Over the past few weeks, a number of municipal councils in the region have heard from concerned citizens regarding what the delegations are describing as sexually explicit material available through the South Central Regional Library (SCRL).
The presentations made to the Municipality of Rhineland, R.M. of Stanley and R.M. of Thompson this week, and the Town of Altona last week, were a next step following a September delegation to the SCRL Board of Directors, explained Melissa Hildebrand who made the presentation to Altona council.
"Some of us parents learned that going to the South Central Library Board was not the first place we should have gone," she explained. "We were told by the offices of the Minister of Culture and Heritage, Volunteer Manitoba and the Ministry of Municipal Relations we should go to our town councils. This would mainly be because they (councils) fund the libraries with our taxes."
The SCRL board is made up seven municipal members.
The issue, added Hildebrand, is the concern around knowing what kind of books and materials are available to children in the local libraries.
"These are books that are not sex education, but more of a pornographic nature and sex instruction," she explained. "Sex education focuses on the basic anatomy and biology of sex, but sex instruction - these books are instructing the child on various sex acts." Hildebrand believes, based on the Criminal Code of Canada, that these materials are pornographic.
In an email response to PembinaValleyOnline, SCRL Board Chair Marvin Plett said, "As a Board we take the responsibility to our citizens very seriously. The library is there for all readers. We make culturally sensitive choices in providing materials for all interests. For example, our larger branches have an extensive collection of Mennonite and Inspirational materials. Not all materials are appreciated by everyone, and we encourage parents to attend the library with their children."
He also noted it is the opinion of legal counsel the board engaged, the materials in question are educational in nature, are legal and not pornographic, and do not violate the Criminal Code of Canada. "SCRL definitely does not support pornographic or illegal materials in our libraries."
Plett added, SCRL has excellent staff who work very hard to provide the best library experience possible. "In selecting materials, our staff are guided by an excellent collection development policy which is highly spoken of by Public Library Services (PLS) of Manitoba."
Because the member municipalities fund the SCRL, in part, the delegations are asking the councils to withhold their annual contribution until any children's books between the ages of 0 to 17 that they say contain pornography, teaches sexual touching or could be used for grooming purposes are removed from all SCRL branches. A petition is also being circulated within the greater community, and as of Hildebrand's presentation to Altona Council on November 29th, the document had garnered nearly 1,000 signatures.
"A question to them was, why would they provide funding to the South Central Regional Library if they have been made aware and have chosen to keep this material on their shelves?" said Hildebrand.
SCRL Director of Library Services, Cathy Ching, explained in an email to PembinaValleyOnline that withholding funding to the organization is not an option.
"At any time, this delegation can find our audited financial statements on our website, and see that in our total funding for 2022, only 15.25% of the total budget, was for books and other library materials. This amount is shared between five Branch Administrators who must stretch their budgets to purchase items for their own libraries. The purchases include picture books for children, pleasure reading materials for all ages (Juvenile, Young Adult, Adult & Large Print), as well as resource and other educational materials. A large focus on purchases for the juvenile nonfiction area is targeted to support homeschool resources. SCRL also purchases audio books, DVDs, story kits, puzzles, etc. from that same budget. Purchasing is done three times per year and the Administrators follow the SCRL Collection Development Policy to determine their choices. We also take recommendations from our patrons for purchasing titles for our libraries. Their demand for funding cuts would severely hamper the selections for our patrons, especially in our smaller branches."
While certain titles have come up in these discussions, Hildebrand says it's not about a particular book complaint.
"We need examples of what are in these books. We can't just go and claim there's pornographic material in the books without showing examples. So, it's about the material as a whole, and not a specific book complaint."
The delegation's request also includes the library's online offerings.
"One of the books in question, it has been mentioned that it's in an online format, but to me, it makes no difference whether you can get a physical copy or access it online," added Hildebrand.
"We need to protect our children at all costs," she added. "Exposing them to this type of material, it's not healthy for the overall mental health of our children, and it's not something they need to be exposed to. Again, we fall back on the Criminal Code of Canada and it's illegal."
Ching said, however, "eBooks downloads should be monitored by parents for younger children, and this is not our domain. It is the parent's responsibility to monitor what their own child is reading and allow other parents to make their own decisions."
Meantime, Ching said while many people have written letters of support both to the libraries and to the Councils, since the first delegation presentation to the SCRL Board in September, vitriolic emails, phone calls and other negative messages have been targeting Board members and staff.
"The SCRL Board asks each person that visits our libraries or has contact with the library staff, to be respectful in your conversations, emails and social media. It is very important to be respectful with each other as we work together to continue providing the best library services to all our patrons," pleaded Plett.
Additional delegations are expected to make similar presentations to the remaining member municipal councils, those being the cities of Winkler and Morden and Municipality of Pembina.
When asked for a comment, The Town of Altona noted Council is discussing the issue at its next meeting and will be providing a statement after said meeting. Until then, Mayor Schroeder is not prepared to comment.