Nfld. & Labrador

'A national disgrace': Heated crowd walks out of public library consultation

Most attendees of the public library meeting in St. John's walked out in frustration Thursday night.

Attendees upset over lack of answers on future of rural libraries

The couple seen here were some of the first people to leave the meeting after voicing their displeasure with the process. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

The public roundtable consultation on the provincial library system in St. John's took a dramatic turn on Thursday when attendees upset with the direction of the meeting led at least half the crowd in a walkout.

The consultation was being held to discuss the fate of provincial libraries in many rural communities across the province.

A walkout was triggered after a crowd member questioned why officials with the international consulting company EY — formerly called Ernst & Young — were leading the meeting and not the government after questions to the facilitator were redirected back to the province.

Filmmaker and playwright Ruth Lawrence was one of the most vocal people to walk out.

"It's a national disgrace." 

"It's embarrassing to say that I belong to a province in Canada in 2016 that decides that closing the libraries is the best way to save money"

Ruth Lawrence says she'd like the government to hold a direct discussion about the library closures instead of contracting it out to EY. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Lawrence said the crowd only wanted the answer to one question at the meeting: "Why are our libraries under attack?"

Meeting attendees were asked to wear nametags and sit at tables facing each other and discuss three questions:

"Why is a library important to the community? What kinds of programs or services do you need from a public library?" and "What do you think needs to change in public library services?"

Lawrence said none of the people she wanted to answer her questions was present. 

"Not one elected representative was in the consultation," she said.

George Murray says the consultations with the public on libraries in the province are "political theatre". (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

The meetings — which the provincial government called "public roundtable consultations" — are being led by EY at a cost to provincial taxpayers of $187,000.

While many of the remaining crowd members asked to carry on the discussion, an EY facilitator brought the meeting to a close around the 1-hour mark of the planned two hour meeting.

He said they'd bring feedback back to the provincial government and take it from there.

Controversial start

Even before the meeting got underway, there was controversy.

City of St. John's poet laureate George Murray said he was denied entry to the meeting because it was at capacity.

"I was told at the door that there was only capacity for 80 people," he said.

"If you're going to call something a meeting, a public meeting, you can't turn the public away at the door."

The Bell Island Public Library is one of 54 libraries in Newfoundland and Labrador that are being assessed for closure. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

While Murray said facilitators offered to hold a second session later, he called the meeting irrelevant. 

"I truly believe the decisions are already made and that this tour around the province is exactly an act of political theater," he said.

"What's actually happening is they're saying, we consulted with the public and when things go sour or the public has another negative reaction, they can say we consulted with you."

Murray compared the province to an unfit parent, asking why they would continue to fund projects like Muskrat Falls at the expense of the library system.

"Books are to the brain what milk is to the bones. You take milk away the bones become brittle, you take books away the brains become brittle."

"We already have a hard enough time getting our kids off screens, getting them to play outside, getting them to do all these sorts of things, now we're going to take a free source of books away from them?"

If the libraries that are slated to shut down end up closing, Murray said it's going to be a huge loss for the province. 

"Especially in rural communities, it's going to be a really hard hit."

A previous public roundtable discussion was held on Wednesday in Bay Roberts.

The discussions will continue until Nov. 2 with the eight remaining public engagement sessions as well as online surveys and written submissions.

A request for comment from EY was deflected back to the Department of Education.

CBC News has contacted the department and is awaiting a reply.


Andrew Sampson is a journalist with CBC Marketplace in Toronto.