Community-engaged scholarship and the Digital Research Centre

When Phd candidate, Colin Osmond, decided to conduct research with the Pictou Landing Mi'kmaq First Nation in Pictou, Nova Scotia, he had a number of complications to overcome. Here he details how collaborating with the Digital Research Centre brought his research to life.

Conducting community-engaged scholarship (CES) is a difficult assignment. Especially when the partner community is located on the other side of the country. Even more so on a graduate student dime. As a PhD candidate at the University of Saskatchewan, conducting historical research with the Pictou Landing Mi’kmaq First Nation in Pictou, Nova Scotia, I needed to find unique and effective ways of collaborating in spite of these complications. This is what led me to partner with the University of Saskatchewan's Digital Research Centre (DRC). With their help, guidance, skills, and knowledge, I have been able to create an online database where all of my primary research can be stored and shared with the Pictou Landing community, allowing them to not only remain up-to-date and involved in my current research, but also to have access to a collection of important historical documents about their community’s history. This latter point has allowed my PhD research to do much more than culminate in a doctoral dissertation; it allows my research to be useful in other community projects, education initiatives, and future questions about the history of the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia. In this way, my partnership with the DRC has brought my research to life in ways that I had not imagined possible.

The expertise and guidance provided by the DRC have allowed me to engage with my community partners in ways that would simply not have been possible in a typical Graduate program. Having the power to share my primary research with the Pictou Landing First Nation allows me to provide a valuable and useful service that goes beyond my PhD research. The University of Saskatchewan’s Digital Research Centre is at the forefront of the call to work collaboratively with community partners, and their services and insights help student and faculty researchers create digital platforms that not only streamline academic research, but also leads to the creation of better CES.

Colin working with Mi'kmaq Elders at a community roundtable
Colin working with Mi'kmaq Elders at a community roundtable

In a very practical sense, having a digital face to my research allowed me to offer something tangible when approaching the Pictou Landing First Nation to propose this project. As an outsider (I am not Mi’kmaw, but grew up in Nova Scotia as a settler-descendant of Scottish highlanders who migrated to Mi’kma’ki in the late 18th century), finding a way to make my dissertation do more than just earn me a degree was a central part of my academic goals for my dissertation.  We all hope that the bound copies of our dissertations will do more than serve as a landing pad for airborne detritus, yet it is important to realize that the rigorous standards of academic writing do not always make for the most entertaining read. The database that I was able to create with the DRC allows me to combine elements of my written work with the entirety of my primary sources in a single platform. The database contains PDF files of historical documents, such as Indian Agent reports, correspondence, petitions, historical photographs, maps, and much more. Users can scroll freely through the records, and also use key tools such as timelines, StoryMaps, short contextual essays, and other elements to help ground themselves in the rich history of the Pictou County Mi’kmaq.

It is increasingly becoming a standard in historical research with Indigenous communities to do more than simply research without consultation or engagement. Rightly so. Efforts to help build capacity and make our scholarship more beneficial to our community partners promises to result in dynamic partnerships that exemplify the benefits of CES. These additional elements make CES a time-consuming, and sometimes costly, endeavor. The Digital Research Centre is vital to my ability to maintain a productive and respectful relationship with my community partners