Think of the Canadian North; its rugged land and small, scattered communities. The physical distance means that communities must often resolve their own problems, and frequently do so in clever ways. “The sad part is that the experience and ingenuity of rural communities have been, up until recently, barely recorded,” says Tracy Summerville, a political scientist and assistant professor at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC). A series of research projects is now trying to change that by providing an online meeting place for these communities to share and learn from each other.
That meeting place is called the Social Science Research Lab (SSRL). SSRL is designed to enhance our understanding of the unique cultures of northern communities by digitizing information about the land and people—information such as maps, oral histories, cultural practices, and public policies. The acquired knowledge will be shared to help industry, government, scholars, and other groups understand how their decisions could affect the viability of these communities.
“Most social science work does not require big infrastructure, but because of this lab and its powerful server, we are able to dream big,” says Summerville, a lead researcher using SSRL. SSRL can manage huge video and picture files so that the history and experiences of people living in Canada’s rural northern regions can be documented and accessed through the Internet. “The goal is to bring these communities together, and make them benefit from each other’s experience,” she explains.
Summerville became interested in working with northern communities when she came to UNBC and discovered its commitment to the region. The university’s mandate, In the North, for the North, resonated with her. As an academic, and as a mother raising her family in northern B.C., Summerville decided to combine knowledge and heart to do something she believes is worthwhile for the region. “Sometimes people forget that academics are also citizens of their community,” she affirms.
Similarly, anthropologist Michel Bouchard, another UNBC researcher and associate professor, uses the SSRL to expand knowledge of the North. He came across 20-year-old footage of a French community from Peace River, Alberta. The video was recorded by people in the community, and to Bouchard, it adds value to existing documents. He has digitized all the tapes to put them on the Internet. “Rather than having these interviews on a shelf collecting dust, they will soon become accessible to all researchers interested in French minority settlements in Northern Canada,” he says. With modern technology, he is hoping to advance his field of research and provide a broader perspective to social scientists at other universities.
Individual ingenuity is how people living in the Canadian North often resolve issues. Because they are so isolated, they can’t pop over to the next town to see if someone else has tackled a similar problem. Though crafty solutions abound, the situation also becomes a case of reinventing the wheel. That’s where the SSRL online exchange comes into play. “While dealing with their everyday reality, northern communities produce a great amount of knowledge and tools, which could benefit other groups in the North and all Canadians,” says Tracy Summerville. By sharing their experiences online, Summerville and other SSRL researchers hope that northern communities will build a collective knowledge about life in the North that they will actively use through the lab. Currently, not all of the communities have the technological capabilities to import files or documents. But once they do, SSRL will be ready.
In the meantime, the lab acts as a great teaching tool for students. One graduate student working with Summerville, Rob van Adrichem, put together two documentaries about communities on B.C.’s North Coast. One of these tells the story of how residents reacted to the expansion of Prince Rupert’s port. The other illustrates the prospect of offshore oil and gas exploration, and the opinions of residents from Prince Rupert and the Queen Charlotte Islands. “Video recordings are valuable because they convey emotions much better than reports on paper,” explains van Adrichem, who is pursuing a master’s degree while working at UNBC’s Department of Communications.
Researchers and students from other universities, and even around the world also benefit from SSRL. In particular, such increased knowledge about life in the North will help International Polar Year researchers with their work towards understanding polar regions and how northern communities are responding to climate change in the Arctic. As well, Michel Bouchard is working closely with Russian researchers to share his documents and tapes about the Komi peoples, an ethnic group living in the Russian republic of the same name. Summerville is also working with partners at Simon Fraser University to create a new political science e-journal that will, among other things, focus on the different regions in Canada. “We want to bring people from outside the North to work on this. It is creative in that sense, and offers so many possibilities,” she says.
Summerville works with three rural networks—the BC Rural Network, SPARC BC, and the Canadian Rural Partnership—in the hope that they will build Internet-accessible learning tools for northern communities. By first partnering with these well-established rural networks and offering them an electronic space for communication, she hopes SSRL will eventually expand to include every community. SSRL also receives support from the B.C. Knowledge Development Fund.