BY JOHN CHICK
Special to The VOICE
When Wainfleet resident Janet Hodgkins planned a surprise read-in at MPP Sam Oosterhoff’s constituency office, her goal was to bring attention to Progressive Conservative budget cuts to Ontario libraries. And while the plan of Hodgkins and about 15 others to sit and read books in the Beamsville office last week was scuttled, the bringing-attention part succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, when an overzealous Oosterhoff staffer called police on the group.
“I’m inundated with interviews,” Hodgkins told the Voice two days after the incident, shortly after getting off the phone with a Hamilton radio station. “We started something and it snowballed.”
Media outlets from across the country picked up on the story.
“Protesting seniors carrying 256-page weapons at MPP’s office has Ford government vowing stronger book control laws,” shouted a headline on the satirical website The Beaverton.
Tipped off to Hodgkins’ read-in plan in advance, the Voice was there last Tuesday as the group — made up mostly of Hodgkins’ fellow book club members from the Wainfleet Public Library —arrived outside Oosterhoff’s office.
“A free public library is a cornerstone of democracy,” Hodgkins said. “It’s kind of like a free university.”
So, with both democracy and the sort of critical thinking one can glean from a tertiary education— or, perhaps, from reading comprehension —under global assault, the group descended on the parking lot of a rainy Beamsville strip plaza. Above a store called Tanning in the Burgh —whose sign advertised “body piercing,” “fashion,” and “sporting gifts,” complete with logos of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Penguins— sat Oosterhoff’s constituency office.
It quickly became evident that the protestors’ books were all papered over with quotes related to … books.
Mickey Mayne, of Port Colborne, covered George Orwell’s “1984” —about a dystopian society — with a Lemony Snicket quote, “Never trust anybody that hasn’t brought a book with them.”
Another book was papered over with the quote, “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book,” courtesy of Groucho Marx.
Ironically, a gentleman held up this tome as the group’s foray into Oosterhoff’s office was delayed while they awaited cameras from CHCH. However, despite their notifying the TV station — and possibly as an example of private sector austerity—the news van never showed.
As is well known now, when the group ultimately made their way upstairs to the MPP’s office, they were not granted a quiet place to read.
“No sit-ins allowed, this a private building,” the female PC office receptionist sternly told the group as they filled the lobby area. “[We] could call the police.”
Hodgkins’ husband, David Fowler, responded that they were just there to read.
“Not here, you’re not, or I will call the police,” the receptionist, who refused to be photographed, replied.
At that point, one of the dozen-plus seniors appeared to scoff at her words. With that, the receptionist said, “All right,” and disappeared into a back room. It is believed that this is when she called the police, as she never used a phone at the main reception desk at any time during the 10-minute incident.
She returned shortly afterward more composed, and began collecting letters of protest from the group. Oosterhoff was not in the office at the time.
According to the receptionist, he’s only in Beamsville on Fridays, and his appointments with locals are “booked up two months in advance.”
As the receptionist accepted the letters, Fowler leaned in with another escalation.
“You’re going to kill interlibrary loans, and you don’t care,” he told her. “It costs pennies from the taxpayer. It’s for the people who are the weakest in our society … they will find millions to put beer in corner stores, but they won’t fund this.”
The slashing of that loan program through the Southern Ontario Library Service (SOLS) was the thrust of Hodgkins’ protest, because her book club relies on it.
“We need nine copies of the same book each month,” she told the Voice before the protest. “And we’re lucky if the Wainfleet Library has one copy. So the books are supplied by interlibrary loan program … the last book I had I think came from the Owen Sound Public Library.”
The receptionist pushed back at Fowler’s assertion.
“Sam is a big believer in books,” she said of the 21-year-old socially conservative Oosterhoff.
With the situation evidently diffused —and the semi-plush waiting room chairs ultimately unused for reading —the group trickled outside and prepared to go home. Given these circumstances, this reporter ran mental calculations and a prediction model on waiting times at a nearby Costco gas station and chose to leave. However, approximately five minutes later, according to Hodgkins, a Niagara Regional Police cruiser pulled up in the parking lot.
“[The two officers] looked at the group and kind of smiled at one another,” Hodgkins told the Voice 48 hours later. “They assured us we were doing nothing wrong. We talked to the police officers longer and in more depth than with the woman in the office.”
Within 18 hours, the St. Catharines Standard story on the law enforcement involvement had garnered widespread attention.
“Nobody knows about this if she doesn’t call the police,” Fowler said with a chuckle.
The ensuing fiasco left Oosterhoff’s communications team in damage-control mode.
“I agree that things could have been handled differently, but my team and I take the privacy of constituents very seriously,” the MPP said in a statement. “We will be reaching out to these constituents to set up face-to-face meetings to discuss their concerns … we will also be going over security procedures and protocols to make sure we do better in the future. I look forward to meeting with constituents from across the riding to bring forward their priorities.”
Ideally, what Hodgkins and the others are hoping for is a reversal of the SOLS cuts, something not without precedent in the provinces. In 2017, the Saskatchewan government backtracked on $5 million in cutbacks, saving a similar system to SOLS’s interlibrary loan program.
“These cuts are most painful for small libraries, for rural libraries, and for libraries that are isolated,” Hodgkins said. “I’m thinking about communities in northern Ontario.”
Whether this happens remains to be seen. Hodgkins and the others did find a sympathetic group of politicians in the NDP, who hosted them at Welland MPP Jeff Burch’s office last Friday.
This time they were invited to sit, and even got coffee and snacks.
Some of the group plans to protest outside of Oosterhoff’s office again on May 31—this time, outside.
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