Jul. 18, 2012 - Issue #874: Musician’s Survival Guide: Songwriters on Songwriting
Duty to consult
EPL creates new programs with Aboriginal groups, but future consultation is unclear
This past April the Edmonton Public Library received a minister's award in innovation for its provision of services to Aboriginal peoples. "The Alberta Municipal Affairs award for Excellence in Innovation in Public Library Services" recognized the long road Edmonton Public Library has taken to create an inclusive environment for Edmonton's growing Aboriginal communities. But this new approach has not been without its missteps.
As the library begins to expand its role as a community gathering space, EPL has taken the innovative step to also expand its outreach to groups who would not ordinarily approach EPL for services and has begun to remove barriers to diverse communities. But six weeks before EPL received this award for innovation, the Aboriginal Advisory Group, with a mandate that has included outreach and consultation since 2008, was notified it would be holding its last meeting on March 19 this year.
The notice came as a surprise to members, many of whom had time left on their terms and who had helped to guide the process of consultation to Aboriginal communities in and around Edmonton. The ending of this group has left a confused fallout after years of progress toward not only providing services for Aboriginal Edmontonians, but also creating a welcoming environment to communities that may not be the first to turn toward libraries as a gathering and learning place.
The role of the AAG, according to its terms of reference, was to provide a conduit for information exchange between the Aboriginal community and EPL and to provide guidance and contacts for EPL to begin to remove barriers Aboriginal communities might view in accessing the library. It's a mandate that has been recognized internationally in efforts on the part of library advocacy groups who recognize communities' changing needs from libraries.
As the digital age expands, libraries are quickly focusing on the role as a gathering space and community centre. A 2007 study by the Urban Institute and the Urban Libraries Council found that libraries are moving from being a passive place of research and reading to "An active economic development agent, addressing pressing urban issues [of] literacy, workforce training, small business vitality and community quality of life." As well, the Canadian Urban Libraries Council has stated that libraries are key spaces to create social inclusion. "Libraries, through the provision of resources, public space, and information communications and technology access and training, have a key role to play in the promotion of social inclusion." And, as the council states, those barriers to social inclusion must be assessed in partnership with the communities that libraries serve.
That service and partnership began to be recognized by EPL in 2007 with the hiring of the first Aboriginal Services Librarian in 2007 and the creation of the Aboriginal Advisory Group in 2008. Elder Gisele Wood, a member since the group's creation, quickly saw the potential in such a group. "My hopes were huge," says Wood. "Aboriginal people have seen places like libraries and museums as not a place for them. They didn't feel comfortable or inviting for them and it was kind of cold, a cold place, so I was hoping to make EPL more friendly and inviting for not only our youth but people of all ages to involve people coming into the library."
As a member of the AAG, Wood served as the Elder, of which the terms of reference required the group to have at least one. Her insight fed directly into the mandate outlined in the terms of reference for the group, "to act as a conduit of information, insight and guidance regarding the Aboriginal community." It's a mandate that EPL CEO Linda Cook feels the AAG has met.
"The mandate at that time was to strengthen the relationship with the library and the aboriginal community," says Cook. "When we started they were great. They're a fabulous group. They provided connections for us into the aboriginal community because they were aboriginal themselves and had close ties to the community. And as long as they trusted us, then aboriginal groups would trust us. They opened a lot of doors for us."
Since 2008, EPL has expanded its connections with 15 different Aboriginal groups in Edmonton. In 2009 EPL unveiled its Aboriginal collection and space on the second floor of the Stanley Milner branch and since 2011 all EPL branches feature Aboriginal collections. EPL has also hired 18 community service librarians who work across the city in the 17 branches of EPL. Cook believes this outreach allows for greater connections on the part of the librarians. "Once we hired 18, they now work with and have relationships with all kinds of aboriginal organizations that specifically service aboriginal people," says Cook. "Now it's permeated throughout the city, it's not just one central place where aboriginal programming occurs. It actually takes place throughout the city."
But it's this geographic distance and the disconnection to an Aboriginal advisory body that is concerning to members of the now-defunct group. "I'm concerned because I feel that when people work with Aboriginal people then they should have, and need to have someone Aboriginal, someone knowledgeable in the culture, the spiritual aspect, and be able to advise them and someone who is available to help them answer questions," says Wood. "As far as I know, I don't know if there is someone they can turn to, if they're looking for someone to turn to, to ask for advice so everyone is working in their own silos on their own."
Jacqueline Fayant, another former member of the AAG shares similar concerns about the continuing role of advising, outreach and relationship building at the centre of EPL's decision-making processes. "We [the AAG] all come to the table with diverse relationships. And even in that, for eight or nine Aboriginal members strong, we're still not representative of the aboriginal population but it's a good start," says Fayant.
But in February this year the EPL executive team accepted the advice of the City of Edmonton's Community Services staff, who EPL had brought in consult on AAG relations, that the AAG should be brought to a close, according to Cook because of disagreements over the direction of the group. "Towards the end they wanted to be involved in policy making and the only way they can do that is if you're on the board," says Cook. Although the AAG was never intended to be responsible for policy creation, the mandate to "advise and make recommendations regarding services, marketing and publicity for the library," was written into the terms of reference for the group. It's these goals that some members of the now defunct group are concerned for in the future.
"If there's nothing to bridge or to connect those Aboriginal groups in their silos they remain small and neutral, they won't be asking the things we're asking, because no one will know about it at a higher level," say Fayant.
While EPL is working with its community-led service model, the 18 community service librarians and the improved Aboriginal resources in each facility, concern remains around future goverance and policy consultation models. According to the Canadian Urban Libraries Council's a toolkit for social inclusion, inclusion must be consistently integrated into the operational framework of an organization: "It is also necessary to keep this work constantly on the minds of the board of trustees, staff members, and volunteers. Both will strengthen the library's ability to effectively remove barriers to inclusion."
Members of the AAG were invited to apply for vacancies on the EPL board, as well as the Wicihitowin Circle of Shared Responsibility and Stewardship or through seeking appointments to the Edmonton Aboriginal Urban Affairs Committee (EAUAC) in order to have an impact on policy.
"It was felt that communicating to the AAG that our now deep community librarian relationships and collaborative program development with Aboriginal agencies was a much better approach to our community engagement interests than having our own group," writes Cook in a follow-up email to Vue.
According to Cook there is no plan currently to integrate an additional aboriginal advisory body outside of an aboriginal representative that might apply to the library board of directors. And neither Cook nor the former members of the AAG spoken to could name a person who expressed interest in applying for those positions.
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