Bringing new life and community health hubs to old buildings of the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland and Labrador
The Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland is a very isolated area, both from the rest of Canada as well as from the rest of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador with a population of approx. 16,000 in 2016. Because of this rural context, these communities have been described as dying communities with no life left in them, which is not always true. There is a new future for these communities through relationships between municipalities, community groups and academics in the area.
Beginning in 2019, the Great Northern Peninsula Research Collective (GNPRC) was created. This community-integrated research collective is built of community champions, health practitioners, as well as researchers from varying backgrounds and disciplines all working together to complete research to address the needs of the communities of the Great Northern Peninsula of the island of Newfoundland. The GNPRC is a research collective built through relations of the Grenfell Campus of Memorial University, Western Regional School of Nursing (WRSON) as well as the Bonne Bay Cottage Hospital Collective, and the Great Northern Peninsula Community Hub Board of Directors. The researchers are coming from backgrounds in nursing, business, community outreach, geography, environmental studies as well as specific skills in food security, healthy aging, social enterprise, and dynamics of shared community spaces.
While Memorial University of Newfoundland’s main campus is on the most eastern side of the province in St. John’s, the university has a second campus on the West Coast of the Island in Corner Brook. As an MA student at the Grenfell Campus, I was able to share my research skills in food sovereignty and social enterprise to work as a research assistant for one of the professors of the collective. As this format was not one I had been a part of before, I knew I had much to learn. One large aspect which defines a majority of the research completed to date by the collective is its ability to bring an academic perspective to communities in order to give them a base of information to help them grow and build community projects which will work for them. This can be contrasted to a history of distrust of universities by many communities because of years of research completed about communities rather than for communities, and in ways that did not take into account the wants and needs of communities or the impacts which may come from research.
Through a passionate group of researchers, administrators of the university, community champions, nursing professionals, nursing educators, and other health practitioners, the group has been able to complete community-based research focused on the wants and needs of the towns of the Northern Peninsula to show the possible opportunities to help them grow as resilient and sustainable hubs of the future.
When the GNPRC is asked about something such as social enterprise, community hub spaces, collective kitchens, or health in rural communities, the group can complete research from all across the globe to bring back to the community to help them begin projects for themselves. Normally, the person who is heading a project within the community will be one of the community champions who can ensure that our research is useful to the communities.
In February 2021, The GNPRC organized a series of hybrid online / socially distanced meetings on the Northern Peninsula with new eyes and the past experience of how a global pandemic can impact all of the goings-on in a small community on an island in the North Atlantic. At these meetings, we presented research on: different plans for building a social enterprise; different options to run the collective space with other community hubs on the peninsula; how to fundraise in a rural community; as well as the importance of local food security, food growing and information on the history of locally grown food for the Northern Peninsula as well as the island as a whole. As one of the researchers with the GNPRC and with PhiLab, I was able to share my findings surrounding different forms which social enterprises may take, the business plans which often go along with them, as well as some examples from local, national, and international contexts. But we are borrowing from many aspects from places around the world to create something that will work for this rural area.
From my research findings, I was able to build explanations of scalable franchise social enterprise and community non-emergency healthcare shared hub spaces, as well as explain some examples of social enterprises as they have been run in other rural communities in Newfoundland. I knew that it would be very important for the people of the Great Northern Peninsula not just to see that social enterprise is an option in other places in the world but is also available and doable in the small communities on the island of Newfoundland.
After speaking to community members after the presentation, they told me how interesting and useful it was to have people such as myself and the other researchers be able to come in and demonstrate that the concepts which they have had in their head are doable. As a researcher for a community group, this type of opportunity to work so closely with a community and practice skills has allowed me the space to understand more about bridging the gap between academic writing and the importance of ensuring this information is understandable to those who can benefit the most from it. I ensured my research, my write-ups and presentations for the community would be translatable from academic jargon and knowledge into a format that can be understood by community champions and leaders who will turn this knowledge into real change within their community. When many challenges in rural communities are viewed through an academic lens, such as food security or health science, there are opportunities to begin projects which may not have been considered. The Community healthy food hub will be integrating a community collective kitchen, community gardens, and healthy food education while also looking into hydroponics indoor growing in the future! There is hope in these communities that the future will benefit from a growth in interest in food security, which will help build up these communities for generations to come.
From this experience, I now have a much more hands-on experience of how community-based research and initiatives can benefit both the community in question as well as the researchers who are involved. I have found that my experience with academia has often been a very isolating and siloed space where researchers are not often given the opportunity to share information with individuals outside of their field. This form of research breaks this format completely and allows for a more interdisciplinary understanding of how real-world situations can be impacted and benefited through interdisciplinary research. This experience to work with a community and region and to see my research be heard and benefit a project in a community has been an experience that I have gained so much knowledge surrounding community-based research and how it can truly make a difference to the community as a whole.