So on Monday, I heard that some library colleagues from the Palliser Regional Library system who’d been laid off were going to be at the Sask Legislature. Since it was my day off, I decided to tag along.
I was able to join them in the NDP’s Caucus Office for a while before the afternoon sitting began. While waiting to go to Question Period, various MLAs and NDP staffers offered their condolences and heard the stories of what the cut to rural public libraries would mean, not only for the six people in the room who’d been laid off, but for thousands of other people in Moose Jaw and in communities across the south-central part of Saskatchewan.
Then it was showtime.
We were escorted up to the public gallery and took our seats as the session got underway. There were introductions, petitions then the actual question period.
Introduction of Laid Off Palliser Workers
Mr. McCall: —Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker,and thank you for your indulgence on the clock. I’d just like to introduce a group seated in your gallery, Mr. Speaker. I’m talking about some workers from the Palliser Regional Library, Mr. Speaker. And we’re joined today by Wendy Robbins, 25 years of service at Palliser; Melissa Silzer-Frank, 17 years of service; Hugh Armstrong, 10 months; Dale Maier, 8 years of service, Mr. Speaker; Jody Arnold, 10 years of service; and Linda Peters, 20 years working at the Palliser Regional Library, Mr. Speaker.
They’re joined by the president of CUPE [Canadian Union of Public Employees] Local 9, Stacey Landin. And, Mr. Speaker, they’re here concerned about the future of libraries in the province of Saskatchewan. So if all members could join me in welcoming, and thanking, these individuals to their Legislative Assembly.
The Speaker:— I recognize the Minister of Education.Hon. Mr. Morgan:— Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I’d like to join with the member opposite in welcoming these individuals to the Assembly today. Sometimes we hear divergent views on a lot of topics. I suspect we’re going to hear one later today. But nonetheless, regardless of what happens, people in our library systems, people in our schools do great work. They make our province a better place and we thank them and want to very much welcome them to the legislature on behalf of the members on this side of the House.
Petition Re: Reduction of Library Funding
Mr. McCall:— Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. I rise to present a petition from citizens concerned about libraries in Saskatchewan, Mr. Speaker. The undersigned residents of the province of Saskatchewan wish to bring to your attention the following: whereas the Saskatchewan government has cut funding for regional libraries in half or by $3.5 million and has eliminated funding, in part, for libraries in Regina andSaskatoon, that this drastic funding cut will have a devastating impact on libraries, especially regional libraries and the many people who depend on them.Mr. Speaker, they point out that libraries are about more than just borrowing books. They point out the meeting rooms that are used by community groups, library staff hosting education programs and clubs, the publicly accessible computer terminals that are essential to many. They point out that there are services for seniors, children, employment supports, language and reading groups, citizen test preparation, and help for newcomers to build their resumés. They point out that these cuts will have adisproportionate impact on rural communities where libraries are vital community spaces, Mr. Speaker. They point out that potential closures or reduction in services will severely impact our communities, all of our communities, Mr. Speaker.In the prayer that reads as follows, the petitioners respectfully request that the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan renew its commitment to the invaluable programming, education opportunities, and public spaces our libraries provide across this province and to restore the $4.8 million in funding for public libraries that was cut in the 2017-2018 budget.Mr. Speaker, this particular petition — and I know that my colleagues, in particular the member from Lakeview, have presented other iterations of this petition, Mr. Speaker —but this particular petition is signed by citizens from the city of Regina. I so present.
Funding for LibrariesMr. McCall:—Mr. Speaker, the Sask Party can tie itself in knots trying to explain these cuts, but we’ll take the word of the hard-working people on the front line over theirs any time, Mr. Speaker. We’re joined here today by six workers from the Palliser Regional Library who have been laid off as a result of this government’s short-sighted attack on libraries. These six individuals, Mr. Speaker, represent 80-plus years of service, Mr. Speaker.Palliser Regional Library officials say they may not be able to support Saskatchewan rural library branches and has already had to slash services, including programming for kids. We know this is just the fallout from the cuts to one region, Mr. Speaker, and other job losses will certainly be coming. So how can the minister justify putting these devoted employees out of work and denying Saskatchewan people from the valuable services that they provide?The Speaker:— I recognize the Deputy Premier.Hon. Mr. Morgan: — Thank you, Mr. Speaker. We always want to offer sympathy and be very mindful whenever there is something that impacts people’s employment. It’s something that’s not taken lightly by this government. However we are in some changing economic times, and there’s no doubt there’s going to be some changes that are there. Mr. Speaker, it’s incorrect to talk about some of the numbers the members were referring to there. The members referred to 58 per cent cut. In fact the provincial reduction is actually 16 per cent of Palliser’s budget. They are still receiving $286,000 per year from the budget from the province. Last year’s total budget was $2.44 million. So, Mr. Speaker, they’ve got a significant number of reserves. We want to continue to work with all of the regional libraries in the province, find out if there’s better ways we can work to continue to deliver service, maintain employment, and, Mr. Speaker, our overwhelming concern is trying to do the best for the citizens of our province.The Speaker:—I recognize the Opposition House Leader.Mr. McCall: — Mr. Speaker, let me try and break this down as simply as I can for the minister opposite. Tomorrow’s the year anniversary of the election that took place in this province, Mr. Speaker, when that party of course ran on keeping Saskatchewan strong. The whole question of cutting libraries, Mr. Speaker, was precisely nowhere in their campaign. And yet he has the gall to stand here today and try to explain away the fact that these six hard-working employees at the Palliser Regional Library, who have 80 -plus years of service amongst them, Mr. Speaker, that this is somehow rebalancing reserves. Or, you know, he wants to play the numbers game. The numbers are this, Mr. Speaker: six employees, 80-plus years of service, been sandbagged by this government when it came to their attack on libraries. So my question to the minister is this: can he stand and apologize to those workers for expecting better from this government?
The Speaker:—I recognize the Deputy Premier.Hon. Mr. Morgan:—Mr. Speaker, the member opposite wants to talk about numbers. In Saskatchewan we have roughly 4,000 people per library; in Alberta, approximately 14,000; in Manitoba, 10,000 per library. Mr. Speaker, we have to do a better job of ensuring that we deliver good service to the citizens of Saskatchewan. We are maintaining the interlibrary loans service. Mr. Speaker, in 1969 legislation was enacted in this province to allow libraries to coexist inside schools. Mr. Speaker, that piece of legislation exists from 1969 when Ross Thatcher was premier, through the Devine era, through the Blakeney era, through the Romanow period, through the Calvert era, and has always existed, Mr. Speaker. And it allows people to incur some significant savings by collocating across the province. And that’s taking place in a number of places and perhaps, Mr. Speaker, it has to take place in some more places. We will continue to work with the libraries to find efficiencies and economies as we go forward.The Speaker:— I recognize the Opposition House Leader.
Mr. McCall:— Mr. Speaker, it’s quite the change of tune from that minister. Just last year while honouring Library Week, Mr. Speaker, the minister welcomed “. . . opportunities to appreciate the contributions [of] the province’s more than 1,200 libraries [that they] make to the cultural, economic, educational, and recreational development of Saskatchewan people.” We’re not the only ones, Mr. Speaker, questioning the Sask Party’s spin on these cuts. The Regina Public Library issued a statement this morning to correct misinformation that has been provided to the public. They say visitation is up 13 per cent over the last five years and they say that the borrowing of e-books and e-audiobooks is up 327 per cent since 2011, Mr. Speaker, a lot of which rests on the regional and provincial system that we have, Mr. Speaker. They say many of the services offered don’t require a library card, but are meeting spaces and community hubs where people come to use the Internet, learn a second language, search for jobs, and participate in library programming. Will the minister recognize the invaluable services provided by Saskatchewan libraries and immediately reinstate the funding before any more damage is done?The Speaker:—I recognize the Deputy Premier
Hon. Mr. Morgan:— Mr. Speaker, provincewide the number of items that’s been checked out of our public libraries has dropped by 1.6 million since 2007. Mr. Speaker, the member opposite actually makes the argument by talking about how much the online services has gone up. I think he mentioned a number in excess of 300 per cent. And, Mr. Speaker, those are the type of things that we have to consider as we go forward. We are moving rapidly to becoming an increasingly online province. We’re pleased that the infrastructure that we’ve provided provides good Internet service throughout the province and, Mr. Speaker, we want to ensure that that continues so people have access to whatever material they think is appropriate. And, Mr. Speaker, we’re going to continue to work with that type of thing and, Mr. Speaker, we want to make sure that we do everything to make sure that the citizens of our province, the students of our province, have the best access. And, Mr. Speaker, there will certainly be some changes as we go forward. We will work with the libraries. We will work with the staff at the libraries to make sure that we continue to deliver whatwe’ve committed to our citizens.
Here are some of my other random thoughts from the couple hours I spent in the people’s house (uhm, is that what people call it or am I making that up?)…
- We missed it as we were still being escorted up the stairs when proceedings started but a group from Carry The Kettle First Nation (near my hometown and many of whose students I went to high school with. And keeping it library-related, of course the niece of a guy from CTK that I graduated with is someone I helped with her job search at my library) were welcomed and even got welcomed in Cree by NDP MLA, Buckley Belanger who encouraged them to not think the Legislature wasn’t a place for them and he hoped some of them would follow his footsteps into politics in the future.
- Holy crap, is it hard to cut & paste from the PDFs that they put up for Hansard. Not sure if that’s my PDF reader or a problem with how they format things on their end? But HTML versions would be awesome! 😉
- This is a pretty common complaint but do the MLA’s (on both sides of the aisle) even try to pretend to be interested? As various MLAs made their introductions or read their petitions, others would be casually talking amongst themselves, shuffling through papers, or fiddling with their phones or tablets. This only got worse in Question Period.
- Ironically, we weren’t allowed to use *our* cell phones in the gallery. I assume that’s because there’s not supposed to be any noise of any kind from guests – no clapping, no cheering or booing, no phones ringing, no throwing coins at the Health Minister’s water glass. But seems strange that they can all fiddle with their phones and I can’t take mine out to snap a quick picture (er, at least officially!) 😉
- It was interesting to see which MLAs looked up and made eye contact, especially when the laid off workers were introduced (I’d been asked if I wanted to be introduced as well but declined as I felt it was more important to focus on the Palliser folks.)
- Don Morgan, who was serving as the main Sask Party representative for the day (uhm, I think there’s a term for this that I should know – House Leader?) in the absence of Premier Wall, did look up a couple times that I saw.
- Refuting some of the arguments he’s used to defend the cuts to libraries is a whole other blog post I’m planning to get to eventually. I will say that I keep oscillating between thinking these cuts were made, almost out of naivety, without realising how much damage they’d do to the provincial library system or if they were a purposeful, malicious attack on education and literacy. I hope Donald Trump-style celebrations of ignorance haven’t yet coming to Saskatchewan (er, except in the comments section of the Regina Leader Post) so I lean towards the former. But a lot will depend on how the Minister responds to the ongoing outcry from the public and the re-assessment that’s apparently happening with Ministry and library officials.
- Speaking of looking up, it was also fascinating to watch a number of the Sask Party MLA’s – many of whom won seats in traditionally strong NDP areas of Regina, Saskatoon and in other more urban centres, often by very slim margins in the last election, and to think about how they must know this budget may have very well sealed their political fate. I suspect the Sask Party truly believes that they’ll be back on course by 2019 and/or people will have forgotten the steps they took to get their finances under control in this budget. But I’m not so sure.
- On that note, Saskatchewan has 61 seats in total. (Er, because the Sask Party, “who will never apologise for looking for efficiencies” decided to add 3 unnecessary MLA’s in the last election.) Regina has 11 seats, Saskatoon has 12, Moose Jaw has 2, Prince Albert has 2. That’s 27 seats in our major urban areas. There are also two that the NDP currently holds in northern Saskatchewan. So if the NDP runs the table on major urban seats during the next election in 2020 including a couple other cities that traditionally voted NDP before the Brad Wall era (Yorkton, Battlefords), there’s a really good chance that they can take back government.
- And again, I go back to my point that I don’t think the Sask Party realised how poorly may of their budget decisions – including cuts to libraries – would be received in rural Saskatchewan. I see some similarities in the cuts to libraries as the big cut to the Sask Film Tax Credit. The difference is that the film industry was a very urban enterprise and when film crews came to town, it was mostly to access additional tax credits available for productions shot outside a certain distance from a major city (which is why “Corner Gas” was shot in Rouleau and “Little Mosque on the Prairie” was shot in my hometown for example.) Libraries, on the other hand, are a long-standing local institution where, just like with city libraries, parents who once attended a local story time now might bring their own children for that same story time. The roots for libraries run very deep.
- On that note, I have to wonder how many MLAs on the Sask Party side (not just the ones in danger of losing their jobs) also recognize the value of the library to the small communities they serve and the people who still live there? I mean, when John Gormley, the voice of right-wing talk radio in Saskatchewan, ends a show he’s dedicated to the library cuts by saying *he* has fond memories of being a young dad and taking his kids to story times, not just for the literacy aspect but for the socialization aspect as well, you *know* this isn’t a right vs. left issue – it’s a right vs. wrong issue.
- Anyhow, getting back to the point of the post – after the Question Period, we filed down to the rotunda and a friend of mine who I graduated high school with and who was one of the people laid off, entered into a scrum with reporters. She later posted on Facebook that she was more scared of doing that than of dying (!) but she acquitted herself very well – probably never having done anything like it before, let alone having had any formal media training. (And it paid off – she also got interviewed nationally on CBC’s “As It Happens” today! Fast forward to around 11:30 in Story 2 on this page to hear the interview.)
- I won’t “out” the person but of course one of the journalists in the scrum is a regular in my branch! 😉
- I said I wasn’t a fan of the childish behaviour – not paying attention, heckling – but I caught one that was pretty funny. Finance Minister, Kevin Doherty was saying to, I think, Danielle Chartier: “I wasn’t here in 2007 just as the honourable member across the floor wasn’t either” in reference to when the Sask Party took over from the NDP and Mr. Belanger yells out “Yeah, but you were here in 1989!” a reference to Minister Doherty being a Ministerial Assistant in the Grant Devine era – a group that is Saskatchewan’s previous record-holder for worst fiscal mismanagement!)