Bridging the rural gap

Research helps First Nations communities stay connected

Date published: 10/22/2010 3:04:00 PM

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Susan O'Donnell is bridging the gap between Canada's rural First Nations communities and resources they need.

Since 2006, the sociology professor at the University of New Brunswick has led the SSHRC-funded VideoCom research initiative, which studies how First Nations organizations in remote communities use broadband networks for video and other forms of communication to access medical specialists, distance education, counselling and other services.

"These particular organizations and the networks they developed are some of the most sophisticated in Canada," she said. "They've managed to build a capacity to participate in all kinds of events and activities, and deliver services to their communities."

O'Donnell's primary research partner is Keewaytinook Okimakanak, a tribal council serving six First Nations communities. Based in Fort Severn, Ontario, the council established K-Net, their first telecommunications network, in 1994. Their first broadband network started in the early 2000s.

O'Donnell said the goal of her research is to help remote communities use broadband technology as effectively as possible.

"It's about supporting the communities with research data they can use to make strategic decisions,” she said. “They can decide what they want to do with the technology, but having that research knowledge ... is really important."

K-Net Co-ordinator Brian Beaton said O'Donnell's research is helping other rural First Nation networks in the Atlantic, Quebec, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

"She legitimized and verified what was going on at Keewaytinook Okimakanak," Beaton said. "She brought so many people from across the country and around the world to our door. We're internationally known … in part because of her efforts and as a result of SSHRC's investments."

Beaton said O'Donnell's research provides the community with documentation highlighting how they use their broadband network in innovative ways.

"Broadband networks and the VideoCom research gives us a lot of opportunities to expand what we do,” he said. "It means these communities now have the capacity and the resources to expand in scale and access opportunities that were never available in the past."

Next, O'Donnell is collaborating with Simon Fraser University on a four-month study to analyze the experiences of leaders working with Aboriginal broadband networks and bring the results to federal government policymakers.