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write to read initiative

British Columbia Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon reads with Bianca McGee, left, and Tameesha Elliott, centre, both 7, at a library donated by Write to Read B.C. in Nanaimo, B.C., in December.DARRYL DYCK

The school library in the Ahousaht community on Flores Island boasts about 10,000 titles. For the remote First Nations community of the west coast of Vancouver Island, it is an important learning resource that was almost overlooked.

British Columbia's Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon recalls touring the new school when it opened and spotted something missing: a proper library. "There was a little room, it had seven books in it. All about war," she said in an interview.

Government money was provided to build the school, but the funding didn't include a library. "It just wasn't high on the priority list."

Ms. Guichon's five-year term is nearing its end and although she will be remembered in the history books for her deciding role in the 2017 B.C. election, her legacy is in the tiny libraries built through donations and volunteerism around the province in remote Indigenous communities.

The Write to Read initiative began under the previous lieutenant governor, Steven Point. During road trips, his aide de camp Bob Blacker would tell him about his volunteer work with the Rotary Club. As they travelled to remote Indigenous communities around B.C., the pair developed a plan to use the Rotary Club's network of volunteers to help promote literacy in some of the province's most inaccessible communities.

By the time Ms. Guichon took up residence in Government House late in 2012, the libraries had just started to take shape. Most of the 16 learning centres built to-date have opened under her watch and more are on the way.

She didn't have to carry on with the project – each of the province's lieutenant governors typically has their own charitable objectives.

But Ms. Guichon said Write to Read "felt right," noting many of her friends and neighbours at her ranch in the Nicola Valley are from the local First Nations communities.

"It is about getting books and internet hook-ups into remote parts of the province, for children who would otherwise lack that wonderful asset," she said.

Without government funding, the projects rely on donations, volunteer hours and community input. Each one becomes a unique model, reflecting the community's priorities, a model Ms. Guichon describes as "place-based stewardship."

"Which is, as we look down the road to sustainability, the hard work of hope, where we are learning from our First Nations neighbours to make better use of what comes from our land in those places. Keeping the jobs where the products are produced, and then the return on investment stays in that watershed or place."

To date, the libraries have been built with donations of supplies, labour and cash. Mr. Blacker, the project co-ordinator, says he is now seeking federal funding to take this model and expand it beyond the limits of pure volunteerism. "We have a template we can use across Canada."

The key to success is that the template relies on local input to shape the projects.

Kelly Bapty is an architect with the initiative, one of the very few Indigenous women in architecture in Canada. A member of the Tahltan Nation in Northern B.C., she has helped breathe life into the concept of place-based stewardship.

When the team went into the community of Kyuquot, off northern Vancouver Island, they consulted with an elder and hereditary chief about what kind of library to build. The tiny community, accessible only by plane or boat, was inspired to expand the project with local fundraising so that they'll end up with a community Big House that serves as a place of governance.

It also encompasses a museum, gymnasium and a space for elders and youth alongside the library.

Ensuring the community is involved in the design and construction helps build capability – unlike a government-sponsored project that is simply installed without local input. They are not only left with a resource, but with new skills to develop their own projects.

"We are trying to utilize community hire and local resources so that skill building can be applied to other buildings in the community. That's the missing link when you do a commercial build," she said.

The original concept involves libraries, but Ms. Bapty prefers the term learning centre because it is more than a literacy project – these spaces are creating a resource to preserve Indigenous languages.

"That's a big part for me, this is something I realized in grad school, trying to look up books on the Tahltan."

In a massive library, she found just a slim folder on her nation.

"It is important to link our learning spaces with bringing together our knowledge of our culture, our land, our wildlife and fisheries. So that's my focus with Write to Read, helping to re-establish our places of governance, and language."

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