Acknowledging Indigenous Rights and the Role that Libraries Can Play in Creating Change by Robyn Gray

IFLA’s Advisory Committee on Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression created the blog “SpeakUp!” to encourage people to reflect on human rights within daily life and work.[i] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that every human being regardless of race, colour, and religion are entitled to human rights ( However, there are populations for whom this is still a goal and not necessarily a reality. The proper respect and acknowledgement for Indigenous rights is a matter that has been addressed within Canada, but there is still a long way to go to obtain equality and the same respect for Human Rights that other people experience. The Committee on Indigenous Matters created the Canadian Federation of Library Associations Truth & Reconciliation Report (CFLA – TRC) along with a set of recommendations in 2017 (, to guide and encourage libraries in addressing Indigenous matters. The implementation of this plan within each province has been happening in different ways and is at different stages, and this article will speak to the progress made in Alberta in particular. Both academic and public libraries can do so much to further the reconciliation process, and this article examines some of the steps that have been taken and the work that still needs to be done.

Public Library Systems

Alberta, Canada has a unique structure in terms of its public library systems and how it delivers service across the province. Larger centres such as Calgary and Edmonton have their own libraries in place, with several branches throughout each city. For smaller, rural areas, there are a network of public library systems where one Headquarters helps coordinate and collaborate with numerous rural libraries. For example, the Northern Lights Library System has its headquarters in Elk Point, and staff there provide services for 47 small libraries (covering a total of 53 municipalities) across Northeast Alberta. Thanks to initiatives such as the CFLA – TRC Report, all libraries and systems across Alberta are finally gaining awareness about services for Indigenous peoples and ways that they can contribute to reconciliation efforts.

While public libraries are meant to serve the needs of all peoples, some libraries have had limitations in how they meet the needs of Indigenous populations. Because of their status under federal jurisdiction instead of provincial legislation, non-residents on reserves experienced higher library membership fees[ii], paying as much as $60 along with a local resident fee for limited services compared to what other library patrons received. Very few programs were available for Indigenous peoples that touched on their culture, and in some cases they encountered racism within the library.

Beginning in 2016, the Public Library Services Branch of the Government of Alberta provided an annual grant for Albertan library systems that are within the vicinity of First Nations Reserves and Metis Settlements (Alberta is the only province in which Metis people have a land base). Since libraries were given this grant, they have made strides in the service being provided to Indigenous peoples. First and foremost, library membership fees for Indigenous peoples were made equal to what they are for all municipality members.

At the Northern Lights Library System (NLLS), Colette Poitras was instrumental for creating positive, inclusive initiatives and outreach, and jumped into action when the grant was first provided. Managers and staff at each NLLS library were given cultural sensitivity training in 2016, including a historical tour of Blue Quills Residential School. Programs have begun being integrated into libraries that embrace Indigenous culture, including Cree language lessons. NLLS initiated outreach into Indigenous communities through facilitating attendance to Pow Wows and Treaty Days, and used this as an opportunity to welcome Indigenous peoples to the library. Because political and financial barriers have now been removed, NLLS is able to work on cultural and sociological barriers that have existed within communities. Similar to other library systems across Alberta, NLLS hired an Indigenous Library Services Liaison, Tanya Fontaine, to pursue these initiatives full-time. A plan was implemented for Fontaine to travel to Saddle Lake First Nation every Friday for a pop-up library so that populations on reserves could access books, DVDs, and electronic materials. A similar service for Whitefish First Nation was soon implemented. NLLS member libraries have also pursued pop-up libraries on Reserves: Lac La Biche County Libraries provides services to Heart Lake First Nation, and the Cold Lake Public Library conducts weekly pop-up libraries at multiple locations including the Cold Lake First Nation Wellness Centre, Cold Lake Native Friendship Centre, and the Elizabeth Metis Settlement Youth Centre.

Examples of Initiatives Beyond Public Library Systems

In 2017, the Public Library Services Branch of the Government of Alberta hosted a symposium called Public Library Services for Indigenous Communities. There were numerous informative sessions, including Aaron Paquette beginning the symposium with an author talk. The University of Alberta hosted the 2017 Workshop for Instruction in Library Use (WILU) Conference and featured both Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair and Jessie Loyer as keynotes to speak to the importance of librarianship and engaging Indigenous literatures and a sense of kinship. These are just a few examples of influential events in the library field that relate to Indigenous relations, and there is growing awareness about how libraries can make a difference in the ways that Indigenous populations are welcomed into the library. The University of Alberta is now offering a free, online course called Indigenous Canada, that summarizes the cultures, history, and colonization of Indigenous peoples so that all people can take the course and gain knowledge in this area. The University of Alberta is also conducting an influential project in which they analyze metadata and cataloguing terms used for Indigenous materials, remove racist terminology, and integrate more respectful language.

Poitras is now working for the Government of Alberta Public Library Services Branch, as the Manager, Indigenous Public Library Outreach. She works with public library systems across Alberta to ensure that they are enabling the best services to be provided for Indigenous peoples, and she also works with other partners such as the University of Alberta. Poitras has created respectful connections with members of the community; she never decides “what will be best for Indigenous people”, but rather listens to them and the way they describe their own needs. Fontaine is now working as a community learning coordinator in St. Paul, and continues to work closely with Indigenous peoples to implement change.


There is a long way to go in ensuring that all Indigenous peoples receive the service they deserve from their local libraries. While there has been movement in the right direction and awareness has been increasing, there is so much more to be done. Indigenous Rights are Human Rights, and libraries must continue to advocate for these rights within their work. Providing equitable services to Indigenous peoples is a crucial step to providing all people of all cultures with the resources and support they need in their local libraries.

[i] IFLA. SpeakUP! “Let’s celebrate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights!” 6 December 2017. [See Accessed 7 March 2018.]

[ii] Unlike in other Canadian provinces, some Albertan libraries charge a membership fee for all patrons

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