When readers led a revolution
People read, and the powers that be had to take note
April 7, 2017, was a day of protest in Saskatchewan. Readers across the province gathered in groups outside their local MLA offices. The Saskatchewan government had cut $4.8 million in funding to libraries in the 2017 provincial budget, which included a $1.3 million cut to Regina and Saskatoon public libraries. In response, Saskatchewan libraries announced that they would be unable to continue the “One Province, One Library Card” interlibrary loan (ILL) program that allowed regional libraries to loan books back and forth between locations.
Christine Freethy, a volunteer board member for the library in her village, understood how impactful the news was. The ILL system allowed library members at all locations in the province access to the full collection of provincial library materials regardless of the branch the materials were housed in. That meant that whether you lived in a village like Freethy did or in the city, if there was a book that you wanted to read located in a collection somewhere in the province, you could order and pick it up at your local branch once it was available to borrow. Besides the loss of the ILL system, the funding cuts were going to impact libraries in other ways as well, including staff layoffs and reduction of services.
On April 26, 2017, Freethy spoke with As It Happens, CBC Radio host, Carol Off. Explaining why she got involved in trying to reverse the government budget cuts, Freethy said, “I live in a town of 127 people. We can’t get the internet at our house. The library is absolutely […] crucial to our lives out here.” Noting the lack of other resources in her community – no bookstore or school – she described the library as the community hub of their town. “And it isn’t just our town, it’s towns like this all across Saskatchewan.”
Freethy was correct. From my own experience, libraries are a lifeline. Living in Melfort, SK at the time of the protest, the ILL system allowed me to engage with my curiosity and love of learning. Reading up on gardening practices sustained me through the winters and there was rarely a time that I could not borrow a book that I made note of whether fiction or non-fiction. It would be impossible for me to access that potential through my own resources, even today, and I was never limited by my rural location. The local library provided a secure space for my children to visit and access their own materials. They participated in many library events that created lasting memories for them, even inspiring them to volunteer at those same events when they got older so that younger people could have positive experiences too. To this day, I smile at the memory of my teenage son operating the “wall” of a “trash compactor” at a library Star Wars event as tiny Jedis squealed their way through the slowly decreasing space.
What happened in response to the Saskatchewan library budget cuts completely reversed my outlook on activism being something I couldn’t do. Freethy noted that a lot of people were talking about the budget cuts on Facebook, but there wasn’t a central space to have those discussions. So, Freethy, together with Sarah Morden, started a group called Save Saskatchewan Libraries and began inviting other regional library volunteers.
The response was immediate, Freethy recalled, “Within a day, we had 1500 people. In 10 days, […] 5,000 members.” I was one of those members. I recall my sense of helplessness sparking into hope. There was a plan now, campaigns. Doing our individual parts and posting our comments and progress on the social media group built a sense of unity and togetherness. Freethy and Morden set up a website so that people could directly email the government. They organized a similar letter-writing campaign that saw an estimated 1,000 letters produced and mailed in one week. A petition called “Vote to Save Saskatchewan Libraries” received more than 14,000 signatures. Next, we prepared for the biggest step of all: the mass April 7 demonstration “Drop Everything and Read” (D.E.A.R.).
The idea for D.E.A.R. comes from a uniquely literary source: the Ramona books written by children’s author, Beverly Cleary. Drop Everything and Read time was featured in books starring the fictional character, Ramona Quimby. Borrowing the strategy as a form of protest was suited to the situation, but I wasn’t thinking of that at the time. I was scared.
I knew that I worked and lived in a close-knit conservative community. It was difficult to imagine other people I knew feeling strongly enough to come out and participate, or to anticipate how others might view my participation. In the end, what strengthened my resolve was that I knew there would be people participating across the province, and even if there were only a few in my area, I would not be truly alone. And I had no choice. I understood that I was protesting an action that was going to harm the well-being of people and communities across the province in a profound way. It wasn’t just me.
At noon on April 7, at least 5,000 people from approximately 86 Saskatchewan communities gathered in front of their MLA offices and read a book of their choice for 15 minutes. In Melfort, that meant we were assembled inside our shopping mall near the entrance of our busy Co-op Food Store. I was not alone. That day, there were people who came out who like me had never protested publicly. Freethy said, “We had people who actually had to watch YouTube videos of what happens at a protest when they were organizing their own, because they’d never been to one or seen one in real life”.
Following the protest, the Saskatchewan government announced that Premier Brad Wall had asked the Minister of Education, Don Morgan, to review the budget cuts. When Morgan announced that the government had “made a mistake” and was restoring the $4.8 million to the library budget, I bawled. As Freethy said in the CBC Radio interview referenced earlier, “I’m not an important person. […] to know that like 7,000 other people, pretty much like me, who are kind of a little apolitical and stuff, […] didn’t just whine about it, didn’t just accept that the government would do this. We believed that we could change it and we did”.
Activism is something that people like you and I can do, and it can create change. Yet, I don’t pretend that the change by government that day was made for the same reasons that people were motivated to protest those budget cuts. That is why activism is ongoing.
For example, budgets are set every year for libraries, so they are always vulnerable. Freethy understood this too. In a CBC News interview with Stefani Langenegger on April 24, 2017, she said, “We know there will be continued review of the Library Act and of library functioning, and we’re not about to stop advocating for our libraries but, for now, this is a victory.”