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Heiltsuk Cultural Architect: Jessie Housty in conversation with Elizabeth Raymer

In the early morning of July 12, 2013, a fire destroyed the Thistalalh Memorial Library in the island town of Bella Bella, B.C. The library, which was named after a community leader, belonged to the Heiltsuk First Nation. It was the only library available to this small, isolated community on Canada’s western coast.

In 2007, Jessie Housty established the library through her job as a director of the Qqs Projects Society in Bella Bella. Book donors around the world — including book publisher Louise Dennys and her husband, Ric Young — contributed to the library’s collection. When the library burned down, Bella Bella was devastated but Housty resolved to build a new one.

Housty is the youngest person ever elected to her band’s tribal council. She is also a graduate student of medieval English literary history at the University of Victoria. In August 2013, Elizabeth Raymer spoke to Housty about her love of books and her drive to rebuild the library. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

ER: How did you first get involved in First Nation community organizing?

JH: Involvement comes naturally when you grow up in a small, remote community. I was fortunate to grow up in a very traditional family, and I was surrounded by people who believed strongly in community values: making sure that people were taking care of themselves and of each other, and making sure everyone had what was needed.

ER: How did you come to establish the Thistalalh Memorial Library?

JH: I work for a community-driven non-profit called Qqs Projects Society. “Qqs” is the Heiltsuk word for “eyes.” Our mandate, when we were founded in 1999, was to open the eyes of youth in our community to their responsibility as stewards of our land and culture and resources. Since 1999, we’ve been developing a suite of programs that support leadership and capacity development, particularly for families in the community.

A lot of what we do focuses on building a stronger sense of indigenous cultural identity with a strong environmental aspect and a strong sense of being connected to place. But we’ve also realized along the way that it’s important to focus on education, so this library was the first major literacy- and education-focused project that we created within the organization.

ER: Can you tell me about the opening of the library? Did you experience any resistance or get any encouragement?

JH: Bella Bella, geographically, is very isolated. We’re a sizable community — there are about 1,500 people in Bella Bella — but we’re on a remote island and have limited access to resources. Growing up, I was a very avid reader, but there was no bookstore or library. So making books readily accessible for anyone who ever had a desire to read seemed like a really important initiative. We didn’t want people to have to work to satisfy their desire to read.

We hadn’t had an all-ages library as a community space before. We had to start from square one in Bella Bella to sell people on the idea of having a library, of borrowing books and then returning them. I don’t think there was resistance to the idea of a library, but there was a lot of work that had to be done to build a culture around books and reading.

[Many members] of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation were taken away to residential schools; their experience of education was not necessarily positive. There’s been an ongoing effort in the community to ensure that all of our educational institutions deliver their programs in a way that’s consistent with community values and accessible to community members. When we were creating the library, we had to consciously fold that in as well. We were making an important space for books and learning, but also privileging in an equal way oral storytelling and other means of knowledge transmission that you might not always find in the library.

One of the neat things about the library was that it was not just a collection of books; it was a place where people gathered and shared stories. We made it a comfortable space; we made time for elders to come and tell stories. We helped recreate intergenerational teaching models that exist in our culture. You would get three or four generations all in the same room, passing down knowledge or sharing stories. Making space for [intergenerational conversation] was as important as making space for a book reading or a book club.

ER: What was the process of opening the library?

JH: Almost all of the books were donated. We made a conscious choice early on: if we wanted a community library, then we wanted to have a broad definition of the word “community.” And there was a community of supporters across B.C., Canada, even internationally.

Two early champions were Ric Young and Louise Dennys, who really supported what we were doing. Around the time of Ric’s birthday, he asked people to donate books rather than give him gifts. We received a small avalanche of beautiful, handpicked books. We had an incredible collection of books that had been inscribed by the authors for the library and the community of Bella Bella. It was just incredible to hold a book signed by Salman Rushdie, who sent his best wishes for our project. Even though we were geographically isolated, we felt community support for our project was really strong.

ER: What were your activities and successes? Did community feeling toward the library change?

JH: I think the buy-in for the project certainly increased over its lifespan. There were always parents and families who believed that it was important to promote education in the home, but they didn’t have the resources to make that happen. We realized that we were going to have an ever-evolving collection. I’d solicit donations of children’s books and once or twice a year give books away to young people in the community who wanted to come in and pick out a book. Just to be able to give such gifts — to have young people take books home to become part of their daily lives — was really important to me. I grew up in Bella Bella but didn’t have that kind of access.

ER: Tell me about the library burning down.

JH: We were located in a building that provided other community services. The fire was caused by a group of teenage girls. It originated outside the building, against a wall near the library. [The library was not a target.]

ER: What will you do next?

JH: It was a really difficult thing. The first time I walked into what was left of the building, I saw six years of hard work … reduced to knee-high black pulp on the floor. Nothing was salvageable, but it was incredible to me how quickly people mobilized. People reminded me that we had started from nothing the first time and that there was no reason we couldn’t do it again. In fact, this time we had more support because the community realized the value of what we were doing. And frankly it’s been overwhelming and beautiful and chaotic and wonderful. We have been flooded with books, and we are well on our way to rebuilding.

ER: How many books were in the original collection?

JH: We had 4,000 books in the original collection, and we’re likely going to have more in the new one. Right now there are people across the province who are volunteering to coordinate donation sites. We have people collecting books in Toronto. Some books have made their way to Bella Bella already. People sailing up the coast to Alaska pulled into Bella Bella to drop off boxes of books for us. We’ve had books arrive in the mail from Australia. So a huge community mobilized around this, and my house is teeming with books. We have thousands!

ER: When will the library reopen?

JH: At the end of September [2013], we hope to reopen again. We’re getting the generous gift of a Britco trailer. As soon as it arrives, we’ll be able to start stamping and labelling books and putting them on the shelves.

In retrospect, it makes sense that there was such strong community support for the original library idea — and for the new library that’s on the way. As First Nations people, we draw our identity from our stories and from the way our stories are written on the landscape. Finding ways to honour stories makes a lot of sense to the community.

ER: How can people send books to you?

JH: Volunteers created bellabellalibrary.com the day after the fire happened to help us coordinate rebuilding efforts. We’re updating the site to create easy ways for people to send books or make financial contributions.

ER: You’re pursuing a master’s degree in English literature: medieval literary history with a focus on ethnoecology and medieval botany. Did you ever consider studying library science?

JH: I feel very lucky that I grew up as someone who loves stories. I think that experience has prepared me more for building this kind of library than any formal education I could have received.

Reprinted from Freedom to Read 2014.