literacy committee and the Chinook Arch Regional Library System, and spearheaded Mary Weasel Fat — herself the recipient of the 2013 President’s Award from the Alberta Library Association for her innovative adult literacy classes through Red Crow Community College.

The challenge remains, however, that few children growing up on a First Nation will likely think of librarianship as a career, and will as a result — according to one speaker — retain an “unconscious suspicion” of libraries, seeing them as just another form of Western infrastructure intended “for the public good” but one that nevertheless overlooks Indigenous world views.

The gulf between European and Indigenous world views, knowledges and epistemologies underscored virtually everything we talked about. The very nature of library and archival collections — how they are organized, classified, indexed and made accessible — all depend upon these understandings. The most stark illustration of this may be seen in the differences between the Library of Congress Classification (LCSH) and Subject Heading systems — widely used by academic libraries around the world — and the version of Brian Deer Classification at Xwi7Xwa Library (pronounced “hwee [glottal stop] hwa”) at the University of British Columbia. Where LCSH is universal and totalizing — thoughtlessly paving over and erasing cultural distinctiveness — the Brian Deer scheme at Xwi7Xwa is deliberately and regionally specific to the coastal First Nations in British Columbia: it can’t be applied “as is” to other Indigenous contexts. For cultures and languages which are so complex, diverse and inherently land-based, such biocultural regionalism should be seen as natural and becomes a way to describe relationships between things in the world, and not (as in LC) their differences.

Still, barriers persist. One example of this is that, even when Indigenous languages and terminologies are incorporated into library catalogues and public software, there may not be support for installing the unique and necessary fonts on those computers. This is the case at Xia7Xwa Library, where only three workstations have them installed.

Given these vastly different epistemologies, misunderstandings on the part of even well-intentioned non-Indigenous Canadians are common. Aboriginality, as one speaker noted, is not a “subject area”: it relates to, guides and influences how one lives in the world. The distinctions between Western and Indigenous world views are completely unlike the conventionally-understood difference between disciplines, like the humanities and social sciences. As such, Indigenous science considers wholes, must involve and reference the oral wisdom of Elders, does not confine its deliberations to a particular disciplinary perspective, nor can it be applied without concepts of spirituality. Lacking such holism and restraint, Western science (and more perniciously, pseudoscience such as eugenics) — we were reminded — has in the past been used by politicians to provide justification for genocide.

Honouring place-centred knowledge, then, becomes central in strategies to decolonize and indigenize our post-secondary institutions. This begins with recognizing on whose land these institutions are built — verbally in speeches and public pronouncements, digitally on the institution’s websites, and visually through signifiers in the built environment. One participant observed that, while this has become standard practice in British Columbia’s universities and colleges — indeed it would be unthinkable not to start a public presentation without such acknowledgement — it appears to not be the case in Albertan counterparts.

At the University of Northern British Columbia, for example, in addition to reminders throughout the campus that the university sits on the traditional territory of the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation, a dedicated facility for Indigenous students and faculty — called “Lhuhuhwhezdel” (“Gathering Place” in the Lheidli dialect of the Dakelh language) opened in 2010 in the university’s library building. Similarly, at the University of British Columbia, there are frequent reminders of the campus’ presence on Musqueam lands, a recognition that reached particular solemnity on September 18th, 2013 when classes were suspended so that faculty and students could participate in hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In a breakout group in which I participated, there was agreement that such placemaking processes in the library must be integral, shared and inclusive and involve Indigenous students, faculty and Elders. In anticipation of objections from other cultural groups which might want their own dedicated space in the library, it must be understood that, in addition to acknowledging our institutions’ presence on Native lands, Indigenous students are not just another “stakeholder” group — they are rights holders, a distinction becoming ever more entrenched and recognized in Canadian law. We also agreed that New Zealand is way ahead of Canada in this regard: Maori designs, language and material culture being very thoroughly integrated in its educational institutions.

Through sharing our experiences and learning of our colleagues’ varied approaches to Indigenous library services, we came away both inspired by this resurgence of culturally-appropriate service delivery, and committed to working through COPPUL to encourage more young Indigenous students enter the library profession.