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The Power of Libraries to Transform a Life

April 7, 2017

Canada lost a prominent Native author and storyteller on March 10, when Richard Wagamese died. Canadian libraries lost a friend and advocate. In the 1970s, Richard was a homeless teenager in St. Catharines. The library there changed his life.

My name is Susan Cameron and I am a librarian at Oakville Public Library. In September 2013, I attended a reading for Richard’s book Ragged Company with my colleague Ruth Borst. His words that night were unforgettable.

Ragged Company tells the story of four homeless people who find a lottery ticket and win $3.5-million. It is a powerful, beautifully written novel that deepens one’s understanding of the homeless.

After Richard’s talk, someone in the audience asked him to speak about his education and the important teachers he had had. He asked how many librarians were in the room. Ruth and I put up our hands along with about 15 other people. He then told us about the St. Catharines librarian who changed his life.

Richard spent every day in the library there, where it was warm and dry, behind a stack of books on his desk. He told us more about the special librarian who answered his questions patiently, recommended books, and quietly brought him food.

One day, Richard asked her about a musician he had been reading about, named Beethoven. He said, “Did you know he was deaf and still composed symphonies, and he could put a hand on the lid of the piano and recognize the notes by their vibration?” The librarian asked Richard if he would like to hear some of Beethoven’s music, and she took him to the listening room.

Shortly after, she took him to see Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, in Toronto. This was followed by outings to see Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, and to art galleries. She opened the world for him. He told us that the librarian taught him to read, see, hear, and feel through everything she introduced to him.

Richard left St. Catharines and turned his life around. He lost touch with the librarian but never forgot her. He became a journalist and, became the first indigenous writer to win the 1991 National Newspaper Award for column writing. Stories about his win appeared in all the newspapers. One day he received a card from the librarian. She told Richard how proud she was of his accomplishments. Richard was touched by those words then, and still so emotional about them that he had to pause, speaking through his tears. He realized the librarian probably did not know what a big part she played in his success.

Two years later, he got a call from one of the librarian’s children. She had died and her family wondered if he would he come to the funeral? He decided to make the trek and flew from Alberta to St. Catharines to pay his respects.

Once he arrived at the church, the librarian’s five adult children surrounded him; they had never met Richard, but they embraced him in a group hug. They told him he was a central figure in their upbringing. Their mother always talked about Richard at home, telling her kids about what he was reading or learning. They said they were never allowed to complain about their own lives or struggles in school, because their mom would say, “Look what Richard is doing and he has so little.” The kids felt they owed much of their own success to Richard’s inspiration.

Ruth and I are fairly certain that Richard ended his talk by encouraging us to treat the homeless with respect, and to help them. We cannot be sure though, as we were so emotional and looking at him through tears. We were both thinking about the homeless customers who spend time in our library, and how we might help them.

We never felt so proud to be librarians as we did that evening or more resolved to treat the homeless with respect and understanding. We will miss Richard’s voice, but his stories remain with us.


A version of this article was originally published in The Globe and Mail on March 29, 2017, and again in the Oakville Beaver on April 7, 2017.