Ontario Public Library Association honours Wiikwemkoong librarian

Sheri Mishibinijima

Lifetime achievement award for Sheri Mishibinijima

TORONTO – Sheri Mishibinijima, the former head librarian at Wikwemikong Public Library, has recently received a lifetime achievement award from the Ontario Public Library Association for her decades-long dedication to and advocacy for Northern Ontario public libraries, especially those within First Nations.

“I nominated Sheri for her dedication and passion for so many years. She was explaining to me how frustrating and how slow the process is but she’s kept moving forward and maintaining the full level of honesty, integrity and respect for what she does and the future. It’s a very rare quality,” said Feather Maracle, CEO and director of library services at Six Nations Public Library in Ohsweken.

Receiving news of her award win was a special moment for Ms. Mishibinijima. 

“It feels that I’ve accomplished a lot, so (this award) feels wonderful,” she said. “I worked hard at the library to see the children succeed there and I continue to work where I am now to ensure that the children are receiving the best services that they can receive, and that they have the best world available to them as well.”

Her library career began 24 years ago in Wiikwemkoong during the mid-1990s. Since the library started in the 1970s it has been an important force for community betterment, something Ms. Mishibinijima saw first-hand during her career.

Ms. Maracle recalled how Ms. Mishibinijima used the interlibrary loan service (which was cut last April) to help out a student who was reading significantly below his appropriate grade level. Over time, using materials borrowed from other libraries, the young man’s reading level improved to the point that he surpassed his grade’s standard reading abilities.

“That story continues to be told to this day because of the importance of libraries to communities and especially the importance of interlibrary loans to First Nation communities. Her library, along with the majority or probably First Nation public libraries, doesn’t have the same access to resources and the same budgets to serve all the needs of their populations, especially growing populations,” said Ms. Maracle.

Radio Interview with Sheri Mishibinijima

Advocating for public libraries for Indigenous people in Canada is a never-ending process. Ontario is the only province in Canada that provides funding to First Nation public libraries. These operating dollars come from the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport’s Public Library Operating Grant and a First Nation Salary Supplement Grant, which combine to a total of roughly $15,000 per First Nations library per year.

Some federal funding is available, though this is taken out of a reserve’s education budget. This means a reserve’s band council must cover the outstanding costs for items such as rent, hydro and communications services. Of the 133 First Nations in Ontario, only 47 host public libraries—just over one in three reserves.

During her career, Ms. Mishibinijima took professional development courses focused on creating unique and relevant programming for library patrons. She also resolved to get the library better connected with counterparts in the province and join several industry associations.

“We were part of the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries, and that (helped) the non-First Nation libraries realize that there’s more First Nations out there that need library resources, so they started advocating on our behalf as well,” said Ms. Mishibinijima. 

She also joined the National Reading Program, at which point the library developed a business plan. The Wiikwemkoong library became a strong voice on an Indigenous public libraries committee, which continues to advocate for more First Nation libraries to join the ranks. 

The number of First Nation libraries has remained steady as new libraries join and others fall away, but Ms. Mishibinijima said the prospect of forming a First Nation library comes with significant challenges.

“The salary and the operating grant that is offered for First Nations is very low. And it’s kind of hard to manage the library with the amount of money that you do get from the ministry for operating,” she said.

Ms. Mishibinijima got more support for her nomination from Blue Mountains Public Library CEO Sabrina Saunders, who served as CEO of Six Nations Public Library before this posting.

“(Ms. Mishibinijima) has sat on every First Nation Public Library committee over her tenure, including First Nation Public Library Week, First Nation Communities Read, National Reading Campaign, served as chair of her Northern Network committee and as the Northern First Nation representative on the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries board,” wrote Dr. Saunders in her nomination letter.

“She has spent years beyond her planned retirement working to provide succession to her community. She has been … seen as an expert on First Nation literacy and engagement matters in our libraries. As such, she is the person whose advice is sought—and will be most missed upon her retirement,” the letter continued. 

Lifetime achievement award nominees are screened against four criteria: commitment to the broader library community, implementation of creative and innovative ideas that have been adopted by public libraries throughout the province, positive support for the profession as evidenced by mentoring and participating in the ongoing education of librarians and library staff or participation in professional associations, and evidence of having earned the respect of the profession, their colleagues and their community and being a person whose advice is sought.

The challenge, going forward, is going to be finding strong voices who can continue advocating for libraries in discussions with chiefs and councils.

“Libraries are important and the people need a safe place for their development for their personal growth. The challenge will be finding that strong voice in a First Nation library.”

Despite retiring from the official role, Ms. Mishibinijima has continued advocating for the importance of open learning spaces for all people.

“Wherever I can, I speak on what I know and where things should change. I still want to be that voice so it’s not forgotten.”

She has transitioned to school health support services in Wiikwemkoong, offering the tools children need to succeed from occupational therapy, speech, language and behaviour therapy.

One of the voices advancing the fight for better services in First Nation public libraries is Ms. Maracle, who has taken up Ms. Mishibinijima’s portfolio following her retirement. Ms. Maracle now sits on many of the same committees and boards as Ms. Mishibinijima did. 

“Every reserve should have a library. Towns and cities—even hamlets—have libraries. It’s a travesty that First Nations don’t have the same access to resources, especially on reserves, as the other people who came to Canada have. It’s a travesty that the original people are treated as second- and third-rate citizens in their home and it’s important that all people have access to this,” said Ms. Maracle.

She also advocates for publishers to support works by Indigenous authors so that authentic Indigenous stories can be shared with young children, increasing the feeling of inclusion and representation within printed media.

“(Sheri) is so well-deserving of this award,” said Ms. Maracle. “The work she has already done has already had lasting effects and it would be wonderful if I could carry on the work she has done.”

Ms. Mishibinijima said she was grateful for all the support that has helped her create a meaningful service for her community.

“I just want to thank Wiikwemkoong chief and council and the community for supporting me and making sure that the library was a vital place for them, and that it continues to be a vital place,” she said.