Mostly quiet on the Millennium front Security measures imposed at downtown library in wake of fatal stabbing draw mostly negative reviews, but regular visitors happy to have space back after six-week closure
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Lowell Ward wasn’t surprised when he was initially denied entry into the Millennium Library Tuesday.
The homeless Winnipegger was also turned away Monday, when the downtown facility officially reopened to the public.
A metal detector, installed at the library’s entrance after 28-year-old Tyree Cayer was stabbed to death there last month, did its job, uncovering two prohibited items Ward had with him: a hammer Monday and a small pair of safety scissors Tuesday.
While his hammer was confiscated, Ward said he couldn’t afford to lose his scissors, so he opted to find a place to store them outside the building. Minutes later, he returned to the library and was allowed inside.
“They should have a place for us to put our stuff, take it and put it to the side, not take it and throw it out,” he told the Free Press Tuesday, admitting he forgot he had the items since he carries all his belongings with him.
But Ward said the library is an important space to him, so he’s willing to adjust to the rules.
“I come to check things out, check my Facebook, that’s the way I talk to my family,” he said.
The Free Press spent five days at the Millennium Library this week, observing the impact of the new security measures, which include a metal detector, multiple security guards to search bags and use metal-detecting wands on visitors, and a constant presence of law enforcement.
Inside, scenes played out quietly. Two Ukrainian refugees got help using the computers from a kindly librarian.
A man sleeping on the floor in a corner was asked to sit on a chair by security, then left alone. The same guard woke him just before the library closed.
Some scenes played out not as quietly. In the middle of the day, an angry, belligerent man screamed obscenities as he was escorted out of the building by security.
Two police officers are regularly posted at the entrance, but at one point Monday there were five of them gathered for a short time. A joke — one officer told the others they “dropped the ball,” allowing a machine gun to get through the metal detector — earned a laugh.
Two police cadets passed by, and two “community safety hosts” employed by Fearless R2W — a non-profit group that serves parents working to reunify with their children and youth aging out of care — were there, as well.
Minutes before closing time, two friends loitered between the doors at the front entrance, sharing a sandwich one brought from home.
The first day of the new $10,000-per-week “interim” security plan is not without hiccups and, for a short time in the early afternoon, a line of about 20 people extends close to the outside doors waiting to get in. Some people are required to go through the metal detector several times before they’re cleared to enter.
“I think they need to improve it, because people won’t want to come here if it’s really hard to get in… It’s kind of one of the only places downtown where it’s not like you have to pay to do something.”–Katherine Foster, library patron
For University of Manitoba student Katherine Foster, it was a particularly frustrating experience.
She asked security to search her bag in advance because she knew there was tech inside that would set off the detector, but she was told her bag had to go through. When it dinged, she was asked to walk back, empty the bag and try again.
Foster, who goes to the library to pass time between classes and her job downtown, said it was a time-consuming process, and “felt they were both being really thorough and not at all.”
“I think they need to improve it, because people won’t want to come here if it’s really hard to get in,” she said.
Foster said she didn’t support similar security measures imposed in 2019 and removed about 18 months later after widespread public opposition. But if it’s the only way to keep the facility open, she can live with the inconvenience.
She predicted that if the process isn’t streamlined, people will be less inclined to visit.
“It’s kind of one of the only places downtown where it’s not like you have to pay to do something,” she said.
Kirsten Wurmann had been a librarian for 20 years, 11 of them spent in Winnipeg, before she decided to walk away last year.
In that time, she broke up fights, dealt with belligerent visitors and found herself in a variety of unsafe situations. But when she thinks back, she focuses on the hurdles she faced trying to make the library a more equitable place.
Wurmann served as a branch head at Westwood Library from 2011 to 2016, and later worked as a librarian at the Harvey Smith (West End) branch until her retirement in October 2022, but spent time at branches across the city, including Millennium, during her time as a civic employee. At the Harvey Smith branch, she advocated to get sharps disposal containers in the bathrooms.
It was a years-long ordeal, she said, where she was regularly told there was no funding to implement them. When they did get them, they were a type that had to be kept behind the staff desk, rather than installed in the bathrooms; people had to ask for the containers, forcing them to self-identify as drug users.
It was disheartening at the time — she said library workers at any branch will tell you finding syringes and needles is a regular occurrence — but thinking about it now, especially considering the weekly cost of the Millennium Library’s new security, feels like a “punch in the stomach.”
In her time on the Winnipeg Public Library’s adult programming committee, she said, the annual budget at all 20 branches was roughly $10,000 — the same as the cost of one week of extra security at the Millennium Library.
“We were told that you can’t afford to hire more community-safety hosts. But now, let’s pay for police to be here, even if it’s just for this week, that’s a lot of money,” she said.
“That’s a lot of money for these two police who are making a lot of money. That’s where I think, as well, staff can just really feel like they’re not being heard.”
Although Wurmann is not a fan of the new measures, she knows many staff members feel safer now. The head of the union that represents Millennium employees said some inquired about their right to refuse to work if significant security upgrades weren’t put in place.
“Staff across the board in branches, and at Millennium — so many staff — are just working so, so hard to try and bring some of these trauma-informed approaches to the work, and it oftentimes doesn’t feel supported.”–Kirsten Wurmann, former Millennium librarian
But the current situation following Cayer’s slaying has come after city staff and funding cuts and employees’ frequent attempts to encourage less-aggressive safety protocols, she said.
“Staff across the board in branches, and at Millennium — so many staff — are just working so, so hard to try and bring some of these trauma-informed approaches to the work, and it oftentimes doesn’t feel supported,” she said.
“And that leads to, obviously, burnout and some really severe mental-health issues because it’s happening in addition to the lack of funding for the library, the staffing issues and then these community issues that we are finding around our city all the time.”
Staffing shortages have forced some branches to cut hours and programming in the past year.
It’s a sad state of affairs, Wurmann said.
“I’m passionate about public libraries,” she said. “But I just couldn’t make my life work anymore, with the demands, the mental-health stresses, the rising incidents, the lack of support.”
On Wednesday, 22-year-old Genie Fife hung out in the lobby, waiting for her friend who was charging his phone inside. She didn’t want to risk having anything confiscated by going through security.
The library is a safe space for her.
“I use the library to charge my device, I use it to gain information, improve my literacy by reading, writing,” she said. “Sometimes I work on my resumé or print things out that I need, papers I need to work on.”
“Or sometimes it’s just a place I can go to be safe, and I know that less-stupid (things) can occur here.”
She’s been transient since she was 14. The extra security could be a barrier to her or her loved ones, she said, adding she hopes the city invests in security personnel trained to deal with some of the unique challenges libraries face.
Sometimes it’s just a place I can go to be safe, and I know that less-stupid (things) can occur here.”–Genie Fife, Millennium patron
“It can be very challenging for people to find resources they need, to charge their phone, to find information they need, to get connected in any general sense, to be honest,” she said.
The social problems at the library are a natural result when a city doesn’t properly fund support services, she said. When the drop-in centres are full, the library becomes the next warm place.
“Ultimately, safety is a community effort, and we have to meet people where they’re at… we can’t judge people because of that, but we also can’t turn them away,” she said. “That just goes to show that there’s a systemic problem within the city.”
Ryan Beardy, the co-ordinator of the Gang Action Interagency Network and founder of sharing circle Healing Together, works with people in street gangs. He’s used his experience to sit on the Millennium Library’s advisory group, and said recommendations made there have been completely ignored.
For some of the people he works with, seeing a group of police officers will always be a deterrent, even if they’re no longer involved with a gang.
“It’s a different feeling when you’ve been over-policed, when you’ve been racially carded, when you’ve been stopped on the street for just existing, for being brown,” he said.
“Policing, to some people, equates to safety and security, but in my experience, a lot of safety and security is provided through providing safer communities,” he said. “So, looking at the underlying problems, looking at the underlying social issues.”
The broader implications of the kind of security measures imposed inside the library run counter to the reconciliation efforts Winnipeg officials have said they’re committed to effecting .
“I would say that there’s people that will be left behind, that want to read, that want to learn, that want to dream… is it a space for us now, is my question.”–Ryan Beardy, co-ordinator of the Gang Action Interagency Network
“I would say that there’s people that will be left behind, that want to read, that want to learn, that want to dream… is it a space for us now, is my question,” he said. “Is it a space for everyone, if we’re leaving behind demographics? Is that a Winnipeg public library?”
By Friday, the new security is functioning at a smoother pace.
Shortly after the library opens for the day, a man with a backpack shuffled through the metal detector after emptying the contents of his pockets into a small bowl — a naloxone drug-overdose kit, rolling papers, hand-warmers. The security officer searching his backpack found a small shaving razor, cleanly tucked in a plastic protector sleeve, and holds it up.
“That’s fine,” another officer said quickly.
The razor, and the rest of the man’s belongings, were placed neatly back in the bag. The man and the officer shared a quick fist bump before he walked inside towards the circulation desk.
He was at the library to pay off $10 of his outstanding overdue fines, he said, digging through a small paper envelope containing cash.
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.