In my ongoing efforts to make the Port Hardy Library a safer workplace, and a more comfortable space for customers, I was invited to a elders' luncheon at the Gwa'sala-'Nakwaxda'xw Nations.
Addressing the elders, I tried to convey how we have worked hard to make our library a welcoming space to everyone in the community, no matter what their status or condition. But while I was concerned with the elders understanding their community is welcome at our library, the elders told me that our staff was too welcoming, too "soft," and we needed stricter boundaries. They expressed genuine concern for the safety of our staff.
I learned that people cannot access services on the reserve when they are intoxicated or otherwise under the influence. They are not allowed in the administrative offices or health care offices. There are many treatment options available, but there's a zero-tolerance policy on intoxicated people wandering into offices or meeting spaces.
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This lovely luncheon experience led to a visit to the library by two local elders.
They expressed similar concerns that we are too soft. They were concerned for our safety and the safety of all our customers -- as they put it, grandmas with their grandbabies. They advised us to stop people at the door, and if they're intoxicated, tell them to turn around and leave.
The elders also advised us to pay no attention when intoxicated people accuse us of racism. When we ask an intoxicated and disruptive person to leave the library, we are called racists. The same person, when sober, knows full well that's not why they're being asked to leave. It's just something to say -- a way to get a rise out of us. I'm always reminding staff to let it roll right off them. The affirmation from the elders was extremely useful!
The elders asked for our permission to pray for us. We held hands in a circle and bent our heads while the more senior person prayed. While this was happening, an intoxicated person interrupted, trying to ask a question. The elder in prayer held up her hand in front of his face and prayed harder. The man apologized and shrank away.
Now, I couldn't tell them that what works for them will not necessarily work for us. We cannot refuse admission to the library based on the appearance of intoxication or our judgement of someone's condition. I can't put staff in a position of assessing customers' fitness for entry. We can only ask customers to leave based on their behaviour. There's a difference.
In addition, an elder can address community members in a way we cannot. If our staff spoke spoke that way, they would be escalating -- and putting themselves at risk. The person who brought me to the luncheon put it this way: The elders can put a person in their place, because no one's going to punch them.
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During this visit, my staff and I received a beautiful affirmation. The elders knew that our library was a welcoming place for members of their Nation, knew that we have created a space of caring and respect. Their concern for our safety meant so much to us.
The elders gave us a word: a Kwak'wala word to use in the library. Receiving a word is not a simple translation. It's a gift. The elders were saying that we are connected to their community.
The word is maya'xala. Here is Pewi Alfred of the 'Namgis nation in Alert Bay demonstrating the pronunciation.