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The Living Library Project Turns People into Books

A story about "The Living Library," in which people become "living books" to audiences.

It is a novel idea: Gather in a library a group of individuals who represent stereotypes where people can “borrow” and “read” them instead of books. The readers listen, ask questions, even probe sensitive areas and, hopefully, learn something useful from the face-to-face encounter that breaks down preconceived notions and prejudices.

The Living Library Project, which started in Denmark more than a decade ago, was reinvented during the Montreal First People's Festival in August when seven people became “living books” about Quebec’s indigenous communities and culture. The event took place at a busy open-air market with local farmers selling organic fruits and veggies, butchers peddling homemade sausages, bakers offering an array of fresh-baked croissants and breads, flower stalls, arts-and-crafts vendors, live music and other cultural events. Readers signed up for 30-minute slots with the book or books of their choice, then sat at a café table under an umbrella, listening and asking questions while the “books” told their stories. The actors portraying the books were all volunteers eager to share their experiences with readers. Some were so intriguing and the conversations so engaging that the clusters of readers lingered on beyond the allotted 30 minutes, asking more questions and continuing the discussion not only with the book but also among themselves. As a result, the schedule got a bit skewed but no one seemed to mind. The actors were all volunteers eager to share their experiences with readers, and “lending hours” were from three p.m. to seven p.m.

The Living Library (also called the Human Library) was co-founded in 2000 by Ronni Abergel, a Danish antiviolence activist, who has taken the project to many countries around the world, including England, Romania, Iceland, Italy, Turkey and Australia. “We live in a time when we need dialogue,” Abergel told The Christian Science Monitor in 2008. “With dialogue comes understanding and with that comes tolerance and that’s the mission of the Living Library: to promote understanding and tolerance through dialogue.”

The First Peoples Festival books were about many topics, including sacred symbols, family violence, education and the nomadic life. Ossie Michelin was a book on the media, Francine Lemay talked about reconciliation and Guy Sioui Durand served as a living book on art and imagination.

Ossie Michelin is a reporter for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN). He covered the first Living Library event at the festival last year and offered to be a book this year. A Métis from Labrador, Michelin wore a "FREE LABRADOR" T-shirt in support of the Labrador separation movement. “We’re in a weird spot right now,” he said, referring to the Métis in Labrador. “Labrador joined Canada in 1949. Before 1949 [the government] said, ‘They’re just a bunch of Natives, and we don’t have to give them anything.’ Then when we joined Canada, they said, ‘Oh, no, now you’re white, and we don’t want to give you anything.’ So in the 1970s and 1980s lots of people were trying to have our people recognized and everything was going fine. We’re in the process of having our territory recognized now. But now we’re going through a sort of identity crisis because now they’re saying, ‘You’re no longer Inuit Métis, you’re southern Inuit.’?”

Identity issues don’t play much into Michelin’s current life as a staff reporter for the national APTN in Montreal—a plum beat for a young, urban Indian, he said. But he grew up in a traditional way: hunting, fishing and being on the land. “My father was 56 when I was born, and he passed away eight years ago. He was old, and he had a good life,” Michelin said. “My mother was a missionary who came to Labrador as a nurse, and she’s still there. I turned 17 and wanted to see the world so I traveled across Canada and decided I really liked writing and I wanted to write for a living, but I wanted to have a job so I decided I wanted to be a journalist. And knowing absolutely nothing about that field at the time, I went to Concordia University here in Montreal,” with the help of National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation scholarships.

Partway through a journalism degree, Michelin said, he decided he really likes gadgets, so he switched to broadcast journalism: “I started doing radio, and that’s where I really fell in love with the trade.” After graduation he got a job at APTN. “That was a year and a half ago and I love it. It’s stressful. It’s crazy, but I love it.”

Although Michelin loves his job, he longs for his Labrador home. “I go home whenever I can; and when I do, I have to have my caribou, I have to eat salmon and enjoy all the aspects of my traditional life. I spend time on the land with my family and friends and that makes me happy.” He plans to move back to Labrador eventually and make documentary films about the people there. “I want to show young people back home that you don’t have to leave to be successful. You may go away for a while, but you can always come back. I can hold out for a few more years, but I want to go home.”

Francine Lemay was invited to be a living book because she has a story of reconciliation. Lemay’s story of loss and healing began when her younger brother Marcel was shot to death on July 11, 1990—the first day of the Mohawk defense of Kanesatake (also known as “the Oka crisis”), a land dispute that resulted in a violent standoff between the Mohawks, the Quebec Provincial Police and the Canadian Armed Forces that lasted 78 days. The conflict sprang up over Mohawk Indians’ resistance to a controversial court-sanctioned plan by the Oka Town Council to build a golf course on a sacred site that included a centuries-old burial ground. In the end, the golf course wasn’t built.

Some estimates say that up to 50 percent of French Canadians have Indian ancestry, and Lemay learned last year through a genealogical study that she too has many Indian ancestors, largely Huron and Micmac. But, like most Quebecois, she knew next to nothing about the Indigenous Peoples who live in 55 communities in the province of Quebec. “The words 'Natives' and 'First Nations' were not part of my vocabulary, as was the case for many Quebecers,” Lemay said.

When a family member called to tell her that Marcel had been killed during a police raid at Kanesatake, Lemay was devastated. “I couldn’t believe it; I was appalled. I knew nothing of what had been happening in Kanesatake in the last months, or in the last centuries. All I knew was that I had lost my brother,” she said. Marcel, 31 at the time, was the only person killed in the standoff. He left a wife pregnant with their second child, his mother, three brothers and two sisters.

Fast-forward 14 years and a call from two McGill University students asking Lemay for an interview about the Oka crisis left her shaken. She called a

friend who was studying Native culture and the Mohawk language to ask for information about Indians and was loaned a book called At the Woods’ Edge: An Anthology of the History of the People of Kanehsatà:ke, written by two Mohawk women. “I avidly read it in just a few days. Another side to a story unfolded, and I was touched and deeply moved in learning the deceptions, the exploitation, the injustice and the forced removals the people had endured. I knew there were two interpretations to the history of Canada, the one told by the English Canadians and the one told by French Canadians, but I had just discovered a third point of view, the one told by the Natives.”

A week later she made her “first contact” with a group of Mohawks who had been invited to Lemay’s church to present their project of translating At the Woods’ Edge from English to French. Lemay felt a sudden compulsion to speak. She mounted the stage and introduced herself as the woman whose brother was killed during the Oka crisis. She then asked the Mohawks for forgiveness for all the wrongs they had endured since the arrival of Europeans, and she cried. “I could not hold back my tears and neither could the audience.”

The next week Lemay participated in an event called the Trail of Prayers at Kanesatake, a walk for peace and healing. The group stopped in the piney area where 95 gunshots had been exchanged in just 20 seconds during the Oka standoff. “As we stopped there, I was overtaken by nausea and weakness. Seeing me crouching down, people came to comfort me. After 14 years, I freely wept the death of my brother and truly mourned. The real healing process started,” she said, but so many questions remained.

Lemay began to immerse herself in books and films about the history of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. On the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City in 2008, Lemay reread At the Woods’ Edge. “As soon as I read it again, my heart was filled with the desire to share the content with the francophone community.” A professional translator, she offered to translate the book free of charge and worked ceaseless for the next nine months to complete the work in time for the 20th anniversary commemoration of the crisis and her brother’s death.

The book was published on July 11, 2010, the 20th anniversary of Marcel’s death. Lemay sees her own journey of reconciliation as symbolic of what is needed between the dominant society and the Indigenous Peoples whose land it took over. “We cannot love what we know not. The only way to start the reconciliation process between the two nations is to listen and understand the others’ pain with openness and honest talk and admit our wrongs. It is not by erasing our differences but by accepting and appreciating them.”

Guy Sioui Durand eagerly embraced his role as a book. “I’m a book, I’m a living book. When I say I’m a book it means that when I meet people at the (Living Library) we are in real orality,” Durand said in a rush of words.

Durand uses the word "orality" not simply in the sense of talking, but in the academic sense of the preserving a people’s cultural history and ancestry from one generation to another, usually by a storyteller in narrative form. “I can talk and they can hear me, but at the same time, I’m a man who has also written books. It means I have knowledge, but it means at that moment all my knowledge is committed to practicing on the field. But in one way, I’m a book with one vision—and it’s all about imagination and art.” He pauses for a moment, and then continues with another stream of thought. “I’m not like a politician or an economist. My vision is all about the screening of art. It’s important because it’s all about cultures. I’m kind of a talking book. I’m not about cutting the tree to make paper. What’s proposed is an image. But if I’m a book we can talk, we can read. So when I say I’m a book, it’s that I’m looking closely, like a storyteller.”

Durand, a Huron-Wendat, is from Wendake, a self-governing First Nations territory in the middle of Quebec City. He’s a sociologist, art critic, lecturer, independent curator and a “conference performance artist”—which means instead of standing at a lectern and simply delivering a lecture, he performs it, sometimes in regalia, including a 108-year-old Wendat chief’s headdress, sometimes using props such as a specially made wampum belt with the letters "www"—which stands for World Wide Wendat, he says—woven in. He’s also a co-founder of the magazine Inter, and the artist-run center Le Lieu, which is listed in the Quebec City Sights section of the Lonely Planet traveler’s guide website as a site to visit—“an artist center that is more than a gallery…with art installations, sound art, video art and other multidisciplinary exhibitions…a community hub, which also aims to share Quebec art with the world.” Durand is everywhere in the indigenous art scene of Quebec, which is burgeoning, on the one hand, but still impoverished and invisible on the other.

“Native artists, not only in Quebec, but in other parts of Canada and also in America have a great problem in representing our collective image. We have no great institutions. When we talk about the Smithsonian, it’s not an Indian institution,” Durand said. Then, turning from the general to the particular, he said, “Me, I’ve never been invited to be a full-time lecturer at a university. I have a Ph.D., and I have the knowledge, and I believe I’m the only Native art critic in North America.” Last year, Laval University invited him to lecture for the first time. “And it was the first time an Indian was talking about Indian art. It’s difficult to change all this way of power.… I look like a Lone Ranger,” Durand said, laughing.

In his critical view, all art should have an ethical basis, Durand said. “That is to say, I prefer to hear a poem, see a theatrical performance or painting or picture in which there’s a message that speaks about where it has come from and where it’s going”—in other words, a message that talks about living a moral life, he said.

Durand’s approach to art (and life) is by choice always positive, he said, adding that too often, when Native people talk—or are talked about—the conversation is about solving problems or past miseries or victimization. Another narrative is needed, he argued: “We need models and—perhaps we are few—but most in the art field can present these positive ways of being warriors—warriors by the imagination.”

Durand said he was happy to participate in the Living Library event, even though it wasn’t held in a grand venue. “For me it’s the proud continuation of our oral history and when we can use it, it’s a way of making common culture,” he explained after the Living Library event. “That’s why you saw me in this place—at the end of the market between the sausage and the dreamcatcher,” he laughed. “It was so full of humanity that the market itself became the canvas for making another kind of art.”