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Growing Literacy

The Write to Read Project BC Brings Libraries to Isolated Communities

By Sandy Crawley

In 2007 Steven Point, a tribal chief of the Stó:lō Nation, was appointed as British Columbia’s lieutenant governor. His aide-de-camp was Bob Blacker, an active Rotarian. One day, as Blacker was driving his boss to an official engagement, he spoke to Point about the great work that the Rotary Club, a venerable service organization, was doing in Africa, building schools in underserved communities.

Point listened with interest and, during an uncharacteristic pause in the wellspring of Blacker’s tale, asked a simple question: “What are you doing here?” Blacker responded, “What do you mean?” Point explained that many First Nations communities in the province had no access to a fundamental benefit of Canadian society: a public library. The result of this conversation between two talented and caring leaders was an extraordinary initiative called the Write to Read Project BC.

“The Write to Read Project BC is an equal partnership between participating Indigenous communities, Rotarians, Government House and the volunteers of the Write to Read Team,” says the website (writetoreadbc.com). “It brings together people who have an interest in increasing literacy equity through access to literacy materials for rural and remote Indigenous communities.”

Since that serendipitous conversation between Point and Blacker, the Write to Read Project BC has built and stocked 18 libraries where there had been none and is planning more. It’s an extraordinary success story, thanks to the leadership of these two men and volunteers such as retired librarians, technology providers, publishers, book distributors, builders and architects. The entire process is based on the respect and trust of leaders in the communities who have embraced the opportunity to share the wonders of the written word.

Eighteen communities from Tl’esqox (Toosey) at Riske Creek to Rocky Pines now have access to rich and diverse collections of books, periodicals, poetry and plays. The collections emphasize appropriate works by Indigenous authors, thanks to a new partnership with GoodMinds (goodminds.com), a book distribution company based on the Six Nations reserve in Brantford, Ont.

The library at Tl’esqox (Toosey) opened in 2011. It was the first library that Write to Read Project BC installed.

Murray Sinclair, an independent senator and former chairman of the Indian residential schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, reminds us that truth comes before reconciliation. What better way to shed light on the history and the cultural divide that continues to spawn inequity between the original peoples and settlers than to share the works of Indigenous authors who contribute works of scholarship and creative imagination in every genre?

From the beginning, the Write to Read Project BC has embraced a key principle of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: nothing about us without us. Bob Blacker understood that it is no longer acceptable for well-meaning settlers to descend on Indigenous communities with prepackaged orthodoxies as solutions to perceived problems. Taking the lead, he began to visit the communities Lieutenant Governor Point identified.

Blacker didn’t go in with a plan. He went in with questions. He went with an open heart and an open mind. He spent time with local leaders, shared stories and had the “ten thousand cups of tea” that make it possible to build real and lasting trust between settlers and the original peoples.

The results are clear: real and measurable social progress. The Write to Read Project BC is an ideal model to export to other regions in Canada but will require significant engagement with and support from the government. The project isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.

While there are significant initiatives to build on in other provinces, small and large p politics will inevitably pose challenges, not least between the diverse communities that make up the Indigenous population. But those of us who see the critical value of sharing knowledge through the written word can make it happen.

Sandy Crawley is the executive director of the National Reading Campaign. Visit nationalreadingcampaign.ca.

Reprinted from Freedom to Read Kit 2019.