A serendipitous turn of events in early 2021 led to the creation of Rez Reads, a national literacy project supporting Indigenous communities across Canada.
Kingstonian Katie Koopman is a board member for a non-Indigenous nonprofit called True North Aid (TNA), dedicated to serving and supporting northern and remote Indigenous communities in Canada through practical humanitarian assistance. Koopman and her husband, Steve, both volunteer for TNA.
Koopman said that, in January 2021, a young Indigenous mother named Kay from the community of Eabametoong First Nation, also known as Fort Hope, in northern Ontario asked if TNA would be able to get her books while her family was in isolation in their community. “It is a remote fly-in community, and I thought, ‘Well, sure. I’m sure I can get two books, no problem,’” she explained.
As it happened, in that same week, said Koopman, “A dear friend of ours passed away. His name was Kevin Smith. And Kevin loved literacy, he loved reading, he loved books. He was generous with sharing his books, but also equally as important was his support and commitment to reconciliation.”
Smith, his wife Louise, and their children were very “in tune with Indigenous issues before the word ‘reconciliation’ was the buzzword, really,” according to Koopman. “And we asked the family if we could do a book drive in honour of the young woman’s request… but in Kevin’s memory.”
The Smith family agreed. And, as fate would have it, serendipity struck again: Kevin Smith’s daughter, Christine, works at Indigo. Indigo Kingston, in order to support Christine during the initial days after the passing of her dad, offered to help the effort by being a drop-off location for TNA’s initiative. And so, a year ago the local bookstore giant became the drop-off location for books that came in from households and schools across Kingston.
Koopman was happier still when, “In addition to that, the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation asked us to set up a registry.” The group created a registry of curated Indigenous-authored and -illustrated books, “and we invited the Kingston community and beyond to share our posts and what we were doing, and for people from all over Canada to purchase Indigenous-authored books.”
All the books purchased and donated went to Eabametoong First Nation. “We were able to curate three pallets of books, and there were so many that we actually were able to gift a whole other community with these books.”
The initiative was so successful that Indigo Love of Reading contacted Koopman again, offering to repeat the project this year in an even bigger and better fashion by including multiple communities.
This year, the project — now known as Rez Reads Book Drive — has participating stores in Kingston, Cambridge, Ont., and Winnipeg, Man.
“As individuals,” Koopman affirmed, “we are called to step up into reconciliation and honour the Truth And Reconciliation Committee’s Calls to Action, and supporting Indigenous education and literacy is a top matter. Access to books and access to information are hard to come by in remote communities because of proximity, and because it’s very expensive to send heavy items like books to remote areas. So, if we can sort of bridge that with a few communities each year, with the local community’s support, we’d like to make that happen.”
“It’s a real honour to do this again,” Koopman said. “The volunteers and the enthusiasm of those who are donating and those who are purchasing have made it very easy this year. So, we’re very grateful… The Indigo staff and Kingston have been incredibly supportive and enthusiastic again this year to honour Kevin.”
Kingston’s donated books and books purchased from the registry will benefit St. Theresa Point First Nation in northern Manitoba.
The Rez Reads Book Drive runs until Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022; interested donors can drop off gently used or newly purchased books at Indigo Kingston in the Cataraqui Centre. All genres of books, for readers of all ages, are accepted, as long as they are in gift-worthy condition and not damaged.
Indigo’s registry of Indigenous-authored books is available on their website, and the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation will match every book purchased through the registry.
All matched books will benefit Frontier College’s Indigenous Literacy programs in northern communities across Canada.