Saanich aboriginal library first of its kind in Canada

Bruce Parisian thought about creating an aboriginal library at the Victoria Native Friendship Centre for years.

“We’re always looking at how we can reach out to the community and meet their needs,” said Parisian, the executive director of the centre. “One of the things we realized was how many youth and children there are, and our whole intent of teaching them.”

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He discussed the idea at community picnics, picked up books here and there, and even purchased a $10,000 collection. But it wasn’t until he put a call out for volunteers while speaking at a federal Liberal party breakfast more than two years ago that the ball got rolling.

“Lo and behold, some volunteers came forward,” Parisian said.

With their help and that of several community partners, the friendship centre library, located at 231 Regina Ave., near Tillicum Centre in Saanich, officially opens Wednesday.

“It’s the first aboriginal lending library in a friendship centre in Canada that we know of,” Parisian said. Friendship centres started to pop up in the 1950s as a meeting place for indigenous people in urban areas. The Victoria Native Friendship Centre has been around since the 1970s and is a hub for cultural, community and health programs. It also has a preschool.

Parisian said Victoria has a mix of aboriginal people from local First Nations and elsewhere throughout North America who use the centre.

“We welcome everyone,” including non-aboriginal people, he said.

The new library’s collection of 1,500 aboriginal titles and 900 general-interest books are available to anyone with a membership, which costs $1, for a three-week loan, three books at a time. There are no late fees, either. “It’s an honour system,” Parisian said.

The collection includes aboriginal fiction, art, languages, history, spirituality and children’s books from indigenous writers in Canada and around the world.

“Looking at these books, you see how vastly different many communities are. It’s impressive,” he said.

The University of Victoria is helping catalogue the books and providing an online catalogue. The Greater Victoria Public Library donated furniture and has provided mentorship.

“It’s exciting to see this come together,” said Rina Hadziev, the GVPL collections and technical services co-ordinator. “We want libraries to be where people are … and the friendship centre is already a cultural gathering space, so it’s a natural fit.”

The library was a pile of boxes when Barbara Strachan came to help put it together two years ago. The former school librarian, principal and library administrator from Ontario has worked with a team of volunteers to organize, catalogue and get the space ready.

“It’s amazing, the people who have materialized to support this,” she said, noting donations of books and money, and the volunteers who will staff the library five afternoons and one evening a week.

Russell Books staff are watching for titles on a library wish list, put together from other indigenous collections. The books are bought with a $2,100 Times Colonist Raise-a-Reader grant.

Strachan said they are still looking for book donations and volunteers, but her greatest hope for the library has come while building it.

“One of the things I hope for is that people who come have a greater appreciation of the accomplishments of indigenous peoples here,” she said.

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