Public Services Manager, Northern Lights Regional Library System, Elk Point, Alta.
MLIS, San José State University, CA, 2014
Photo by Patrick Heagney
First Nations Champion
As a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta, Colette Poitras understands the impact library access can have for Canada’s indigenous populations—and how the smallest of obstacles can undo those benefits.
For nearly 20 years, Canada’s movement for Truth and Reconciliation has been working to address the abuses of the Indian Residential School system—which removed Native children from their homes and families, often by force—and the resulting years of inequities. Yet only recently has Alberta recognized that its indigenous peoples have not had equitable access to library services. In order to use neighboring libraries, those living on First Nations reserves or Métis settlements needed to pay a nonresident fee of $60 per person per year—a financial hardship for most families.
“The barriers had always frustrated me,” says Poitras. “Throughout the years, I tried to propose some solutions, but there never seemed to be a political will for change.”
In September 2016, the Alberta government, following Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations, agreed to provide more than $670,000 to three large urban libraries and six regional systems to cover the fees. Poitras says she has been waiting for this news her entire career, since she began as a cataloging clerk at the Northern Lights Library System (NLLS) in 2000 after raising a family. (She then moved into public services; with the encouragement of manager Kerry Anderson, she earned her MLIS in 2014.)
Because the funding arrived with few guidelines, Poitras immediately gathered a focus group of frontline NLLS staff to create a plan of service and budget for the initiative.
In the six months since the grant was announced, Poitras has provided cultural awareness training to the NLLS board and staff and has brought staff to First Nation pow-wows and Treaty Days celebrations, where they connected with tribal officials and community members, resulting in an arrangement to provide remote services to another First Nation reserve and Métis settlement, with more in the works. She also facilitated a history “Learning Day” at the First Nations–owned and operated Blue Quills University, formerly a residential school, and has purchased culturally appropriate library materials.
Since the fees were removed, more than 800 tribal members have signed up for library cards. Eventually, Poitras wants to use some of the funds to introduce indigenous programs into local libraries and hopes to bring indigenous staff and board members to NLLS. “To me, without truth…there cannot be true reconciliation,” she says, adding, “Collectively and individually we have an important voice.”