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SIM alumna speaks on libraries, Indigenous communities and building relationships

Posted by Miriam Breslow on February 8, 2017 in News, Alumni & Friends
Monique Woroniak and Sandra Toze, Director of SIM

Libraries are recognized as community learning centres. Monique Woroniak also sees them as places of opportunity that can help to reset the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The School of Information Management (SIM) graduate returned to Halifax recently to give the 2017 Dalhousie–Horrocks National Leadership Lecture, and explained why libraries are well suited to help advance this effort.

Woroniak’s interest in this area started long before she began library studies. “I always had an interest in Canadian politics and history,” she says, “and at a young age, I started having hints that maybe I wasn’t being taught everything about this country.” At age 12, for example, was startled to see Elijah Harper, Oji-Cree chief and Manitoba politician, on TV. Until then, she had understood “Indians” to be simply a part of history.

This experience led Woroniak to pursue knowledge about the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. She completed a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) at the University of Manitoba in political studies with a minor in native studies. “I started growing connections with Indigenous peoples through the minor and through volunteer experiences outside of school,” she said. “By the time I came to Dal I was certain I wanted to focus my coursework, and eventually my thesis, on Canada’s relationship with Indigenous communities.”

During her undergraduate studies, however, Woroniak did not anticipate pursuing a Master of Library and Information Studies program. After her first degree, she volunteered on a community museum board with a librarian. “He suggested that maybe this would be the thing for me,” she explains. “So I looked at library science offerings across the country, and I knew right away that the profession would be the right fit.” Woroniak chose Dalhousie partly because she was attracted to Halifax, and partly because SIM shares a faculty with the School of Public Administration, which appealed to her.

It seems to have been the right choice. “I’m extraordinarily grateful for the education I got at Dalhousie,” says Woroniak. “SIM is known for producing leaders in the field who aren’t afraid to try new things. And they’re extremely good at caring about where their alumni have gone and continuing to support them in their careers.”

Woroniak’s career has so far been spent working to responsibly support Indigenous individuals and groups as they work to challenge the injustice they experience. “I think by now anyone with basic knowledge of this field would agree that Canada was founded through a process of extreme violence and racism,” she says, “and that it’s continued to operate based on a dysfunctional relationship with Indigenous Peoples, who have effectively subsidized Canada’s prosperity. We’re finally beginning to understand that we can’t continue like this.”

Outside of work, to encourage others to learn, Woroniak and three other women founded the website groundworkforchange.org in 2015. “When I was thinking of how to contribute to advancing the priorities of Indigenous Peoples in Winnipeg,” she says, “I thought it would be a good way to do something useful based on their expressed needs, while applying my professional knowledge around information.”

Woroniak has been lauded for her work centring Indigenous voices. She received a CBC Manitoba Future 40 Award and a Manitoba Library Service Award; she was nominated to serve on the Truth and Reconciliation Committee of the Canadian Federation of Library Associations; and the Aboriginal Circle of Educators last year gave her the Honouring Our Allies award for her work in libraries and the community. “It feels very unusual to receive recognition for attempting to do things that should have always been done,” says Woroniak of the Allies award. “It was very emotional to receive it. I think the fact that such an award even exists is a testament to the depth of humanity and generosity among Indigenous Peoples in this country.”

Woroniak brought both her community-based and professional experience to the Horrocks lecture. “I attempted to drive home the point that any effort related to Indigenous populations needs to keep them centred and present throughout the process,” she says. “The only way to accomplish that is to build long-term, deep relationships with Indigenous groups and communities.”

She also explained just why the intersection of libraries with this goal is so important. “I believe that libraries of all kinds, but especially public libraries, are well suited to help lead non-Indigenous Canada in these efforts,” says Woroniak. “Resetting the relationship with Indigenous Peoples requires that non-Indigenous Canadians engage with all kinds of new information.” Librarians, she notes, are skilled at helping people navigate that information.

Another reason libraries are well suited to this task is that librarians are keen to learn things themselves. “I think if they continue to make this path a priority they will have another collection of information, so to speak, to be sharing with the rest of Canada—the lessons they will learn through responsibly developing relationships with the Indigenous populations they serve.” Woroniak advocates addressing the serious deficit of Indigenous individuals working in libraries by employing them in a full range of positions.

Woroniak believes that libraries can choose to play an important role in improving Indigenous-non-Indigenous relations, which will hopefully go some way to achieving lasting positive change for Indigenous Peoples. “To the extent that meaningful change is made, it will be based on non-Indigenous Canadians learning more and then learning how to take direction from Indigenous individuals,” she said. Woroniak stresses that this will, and should, happen at various grassroots levels, as relationships play out in cities, towns and schools. “I’m impatient,” she says. “But I’m also hopeful.”