October 23, 2017

Public Outcry Saves Saskatchewan Library Funds

Drop Everything and Read rally, Fox Valley, Sask.
Photo credit: Susan Rose

In an abrupt about-face, the provincial government of Saskatchewan, Canada, on April 24 restored every penny of the $4.8 million it had cut just a month earlier from public library funding as part of its 2017–18 budget. It was a reversal that elected officials admit was prompted by mounting public opposition to the cuts, spurred in part by a Facebook group that sprang up almost overnight to energize many grassroots protests.

The announcement by Saskatchewan Education Minister Don Morgan wrapped up a tumultuous five weeks in which a determined and unified library community prevailed over what were considered long odds.

They saw thousands of petition signatures, a claim by Morgan that usage had declined significantly and some parts of Saskatchewan might have too many libraries—rebutted point by point by the nonprofit Saskatchewan Library Association (SLA)—sinking poll numbers for the political party in power, a protest aimed directly at elected officials, and a sudden halt to Saskatchewan’s popular interlibrary loan system.

Interlibrary loss

Losing the popular sharing resource gave Saskatchewan library users a bitter taste of what budget austerity would mean across the province, multiple library officials interviewed for this story said, but was unavoidable because of the revenue cuts.

Saskatchewan has 1.1 million residents spread out across a largely prairie expanse roughly four times the size of its closest U.S. neighbor, North Dakota. Even small libraries in sparsely populated rural areas obtain the bulk of their operating funds through local tax millage, but banding together in regional systems allows for funding for the interlibrary sharing network and dedicated staff to do the work.

On April 10, the seven regional systems curtailed all interlibrary loans. There was simply no longer any money to cover expenses, explained Jean McKendry, director of the Chinook Regional Library based in Swift Current, Saskatchewan. There are staff and shipping costs involved in the network, she noted, strongly denying it was a political tactic designed to ramp up pressure on the education ministry. “That was purely financial,” the director said.

Michael Shires, president of SLA, said, “I think people realized the importance of interlibrary loans. Saskatchewan was probably the first province in Canada to have a totally integrated library system.”

“That really rocked the boat,” said McKendry. “That’s what people love the most about our system. It’s simple and universal. It’s about sharing.” On May 1, less than a week after the $4.8 million was restored, the interlibrary loan network was up and running again.

Deep cuts proposed

The library budget cut, announced on March 22, would effectively have been a two-pronged spending reduction. Systems in Regina and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan’s two largest cities, lost $1.3 million, a relatively small slice of their operating budgets but 100 percent of the money they received from the province. Another $3.5 million was shaved from seven regional systems, which help administer the sharing network that serves more than 300 public libraries.

Though that $4.8 million was only a tiny percentage of Saskatchewan’s $14.8 billion spending plan for FY 2017–18, which started April 1, it would have meant a 58 percent cut for the seven regional libraries. That prospect generated loud protests across the western Canadian province.

About face

When that outcry reached a crescendo, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall announced on April 24 that library funding would be restored for the current fiscal year. He also promised a broad analysis of government funding for libraries in the coming months.

Morgan, in a telephone interview with Library Journal, admitted that the provincial government had erred. “We started hearing from people all across the province,” Morgan said. “It was a bunch of loud voices that we heard. You don’t want to be wrong all the time. But when you are wrong, you want to stand up, you want to own it, and you want to fix it.”

On Facebook, Wall posted a statement on April 24. “While there were many difficult decisions taken in the budget, the reductions in library funding without giving libraries any tools to meet the new challenge was a mistake,” the premier wrote.

Social media strategy

Meanwhile, Christine Freethy, a resident of tiny Rabbit Lake who organized the Save Saskatchewan Libraries Facebook group, which boasts 6,200 members and helped galvanize opposition to the budget cuts, told LJ she was stunned by the reversal, but not surprised.

“I know why they changed their mind,” she said. “We were hurting them in the polls.”

Freethy said her Facebook group quickly realized that the key to success was commandeering the spotlight. While libraries were hardly the only Saskatchewan institution smarting from the budget process—education spending was trimmed by 6.7 percent, the provincial sales tax rose from 5 to 6 percent, taxes on alcohol and cigarette sales rose, and an entire province-wide bus service, the Saskatchewan Transit Company, was eradicated, with 224 jobs lost—“our strategy from day one was to get out there faster than everybody else and be louder than everybody else,” said Freethy. “They were going to have to walk back some of these changes. So I wanted that to be us.”

In recent years, social media has been used by a variety of library advocacy groups to organize opposition to budget cuts. After March 22, Freethy said there were lots of online conversations springing up among library supporters, and it made sense create an online platform for these discussions. So she and Sarah Morden, a friend from Saskatoon, started the Facebook group. “Within 24 hours I had 2,000 members,” she told LJ.

A Facebook group, rather than a simple page, was an important distinction, Freethy said, because it allowed organizers to strategically shape the message. Only those posts that advanced the library community’s agenda would be made available for views. A small group of administrators, she added, worked diligently to guard against trolling.

“We had a strategy of being officially non-partisan,” Freethy added. “We were able to attract a lot of people to our movement who voted for them in the last election, a lot of rural people who their base is, by being officially non-partisan and pretty much staying pretty clean. Not that we weren’t critical of the government, but we didn’t let anything get too crazy or too much political rhetoric. We kept it really accessible.”

A website was also created, www.savesasklibraries.ca, which urged visitors to “Take Action to save our libraries.” It also offered a tool to write letters to elected officials and featured petitions available for download.

Rallying to the cause

In the five-week battle to overturn library budget cuts, one of the main pivot points was the Drop Everything and Read rally.

Drop Everything and Read was the brainchild of Weyburn, Saskatchewan, resident Leslie Richards, according to Freethy. She proposed a strictly non-confrontational “read-in,” where residents would gather outside the office of their local Member of the Legislative Assembly (or MLA, as they’re universally called) and read silently as a group. The suggested time for these protests was a mere 15 minutes.

Once again, the Facebook group was a handy and effective resource as far as spreading the word across Saskatchewan. “Leslie Richards messaged me on Facebook and said I have this idea,” Freethy said of Drop Everything and Read.

Before April 7, opponents of the library cuts had busied themselves writing their MLAs or signing one of several online and written petitions. There was also scattered radio and TV coverage. But Drop Everything and Read promised to make a more visible statement, one that would also be hard for local news TV cameras to resist.

On April 7, starting at noon, crowds turned out at an estimated 85 MLA offices across Saskatchewan, Shires and Freethy said. Even the spring weather seemed to be on the protesters’ side.

“It was the first really beautiful day of the year,” Morgan, the education minister recalled, adding that the province-wide turnout “no doubt” had a role in the governing party’s change of heart. He lauded the “peaceful and respectful” behavior of participants.

Shires described how, in his case, he and his wife were the first to arrive at his MLA office in the city of Regina. The lawmaker even came outside to greet the SLA president with lemonade and cookies. Quickly, a large throng of participants joined the couple. TV crews were there to get it all on video. “It was quite an event,” the SLA president said.

Shires said an estimated 6,500 people across the province took part in Drop Everything and Read.

“It was the largest mass rally in a generation in Saskatchewan,” Freethy said.

That same day in Swift Current, McKendry closed the library for an hour around midday (she later kept it open an hour later than normal) so that she and other community members could gather for a different kind of Drop Everything and Read observance. Swift Current’s MLA happens to be Premier Wall. Instead of a silent read-in, the library supporters had something else in mind: a vocal rally complete with more than 200 people.

This gathering went well enough that a similar demonstration was quickly planned for April 29 in Swift Current, McKendry said. Coming five days after the April 24 budget restoration, that event still took place, only this time as a celebration rally.

“I have reason to believe that the premier wanted that to stop,” Freethy said of the rallies. “I just think the premier said, ‘Make these people go away.’ We were a huge problem. Politically it was hurting them a lot.”

There was polling data to support that claim.

On April 20, CBC News in Canada reported that poll numbers for Saskatchewan Party—the political party in control of provincial government—had dropped from 62 percent support in the 2016 election to 44 percent, as determined by the firm Insightrix. That company said a majority of respondents had a negative response when asked about the proposed budget.

That day Premier Wall, in a statement emailed to the CBC, said he had asked Morgan to begin a comprehensive review of library funding and report back to him. Less than a week later, the budget reversal was announced.

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Comments

  1. I’m a Saskatchewan-based librarian who blogged extensively about the funding cuts and the public response to them.

    You can find my posts on the topic here: http://headtale.com/category/library+news+politics/

  2. Judy Nicholson says:

    The article was fairly comprehensive but missed the “vote” petition which gathered close to 20000 signatures in just a few weeks. This was a call for a referendum to urge gov’t to return funding to 2016 levels.

    • G. Sernich says:

      Yes, I was wondering when the article would mention the ‘Vote’ petition. I made a small contribution to the ‘Vote’ campaign by gathering about 70 signatures in and around my small town. Many thanks to Merrilee Rasmussen for her huge efforts on that petition.

  3. Laureen Marchand says:

    As one of the many, many people who contributed in some small way to this campaign to make it the success it was, there is no way to say a big enough thanks to the organizers and all the participants. I live in one of the small and remote Saskatchewan communities that probably would have lost its library due to the cuts, shortly after having lost access to resources we deserve as much as any larger community. I’m so grateful I didn’t have to find out in reality what a blow it would have been. Thanks also to Library Journal for recording this campaign for posterity and the rest of the English-speaking world.

  4. Shirley Ens says:

    Thank you for this article which shows the world how a few people can make a huge difference when they stand up for what is right. I am an avid reader and library user and am so grateful that the funding has been restored for this year.

    Christine and the others who created and ran the Save Saskatchewan Libraries group did an incredible amount of work. Their efforts rallied the people of Saskatchewan and made this campaign possible.

    The reversal of the cuts is for one year only and readers in Saskatchewan will be ready to fight for our libraries over the next year and beyond. Libraries are a necessity in all communities and must be accessible to all.

  5. Ruth Anderson Donovan says:

    I am so grateful to see this story in a respected library journal. As an educator who followed the progress reports and cheered on the library workers in my home province, from next door in Alberta, I was encouraged by the examples of professionalism, effective research, and creative social action using both social media and local gatherings. The results, and the clear thinking and care leading up to the turn around( at least for this year), rallied those who love libraries and the services and sense of community they protect and build. This action gave courage to those, both in Saskatchewan and further afield, who may have become disillusioned about speaking up or working with others to hold municipal or provincial or federal policy makers accountable, when it comes to citizen involvement in decision making. Thank you to all those involved in taking a stand for the One Card system and regional and city library services and staffing in remarkable Saskatchewan. One spinoff was a greater understanding across the province of what librarians and library staff and volunteers actually do to help educate and sustain community.

  6. Elaine Wood says:

    My mother used to tell me about the importance of the Travelling Library (forerunner of the Interlibrary loan system). She worked there when it operated out of the Legislative Library in the 1920’s. Good for you Saskatchewan for rising up against the slash and burn Library-cutting government!

  7. Mary Lorenz says:

    Kudos to the Saskatchewan community and library!!!!

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