Nfld. & Labrador

Library closures suspended until review completed

Newfoundland and Labrador's education minister says he has requested a suspension of the decision to restructure the public library system.

Dale Kirby says move is in response to public feedback

Education Minister Dale Kirby announced Thursday that a decision to close 54 libraries in the province has been suspended, and an external review of the library system will be undertaken. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador's education minister says he has requested a suspension of the decision to restructure the public library system.

Dale Kirby stated during a scrum with reporters Thursday that he was never comfortable with the decision, and says the it was made following consultations with Premier Dwight Ball and members of the Provincial Information and Library Resources Board.

He also acknowledged that the widespread opposition to the decision was a factor.

 "Of all the interactions I've had with people since April 14, this is probably the issue that comes up most of the time," he said.

"The onus is on us to be attentive to public concern. If you think you're right 100 per cent of the time I think you'll be a victim of your own hubris and probably find yourself on the other side of the House of Assembly sooner than later."

Kirby said the review will be carried out by the firm EY, which is already engaged in the so-called government renewal initiative.

He expects it will be complete "early winter," and departmental staff are "discussing the cost" of the review with EY.

Kirby said he has a "100 per cent level of comfort" with many of the decision made by his department in the lead-up to the spring budget, but added: "I can't say as though based on conversations I've had that I'm 100 per cent comfortable with the closure of the 54 libraries."

NDP Leader Earle McCurdy said it's clear that Kirby and the Liberal government goofed.

He said an assessment of the library system should have been done before any "scandalously bad decisions" about closures.

"No education minister worth his salt would allow an announcement to be made in a budget that 54 rural libraries were closing, out of the blue," said McCurdy.

This spring, the Liberals announced that more than half of the Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries would close as part of cutbacks in the provincial budget. Most of those affected operated on a part-time basis. 

In the budget, government announced that 54 libraries would be closing as part of austerity measures, which has resulted in significant public outcry. The government said in April it was moving to what it called a "regional library model," with annualized savings of $1 million, including $300,000 this year.

When asked if those savings must now be added to the deficit, Kirby said "there's no indication we're going to be in the hole as a result of this decision and I don't see any interruption in the service provision as the libraries board hits pause.

In a statement Thursday, Kirby said the current administration is still committed to forging ahead with most aspects of the budget.

Library workers protested budget cuts last week Wednesday at several public library locations, including Corner Brook. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

However, he said the province is also listening to what the public has to say.

"We do have to make tough choices, but we are also open to listening to residents," he wrote.

"We have heard from very strong voices about the future of our libraries and we feel that before moving forward with any closures we should have an external assessment that contemplated the full impact a library has on its community."

A steering committee will be formed which will include members of the library board, which will review the current situation and try to strike a balance between government's financial constraints and public demand.

'Coming to their senses'

Retired Fogo Island principal and town councillor Ed Walbourne spoke strongly against the government's decision to close the lone library on Fogo Island at a protest last May. 

He was pleased to hear Kirby's update on Thursday, and feels the provincial government is 'finally' listening after its decision to suspend the closure of 54 libraries across the province.

"It shows the government probably coming to their senses, to put it right to the point," Walbourne told CBC News shortly after hearing the news on Thursday.

Edmund Walbourne says government is finally listening to the people by suspending the proposed library closures. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"My first reaction is to say that it's about time this government starts to listen to the people. I think they waded into an area here that was sort of sacred. That went a little bit too far," said Walbourne. 

Protests against the closure of libraries were held across the island asking the government to reconsider it's decision to close libraries, especially in rural communities. 

Value in speaking up

Walbourne said that the government's plan to review the closure of libraries shows that protests work. 

"That's in essence what Fogo Island is all about and I'd venture to say an array of other Newfoundland towns as well," said Walbourne. "In order to get your few minutes in the sun you have to go these extra miles."

It was standing-room only at the Fogo Island Public Library Monday, as people packed the room to protest government's plan to close their library. 3:39

Walbourne said Fogo Islanders have rallied around the library issue. 

"Eventually, I suppose, we will prevail because that's the type of people that live in rural Newfoundland," said Walbourne. "I feel that people need to speak out and Fogo Islanders are notorious for speaking out and they'll let you have it, boy.

"And all the time it makes you proud to be an islander."

'Admitting he made a bad decision'

NDP Leader Earle McCurdy also responded to Thursday's announcement, saying the current government is admitting the people of the province were right all along about the ramifications of closing the libraries.

"By stopping the closures, the education minister is admitting he made a bad decision," McCurdy said in a statement.

He said despite Dale Kirby's update, the NDP has no intentions to stop pushing the government on the library issue and that McCurdy will still continue with his plan to visit libraries that were slotted to close.

"I'd be even happier if this government took the trouble to properly study and consult before taking destructive action," he said.

"No minister worth his salt would have allowed this decision to be made."

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