One year on, dispute continues over beefed up Millennium Library security
Critics plan days of demonstrations in library lobby to mark 12 months since security measures implemented
A man unzips his backpack and steps toward a pair of guards at the security screening area introduced at the Millennium Library one year ago Tuesday.
They don't ask him to crack open the thermos that's revealed as he opens his bag — he says he could be hiding anything inside — but he isn't free to go yet either.
A guard sweeps a metal detector wand across him, circling over the button of a front jacket pocket the man says is empty.
The lineup of about 10 patrons behind him stalls. His posture tenses up. He lets out a few exasperated sighs.
The man pulls his pocket inside out, motioning that there's not much to see but lint, when a dime and nickel fall out and to the ground. The guard is just doing her job, she says, before allowing the man through.
"They're interrogating me as if every button on my body can be a weapon. I mean, what on Earth? That's pretty ridiculous," says the man, Stacy Playfair. "It really imposes on our privacy."
Criticisms like this have dogged the Millennium Library in the 12 months since management implemented an airport-like security checkpoint. They cited safety concerns amid a rise in the number and seriousness of incidents including assault, harassment, threats, intoxication and verbal abuse.
The move resulted in numerous protests and demonstrations (more are planned in the coming days), but despite the criticisms, staff representatives say workplace morale has improved. Some patrons like the changes.
Management took the rare step of adding the security measures without notifying the city councillor for the area. The community wasn't consulted.
'It is unprecedented'
That angered a number of people, who felt poverty and housing and addiction were the underlying issues and couldn't be addressed through "security theatre," as one advocate for the homeless put it.
Some maintained the measures disproportionately affect people living on the streets, who could feel discouraged from entering the space.
Millennium Library staff and management have also faced pushback from the broader academic and library community, said Joe Curnow, a member of the Millennium for All group that opposes the security measures.
"Winnipeg is the only library in Canada that is doing this. It is unprecedented," said Curnow, an assistant professor in the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba.
"It's really a blow to the whole ethos of public libraries to have this kind of screening, because we know that they're racist and classist and really create barriers to the public mission of libraries."
In 2005, I installed a wall’s worth of tiny paintings on the feature wall of the Millennium Library in Winnipeg. I consider the year-old airport style security “upgrade” at the library to be a spiritual desecration of my work.—@CliffEyland
Security generally lets George Edenhoffer glide past the mandatory checks due to the disability that keeps him in his wheelchair. Still, he says the changes don't sit well with him.
"It's kind of inappropriate," said Edenhoffer, 60, who visits the library three times a week. "They're only focusing on one thing, and most of the problems are not that."
'I feel protected'
But there's also support for the screenings.
Alie Bagat, 43, has been coming to the Millennium regularly to study ever since she immigrated to Canada in 2017. The enhanced security makes her feel safer.
"I feel protected by it and I feel secure."
That sentiment is shared by many Millennium Library staff, according to their union.
"Staff are feeling much better in the workplace," said Gord Delbridge, president of CUPE local 500. "Staff are feeling less anxious."
Incidents, attendance drops
City data suggests the measures have led to a decline in the number of incidents, which in addition to more serious events also encompasses medical conditions, stranded kids, inappropriate behaviour and more.
In 2019, the Millennium Library logged 317 incidents, compared to 560 in 2018.
But attendance also dropped by a third last year: just shy of 609,000 people visited, which is about 250,000 fewer than in 2018. A city spokesperson said last fall the decline was likely, at least in part, due to the new security.
The drop in attendance means staff have fewer people to keep track of, and that could partly account for why they feel less anxious, said Curnow.
Curnow said the Millennium has "really bad" staff-to-patron ratios compared to other libraries across Canada. She suggested the attendance slump could make the work environment feel more manageable.
"I can understand people feel stressed at their jobs, they're way understaffed," she said. "But [library management] have misrepresented what has happened and really betrayed the public trust on this."
Library services manager Ed Cuddy leveraged incident numbers in justifying the measures to the city. The city twice refused to grant CBC News an interview with Cuddy for this story.
Last fall, academics volunteering with Millennium for All analyzed the city library incident numbers and published an alternative report.
That's partly because the data from the city hasn't always been consistent or easy to interpret, said Curnow.
It isn't entirely clear why a number of incidents categorized as assaults aren't also cross-listed as serious. Incidents tagged as serious appear to have been on the decline since before the security measures were implemented: there were 13 in 2013 compared to four in 2019.
Sarah Cooper, one of the researchers with Millennium for All behind the alternative report, raised questions about the city incident data.
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"Obviously assault, harassment, threats, intoxication and verbal abuse can be serious issues, however the data provided by the library simply doesn't show that these incidents were considered serious when they happened," said Cooper, assistant professor in the department of city planning at the University of Manitoba.
"Intoxication, in particular, is not necessarily violent, and people who are intoxicated but are not breaking other rules of conduct should not be perceived as 'incidents.'"
'Accuses us of being drunk'
Barbara Beardy, 39, and her husband Matthew Beardy, 32, say they've both been accused of being intoxicated in the library.
The couple visits several times a week and say they occasionally have encounters with one security guard in particular.
"Every time we try joking around he butts in our conversation, he tells us to leave or I'll call the cops," Matthew said, seated at a table in the library lobby.
"And he accuses us of being drunk, and we don't even drink," said Barbara.
They're expecting a baby any day now, and have been using computers at the library to find a new place to live.
"We all don't have a place to go and a lot of people don't even understand that," said Barbara. "The library is like a peace of mind where you feel like you're at home and you relax. That's why we come here ... minus that part," she said, looking back at the security.
More supports coming
The couple believes there should be more supports for people who need them at the library. Those could be on the way, in the wake of a proposal passed by the city's executive policy committee on Jan. 30.
The committee approved a two-year, $260,000 pilot project that will convert a shuttered coffee shop located in the Millennium Library lobby into a community space.
The "Community Connections" space will have trained crisis workers and community social agencies on hand to help connect people with library services and mental health, substance use and other basic resources, the city said.
"This project is a key step toward developing a more inclusive, community-based approach to keeping Millennium Library safe and welcoming for everyone," a city spokesperson said in an email. "The screening measures will remain until a comprehensive plan for a replacement system is in place."
Curnow is cautiously optimistic about those plans, though she and her peers remain skeptical.
"The easiest, cheapest, most immediate thing that they could do to make the space more equitable and more accessible and more open is to just take down the security measures, which had no evidence-based rationale in the first place," she said.
"These other things are important — it's stuff that we advocated for in our report and have advocated for like every day of the last year — and none of it is enough if the security barriers are still in place."