Supporters of the libraries in two southern Manitoba communities were at the provincial legislature on Friday, calling on the government to help continue an agreement that provides those libraries with a home.
About 1,500 people signed a petition addressed to ministers in the education, francophone affairs, heritage and government services departments. It asks them to intervene in the planned evictions of Jolys Regional Library in St-Pierre-Jolys and its associated library branch in St. Malo.
Both spaces operate within schools in the southern Manitoba communities. Under a memorandum of understanding with the Red River Valley School Division that dates back more than 50 years, the libraries don’t pay rent to the division.
In exchange, they provide library services to students and staff, said Jolys Regional Library board chair Paule Peloquin. That includes a shared collection of more than 50,000 books, with one of the largest collections of French language literature in rural Manitoba, according to the petition.
Another longstanding condition was that if ever either party wished to exit the agreement, they would need to provide the other with one year’s notice.
In December, the Jolys Regional Library board received such a notice for the St. Malo branch, notifying them the space was needed for more classrooms and they had until December 2022 to vacate, said Peloquin. The library is currently housed in a double-classroom style space.
In March, the board received a similar notice for the larger Jolys Regional Library in St-Pierre-Jolys — a building on school grounds designed by French Canadian architect Étienne Gaboury and built in the 1960s.
Again, the division said it needed that building as classroom space.
The associated school in St.-Pierre, Ecole Heritage Immersion, is a French immersion school. Peloquin said the school is attracting more French students from surrounding communities, resulting in a growing student population and a shortage of classroom space.
“These students who are bused in, in their own communities, they don’t have a library, let alone any access to French books in their community, because most of those community are Anglophone,” she said.
“So we believe that we provide an area for success for Manitoba education to be able to educate these students in French.”
Peloquin said the division has asked the province to construct an addition to the school in St-Pierre-Jolys, but “they haven’t had that support.”
“So they’re at the point where they felt that they need to evict us in order to use the space that we have.”
The difficulty with that, she says, is that the Jolys Regional Library is the main public library in St-Pierre-Jolys, a village of just over 1,300, which is about 50 kilometres south of Winnipeg.
It also provides community programming, meeting spaces, and offers free Wi-Fi to those without it. As well, it is home to the only stage in the community, said Peloquin, which is used by a local theatre group.
“We want to make sure that it continues as a community hub and we really want to continue our partnership with the school division,” said Peloquin.
The petition asks the provincial government to consider granting the auditorium to the Jolys Regional Library, and to recognize that the memorandum of understanding between the library board and the school division is “mutually, financially and culturally beneficial.”
“The ultimate goal would be to have the provincial government gift us that auditorium so we don’t have to worry about this in the future,” Peloquin said.
The petition also asks the province to “recognize the heritage potential of this important building and its status in the community” and to prevent any renovations to it “that would destroy and devaluate the architectural integrity of the building.”
CBC News requested comment from Red River Valley School Division but did not hear back.
‘A big win’ for St. Malo library
Peloquin said the province recently announced funding for construction at the school in St. Malo, about 15 kilometres south of St-Pierre-Jolys.
She said the division superintendent recently approached the library board proposing that instead of leaving that space for good, the library could vacate by September, with the intention of moving back in September 2023 or once construction is done.
“That, to us, was a big win for St. Malo,” said Peloquin.
But things are less certain for the library in St-Pierre-Jolys. Peloquin said she hopes the petition has garnered enough attention from provincial officials to secure the future of Jolys Regional Library.
In a statement, Minister of Education and Early Childhood Learning Wayne Ewasko and Francophone Affairs Minister Rochelle Squires said the province recognizes the importance of cultural and educational spaces for Francophones.
“We understand that the Red River Valley School Division is working to address issues relating to instructional space for the growing school population, and that it continues to talk with the Jolys Regional Library Board about how to ensure access to bilingual library services for the community,” the statement reads.
“We are open to working with school boards and municipalities to ensure what is best for the communities that they serve. Our government will work collaboratively to achieve the best possible outcomes.”