"Growing up, the books I read never reflected my experience".
My name is Colette Poitras and I am a Métis librarian.
Growing up, the books I read never reflected my experience. While I am white-coded, many of my family and friends are not. I never really realized how much I craved positive diversity within literature and within the library until I had my own small children. I was on vacation with my children and we happened to stop at a gift shop. I spotted the book SkySisters by Jan Bourdeau Waboose. I was literally awestruck. Not only did the children look like they belonged in my family, the lifestyle they were experiencing was one that I, as well as my children could relate. Within the book, the central characters, two Ojibway sisters are wearing winter coats, playing in the snow and experiencing the northern lights. Being a young mother, I did not have a lot of disposable income, but I purchased this title on the spot. My children are now in their twenties, but I still have this book. I hope to read it to my grandchildren some day.
When I took courses towards my Masters in Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree, I also noted a dearth in diverse literature, and a lack of diversity within the field of librarianship.
Before earning my MLIS (and for a period of time afterword), I had worked in a library system in rural Alberta. Libraries fall within the provincial Libraries Act legislation. The funding is primarily municipally based with some matching provincial support. First Nations Reserves in Canada fall within federal jurisdiction and funding. Hence, there is no straightforward provision for library services to residents of reserves within the province. Because of this, the system I worked at asked libraries to charge an extra $60.00 in addition to the municipal card fee that the library may charge. If a library charged $10.00 for a library card, a resident of a reserve would be charged $70.00. On top of that, the library card would be a non-resident card. After paying $280.00, a family of four would receive a card that only allowed for access to physical materials and programs in that location, it did not allow for access to e-resources or interlibrary loan from another library. I am a lifelong library supporter, but I would not pay that.
In 2016, the government of Alberta recognized this dissonance and provided funding to abolish the non-resident fee and provide equity and equality of service. Since then, I have been hired as the Manager of Indigenous Public Outreach for the Public Library Services Branch. My goal is not only to create a welcoming space in every public library in Alberta, also to have more community driven libraries within Indigenous communities. Making sure all libraries are collecting diverse and authentic literature, building relationships and having programming that encourages learning about Indigenous and other cultures. Creating space for positive dialogue about the real history within Canada and not the colonial narrative, which most Canadians have learned in school. Hiring diverse staff, which creates space to nurture readers, but also aspiring writers who can add to not only the literary canon, but allow others to learn and empower them with their stories.
Seeing SkySisters for the first time was not only powerful for me, it was empowering for my children and myself. I would like every person, particularly people who do not see themselves reflected much in the main stream to have that feeling. My goal is to encourage libraries to ensure that all people can see themselves represented within the library space - on the shelves, within the staff rooms as well as decision makers within the boardrooms.
Colette Poitras (BA, MLIS) is the Manager, Indigenous Public Library Outreach, with the Public Library Services Branch (Government of Alberta). She received a Library Journal “Movers and Shakers” award in 2017 for her work with library services to Indigenous communities. Colette also serves as the Chair for the Canadian Federation of Libraries Association Indigenous Matters Committee. She is a proud member of the Métis Nation of Alberta and a mother of two beautiful daughters.