February 17, 2018

Edmonton Public Library Engages Elder in Residence

Edmonton Public Library Elder in Residence Wilson Bearhead
Photo credit: Shawna Lemay/EPL

As part of its commitment to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation movement, the Edmonton Public Library (EPL), Alberta, appointed its first Elder in Residence. In February Elder Wilson Bearhead, a cultural educator and member of the Wabamun Lake Indian Band in Treaty 6 territory, began a yearlong engagement at EPL, where he will connect with library customers one-on-one to share his knowledge about Indigenous customs, culture, and knowledge. He will also help connect EPL with organizations that serve and support Indigenous communities.

Bearhead will be on site at EPL’s Abbottsfield Penny McKee and Enterprise Square branches through February 2018, spending two hours a week alternately at each location.

While a number of Canada’s academic libraries have engaged Elders in Residence, including the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the Winnipeg Public Library hosted an Elder in Residence several years ago, Bearhead is the first to serve in that role in Edmonton.


For nearly two decades, the movement for Truth and Reconciliation has been working to confront the abuses inflicted by the Indian residential school system on Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Under the system, from 1876—when Canada’s Indian Act was passed—until 1996—when the last residential school closed—Native children were removed from their homes and families, often by force, and placed in a network of government-funded boarding schools across the country. The children were made to assimilate into what was then considered the dominant culture, and often given substandard nutrition, health care, and education; physical and sexual abuse was common. Post-traumatic stress disorders, alcoholism, substance abuse, chronic medical conditions, and suicide are common among survivors and their families.

The Truth and Reconciliation movement is the result of a six-year mandate from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which spent five years collecting testimonies and oral histories from Indigenous peoples across Canada. The 94 Calls to Action issued by the TRC involve not only healing for those families directly affected, but education for the non-Native population, members of whom may not be aware of the injustices of the Residential School system, or understand how deeply it impacted—and continues to affect—Indigenous communities across Canada.

Several libraries have stepped up to meet the challenge of bringing the Calls to Action to their communities. The Saskatoon Public Library in Saskatchewan has established a Read for Reconciliation space, where library customers can access a full set of the reports and oral histories collected by the TRC and read from the library’s collection on the history of residential schools.

EPL’s Exploring Reconciliation series provides programming around the theme as well, including Indigenous book clubs, an Amiskwaciy History Series featuring Native speakers, traditional arts and crafts, a program for Indigenous writers, and a Cree language conversation circle. Still, EPL executive director of customer experience Linda Garvin felt that there was a large component of the Indigenous population in Edmonton that the library was not reaching. In particular, she told LJ, a level of trust was missing between the library and the Native population.

There were several factors at play in the lack of trust, Garvin explained. As an institution, libraries have not traditionally played an important role in the lives of Indigenous people. But also, “a disproportionate number of people that we suspend from [EPL] for behavior that doesn’t fit with our space are Indigenous. How can we develop trust when we’re suspending people? Now that we understand that many of the behaviors exhibited are as a result of trauma that people have experienced…there’s a greater appreciation for what they have gone through, perhaps, but also an understanding that we need to offer something more.”

The trust Garvin wanted to see couldn’t be developed simply by working with library staff, most of whom are non-Indigenous. An elder—a member of the Indigenous community who is chosen to serve, respected, and trusted—could help create a bridge between Edmonton’s Indigenous communities and the library.


In Summer 2016, as EPL geared up for the $69 million renovation of its Stanley Milner main library, it joined the Alberta Teacher’s Association, the City of Edmonton, Reconciliation in Solidarity Edmonton, the Edmonton Public School Board, and the Edmonton Catholic School Board for a week of reconciliation events throughout the city. EPL spoke with Indigenous community members during the event to get feedback on what they want from the library, and what emerged, said Garvin, was the need for more meaningful initiatives on the library’s part—“not just beans and bannock [a traditional Canadian camping bread],” as one resident put it. “In other words,” Garvin added, “our response to the calls to action need to be authentic” and need to happen in a timely way.

Danielle Powder, previously a research assistant at Native Counselling Services of Alberta, signed on with EPL in September 2016 to serve as its Indigenous relations advisor. She and Garvin met with members of local Indigenous communities, including elders, to gather their thoughts and feedback, and confirmed the idea that bringing one of their members to the library would benefit everyone. “When the elders heard that we were thinking about it they commended us for doing it,” said Garvin.

With some extra funding in EPL’s personnel budget, the library was able to arrange for a paid contract position, and Bearhead was a natural choice. He had led the pipe ceremony that kicked off the Week of Reconciliation, speaking on the significance of reconciliation activities, and had worked with EPL on several other occasions.

Bearhead, who grew up 100 kilometers northwest of Edmonton, was raised with a strong storytelling tradition—one he hopes to keep alive at the library. “My parents and grandparents, when I was younger, said to me, ‘language is important.’” Bearhead told LJ. “They taught me creation stories [and told me that] you need to have a good balance while you walk between the spirit world and this world.”

“He has a marvelous way of putting people at ease and of creating safety around him so that people will easily talk and share,” said Garvin.” And he’s curious and interested in people, so he sets a great stage for folks.”


Northlands Indigenous Princess Brittney Pastion dancing to the drumming of the Nakota Thunder drum group at the April 7 EPL launch event
Photo credit: Shawna Lemay/EPL

Bearhead began his Elder in Residence activities in February, and was officially welcomed by EPL with an event at the Enterprise Square Branch on April 7. At the ceremony, EPL CEO Pilar Martinez formally requested “the honour of his wisdom, gifts, and guidance,” according to the library’s website.

“I spend a lot of time talking to the Indigenous folks, because they seem to want to come and talk to me,” Bearhead told LJ. While Indigenous community members tend to come up to talk with him, he said, he will often approach non-Indigenous library customers on his own.

Many of the Indigenous people he talks to are far from home, having traveled to Edmonton looking for work. “They leave their community behind, and sometimes they miss that relationship,” he explained. “And one of the things that they miss is talking to an elder and just [telling] stories, or sharing information. So when they heard about the Elder in Residence they were very pleased.”

One of his most significant contributions to date has been his participation in the funeral of a patron who was well-known in the Native community. The man’s mother had met Bearhead at the library, and turned to him when she needed someone to officiate and pray at her son’s funeral. Although he couldn’t speak the family’s native Cree, he was able to pray in Lakota, and lead a discussion about “life and the hereafter,” Bearhead told LJ. “That was really good for the family, to be able to ask,” he added, “and that was good for the library to provide that service during that difficult time.”

The man’s mother “was so grateful for that,” recalled Garvin. “I think those are the kinds of things that an elder can do that certainly our library staff wouldn’t do, that make a difference in someone’s life…. It certainly made a difference for that woman. I think she felt valued.”


So far, responses to Bearhead’s residence have been positive, with customers wishing that he could be at the library for more than two days each week. He would like to work in other locations, as well, as the space at Enterprise Square, in particular, is too small for many activities other than conversation.

His library service will evolve as he continues to hear from community members, explained Garvin, with the potential for circle conversations, smudging ceremonies, and additional programs and workshops around activities such as drumming or storytelling—“All the ways that Wilson knows to connect people with indigenous culture.” Although his focus will be on customers, Bearhead will also work with staff to provide awareness training.

Outputs of the program will be evaluated through the number of people Bearhead meets with, and Garvin plans to meet with focus groups and staff at both locations to get outcome-based information on what difference having an Elder in Residence has made. Bearhead will present at a systemwide professional development day in October, and possibly conduct a systemwide training session.

“Ideally, what we would like to see is that by having an Elder in Residence that knowledge sharing would be able to take place, and that would be able to contribute to our collective responsibility for reconciliation,” said Garvin. It’s not just indigenous people who are responsible, it’s whole communities that need to work toward reconciliation.”

In addition to his work with patrons, added Bearhead, he would like to encourage more Indigenous community members to think about working in libraries. “I hope that through this experience I’m providing, young people will look at that and want to become a librarian or a manager,” he said.

The benefits of the elder in Residence program are not only for the library. Elders, and the communities they represent, are concerned that their knowledge and teachings—much of it based on oral tradition—will be lost as they age. Sharing that knowledge at the library is a step in the right direction for everyone. Bearhead’s elders, he recalled, taught him, “You need to take care of your spirit, and if we don’t teach you how to take care of your spirit then we have failed. We don’t want to fail, so we’re going to take the time to help you understand who you are as an Indigenous person and our relationship with the creator, and our relationship with the land.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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  1. J Rodriguez says:

    What a wonderful program, and great way to utilize the library as a community resource!

  2. Jay Jones says:

    Wilson rocks!!!

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