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Home News USask project highlights different economy in Saskatchewan’s north

USask project highlights different economy in Saskatchewan’s north

USask project highlights different economy in Saskatchewan’s north
USask Photo Lee Swanson

University of Saskatchewan (USask) researchers have produced four videos—two each in Cree and Dene—to present the results of a project aimed at defining, describing and assessing the role of entrepreneurship in Saskatchewan’s North.

USask partnered with seven Indigenous communities to study ways to build the north’s social and economic capacity. The communities were full research partners. The list includes Ille La Crosse, Pinehouse, Cumberland House, Hatchet Lake, La Ronge, Lac La Ronge Indian Band and Stanley Mission.

Principal investigator Lee Swanson, associate professor in USask’s Edwards School of Business, explained that they wanted the communities to feel as though they were full partners in the project. He said local people see building the region’s social and economic capacity as key to securing “the good life,” well-being, and prosperity they want.

The idea came from wanting to better understand these communities.

“Originally we had applied for different research grants to look into how there might be ways to better understand how northern communities can advance their social and economic standing and make life be just a bit easier for local people,” Swanson said. “This particular grant allocation was approved through the Social Sciences Humanities Research Council, and then when, we began doing our research, a really important part of it was working in partnership with the communities.”

The complex project, Building Northern Capacity Through Aboriginal Entrepreneurship, began in 2014 with a five-year grant of $291,000 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) as well as support from Edwards, the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, and USask’s former International Centre for Northern Governance and Development.
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed by two years the production and release of the four English-subtitled videos.

“The videos are meant to give a summary of what we learned throughout the whole research process,” Swanson explained. “Things like the undocumented economy that gets into the academic article side of things. The videos are meant to be a presentation about what the research program learned in terms the communities can access very easily, and that communities can understand because it is in their own language.”

Swanson said the project changed dramatically after community leaders emphasized the value of engaging youth, who are integral to the future of the communities.

The youth, as well as adults, participated separately in focus groups, used markers to indicate on a large, detailed map of Northern Saskatchewan what they considered to be their community, and responded to 88 flash cards to provide feedback on the goods and services needed or available in their community.

As well, researchers provided students in Grades 11 and 12 with a video camera, provided interview questions and had pairs of students interview each other on their own. Swanson believes this peer-to-peer interview technique, which his team calls OurVoice, is a first in this type of research.

Adults participated in data collection workshops, many were interviewed separately from the workshops, and others given cameras to capture images of entrepreneurship in their communities to use in follow-up interviews in a well-known data collection method called PhotoVoice.

Among the most interesting findings to emerge from the project is the region’s “righteous undocumented economy,” based on centuries-old cultural and survival practices of hunting, fishing, gathering, sharing, giving, and exchanging goods and services.

While a bureaucrat or accountant in the south might consider this as tax avoidance or an underground economy, these traditional cultural practices continue to provide the means for people to meet their needs in remote places with limited employment possibilities.

“The undocumented economy, the literature in economics and accounting and so on, has about 20 words that they use to describe informal economies including black markets, underground economy and so on. All of those 20 words refer to something nefarious, something about getting around the law, hiring people that are too young to work to work, avoiding taxes, doing something illegal that kind of thing,” Swanson said.

“Yet when we looked at the economies in northern Saskatchewan they were in no way, shape or form designed to do anything but help the people there. They were economies that were run in ways similar to how they have been run for hundreds if not thousands of years with giving, sharing, trading, hunting, fishing, gathering kind of at the core of a lot of it,” he said.

He explained that undocumented economy as a phrase was gifted to them by Indigenous people as the word is an uncommon way to describe informal economies.

“We are hoping now that when accountants do research into taxation, and when that kind of work happens and they bump into an informal economy, that it’s not bad to use the word undocumented economy to describe it instead of the word used in other documents so far,” he said.
Swanson and his research team filtered down the hundreds of pages of data to two brief scripts for the videos that use photographs from the region and stills from the PhotoVoice portion of the project to highlight what’s important for the North. The youth peer-to-peer videos are presented separately.
A recurring theme on the videos is the pride northerners take in their communities. Rather than ship youth south for training and see them not return, people want some university, technical school training, and business education provided in the North, and more meaningful employment opportunities created to retain their youth.

Swanson said it was a huge project, with between 20 and 30 research assistants at various levels from undergraduate to doctoral students.

“Those research assistants, some of them were working on this project as research training for their futures in case they ever decide to have a career in research, and some of these research assistants were Indigenous students as well,” he explained. “That is another way we hope we can help improve the capacity of communities and Indigenous peoples to do research going forward.”

Community members also felt it should be easier for northerners to get loans and other supports to start and run businesses.
“The videos are a novel way to present the very practical things that pose a challenge to these communities,” Swanson said.

“By using the language of the communities and different research methods, we tried to ensure that the information essentially is owned by the communities and available to them.”