Skip to main content

Literacy project brings hope to British Columbia communities


One book can open up a world of imagination – and so can asking a question. Bob Blacker of the Rotary Club of Steveston-Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, recalls a pivotal conversation with Judge Steven L. Point, former lieutenant governor of British Columbia and a member of the Skowkale Nation, about Rotary’s projects donating books overseas.

“He asked me about what Rotary was doing for books in our own backyard, and I couldn’t answer him,” recalls Blacker, a former police officer and Point’s aide-de-camp at the time. “We weren’t doing anything. He said, ‘I want to get books out to isolated First Nation communities in British Columbia.’”

Shirley-Pat Chamberlain, of the Rotary Club of Williams Lake Daybreak, British Columbia, also knew there was a need to bring books to rural and remote indigenous communities. In the village of Toosey (Tl’esqox), where many members of the Toosey First Nation live, the nearest library was a 45-minute drive away. During a May 2010 visit to the village school, Chamberlain asked education coordinator Shirley Diablo to see the community’s literacy resources, already knowing what the answer would be.

“She pointed to the bookshelf in the band office and said, ‘That’s it,’” Chamberlain says. “On the bookshelf was a 1962 Encyclopaedia Britannica set with four volumes missing.”

A subsequent discussion led Point, Blacker, and Chamberlain to the idea “of maybe bringing more than a bag of books but using Rotary to sponsor ‘a little bookshelf’ for each community in their area,” says Chamberlain.

The Write to Read Project has installed more than a few bookshelves: It has resulted in 14 libraries in rural and remote indigenous communities in British Columbia, with plans for four more by the end of 2017.

I want to get books out to isolated First Nation communities in British Columbia.

Former lieutenant governor of British Columbia and a member of the Skowkale Nation

The project has brought 3,000 to 4,000 books to each library. The libraries are in small villages in remote areas accessible only by poor roads, boat, or plane.

“We had a lot of things that we had to overcome,” says Blacker, past governor of District 5040. “No. 1, where were we going to get the books? Two, how we’re going to put them in the library, and, three, what about a building? We need a building.”

It turned out that getting enough books really wasn’t a problem.

The first library, installed in Toosey in 2011, received books donated locally and by Rotarians around the district. Chamberlain, who was a community adult literacy program coordinator, also stocked the library with indigenous-specific books and those for adult literacy. 

Word got around, and now books are coming from around the world. The Rotary Club of Commerce City, Colorado, USA, sends members George and Sharon Maybee every other year with a horse trailer full of books, Chamberlain says. 

“We actually had to turn them down – we asked them to wait until next year,” she says. “We’ve run out of space.”

Blacker recruited a team of volunteer librarians to catalog and install the books, which are stored and sorted in donated storage units (the project now has five filled with books waiting for new libraries). Britco, which supplied modular buildings to the 2010 Olympics, donated a dozen 10-by-40-foot units to the initiative, and architects and builders have donated time and materials to constructing new facilities. 

  1. Write to Read team members (from left) Bill Humphries, Liz Wilson, Barbara Aven, Margaret Fletcher, and Bob Blacker. 

    Courtesy of Write To Read Project

  2. A team reviews plans for a new library for Bella Bella.

    Courtesy of Write To Read Project

  3. A rendering of a learning center designed for the community of Xeni Gwet’in.

    Courtesy of Write To Read Project

  4. One of the smaller libraries is hauled to the village of Metlakatla.

    Courtesy of Write To Read Project

In all, more than 30 corporate sponsors have contributed to the successful project, Blacker says. And Point’s successor as lieutenant governor (his term ended in 2012) has supported the initiative as well. Lt. Gov. Judith Guichon has officiated at the opening of all of the Write to Read libraries established since 2012.

New libraries are also creating learning centers stocked with iPad Minis and refurbished computers. The design of these centers is driven by the community residents themselves, who sit down with architect Scott Kemp to come up with a plan that fits their needs. In one community, young people requested a recording studio, Chamberlain says.

“They said, ‘We would like to be able to sit with our elders one on one and have them talk to us in our language, teach us our stories, and record their songs,’” Chamberlain says.

Communities are also working to improve internet connectivity, because “there is a huge yearning in the communities to do online learning,” Blacker says. “They’ve got many adults who would like to educate themselves – many didn’t go further than grade five or six, and they want to improve their life.”

In addition to providing reading material and a path-way to education, the library construction is opening up apprenticeships for local youth with carpenters and other professionals.

It’s not only creating healthy spaces in the community, but also increasing employment in these communities.

Rotary Club of Williams Lake Daybreak, British Columbia, Canada

“It’s not only creating healthy spaces in the community, but also increasing employment in these communities,” Chamberlain says.

The project has had other positive side effects as well. Because the books are cataloged by librarians, children learn where to find their favorite books – so when they go to a larger library, they know where to look, she says.

Chamberlain, who is an adopted member of the Toosey community, says the project has led to other successes bringing in grants for community development and renovation projects.

“There’s a level of confidence in that community that really wasn’t there before,” she says. “It’s really a ‘why not us’ attitude instead of ‘why us.’”

• Read more stories from The Rotarian