The Roots of Community-based Research in Canada

Research about communities has a long tradition in Canadian intellectual life, perhaps beginning with the efforts of early Christian missionaries to understand the language and ways of the Aboriginal peoples they sought to convert. Reading the fictionalized narrative about these efforts found in Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda, it is clear that these efforts conceived of communities and the people in them as subjects, or even as de-humanized objects of inquiry.

Fast forward to the first 60 years of the twentieth century and very little had changed. Researchers, now largely university-based, remained interested in the study of communities. To be sure, there was a level of community outreach and engagement in some fields, including agriculture and public health. But Canadian universities, as institutions, generally lacked the robust mandate for extension and community betterment found among the American land grant universities. This absence of a formal mandate for public engagement and the genuine scholarly curiosity of university researchers contributed to a perceived need to document and theorize about communities and the people in them, without considering the needs and interests of the communities themselves. The grassroots impact of university researchers’ work was thus sometimes problematic to say the least. For example, the eminent sociologist Jean Burnet became persona non grata in rural Alberta after publication of her book Next-year Country; A Study of Rural Social Organization in Alberta. The standard joke that “the average (pick your community) family consists of a father, mother, two children and an anthropologist,” has its origins in this period of research.

The paradigm of community research in Canada began to change in the 1960s and early 1970s. The social activism of the time, often fuelled by federal government funding of organizations such as the Company of Young Canadians and the Opportunities for Youth program, propelled young participants into engagement with communities in need or under stress. These experiences were not forgotten as participants moved to university or returned to graduate school. Further, faculty members were increasingly engaged as citizen advocates and researchers on major community issues. The participation of faculty members from the University of Toronto, York, and Ryerson universities in battles such as Stop Spadina (a campaign against a proposed expressway along Spadina Avenue) and in reforming governance in the City of Toronto more generally are important examples. But university researchers also became actively engaged with community groups on school closure issues (for example in Ottawa) and community social economy initiatives (for example in Pointe Saint-Charles in Montreal). In 1979, the Service aux collectivités was established at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) to engage with communities on a range of social and economic issues. It continues to be a vital player in community-based research in Quebec. Among its hallmark contributions is the development of Quebec’s highly affordable childcare program.

There were additional key influences on the development of community-based research during the 1980s and 1990s. The role of HIV/AIDS activism in changing the paradigm of university research engagement was crucial. The mantra “nothing about us without us,” became a dominant discourse from the HIV/AIDS community in the 1980s. This had a major impact on the model of research funding used by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). It also pushed community-based research on various aspects of HIV/AIDS into the public policy arena, demonstrating how traditional barriers between researcher and subject and policy maker can be broken to good effect.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) had a similar impact on community-based research. In its earliest days, RCAP developed research protocols and policies to guide its commissioned research. The RCAP adopted the principles of mutual respect, reciprocity of benefit between community and researcher, and the need for researchers to be accountable and report back to the communities in which they were engaged. The RCAP’s research principles also played a seminal role in the development of a new policy statement by Canada’s research granting councils: Ethical Conduct of Research Involving Humans, in particular, the chapter titled “Research Involving the First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples of Canada.” This is the first such policy statement by a national research funding body in the world.

Concurrently, important new principles for research data on Aboriginal communities were created as First Nations assumed control of the First Nations and Inuit Regional Longitudinal Health Survey (RHS). OCAP—ownership, control, access and possession of all data related to Aboriginal peoples and communities—is the core precept of the RHS and has been since 1998. Today, OCAP is the foundation for the relationship between Aboriginal communities and researchers, regardless of the focus of the research. The importance of these developments should not be underestimated in shaping Canadian practice in community research, particularly in social sciences, humanities and health. Aboriginal research is a stated priority of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) include an Institute of Aboriginal Peoples’ Health.

Community-based Research Today

It could be argued that the current state of community-based research in Canadian universities is shaped by three influences: the personal inclination of some faculty and students to engage with community as a central part of their personal research agenda; the availability of tri-council support for community research (especially through SSHRC); and the heightened awareness on the part of universities that they have an institutional contribution to make in building sustainable communities in the broadest sense.

I would venture that today every university in Canada has a group of faculty who engage with communities in research about community-based issues. Their work is with and not on communities. The communities involved may be place-based or communities of identity or interest. The principle that community benefit should result from this research is foundational. To varying degrees of explicitness, the relationship between researcher and community is reciprocal with outputs and outcomes that benefit each party. These outputs and outcomes must by necessity differ between researchers and community groups. Communities are rarely interested in the peer-reviewed article, and need research in a more accessible—and actionable—form.

Until recently, faculty engaged in this type of community research have sometimes toiled in the shadows. They have received little formal support in the way of funding. Academic publication of community-based research results has proven difficult in some fields and peer recognition has been relatively weak. For some, this had led to challenges in promotion and tenure. Fortunately, greater tri-council recognition of community research, and a growing awareness of the role of universities in building links with communities, has begun to overcome the obscurity problem.

In 2000, SSHRC took a bold step to support community-based research. It launched the Community University Research Alliance (CURA) program to support collaborative research between universities and community organizations. Under this program, SSHRC would provide up to $1 million over five years to support research, student training, and knowledge mobilization. The idea of reciprocal benefit to community and university was explicit and central. There were provisions in CURA that enabled a community organization to hold SSHRC funds, although this rarely occurred in practice.

The CURA program was immediately well-subscribed. There were over 100 applications in the first round, and approximately 10 were successful. The energy generated by the first rounds of CURA funding was crucial in launching a hybrid research and engagement forum in Canada. In 2003, the University of Saskatchewan hosted the first CUExpo (Community University Engagement Exposition). Although other aspects of community-university engagement, for example community engaged pedagogy, were part of the CUExpo remit, community-based research was the core focus. This first CUExpo established a community of practice across Canada for community research. CUExpo is now a biennial conference that draws participants from around the world. The organizers include communities, universities, colleges, government, and local voluntary organizations from the host community. The fifth CUExpo will be held in 2015 in Ottawa, hosted by Carleton University.

SSHRC’s commitment to community research has not flagged since the creation of CURA. The CURA program has now been replaced by two community oriented partnership programs, the Partnership Development Grant, which is intended to support early stage research relationships between academics and communities, and the Partnership Grant Program that provides major grants of up to $2.5 million over a maximum of seven years. The application numbers for these programs are high with in-kind and cash contributions from the researchers’ home institution being the norm.

This brings us to the institutional changes within universities to support community research. There are a number of factors at play. One is demonstrable community need, especially by communities that are under stress or are facing an unprecedented opportunity that requires research expertise for success. There are a number of Canadian universities that have a long institutional commitment to engaging communities with their research capacity. These include, but are not limited to the previously mentioned Service aux collectivités at UQAM, the Harris Centre at Memorial University, and the Rural Development Institute at Brandon University. Increasingly, Canadian universities are recognizing that community research should be a core element of a broader community engagement strategy. Further, there is nascent recognition that community-based research organizations are important players in community research. These groups are able to work with universities to mutual benefit. Examples include the Centre for Community-Based Research in Kitchener; the Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research, based in Whitehorse; the Community Sector Council of Newfoundland and Labrador; and Community Campus Partnerships for Health (CCPH), a bridging organization founded in the U.S. but active in Canada for the last few years.

Universities and community-based research organizations, along with faculty engaged in community-based research, came together in 2008 to establish Community Based Research Canada (CBRC). CBRC is a national network that works in the domains of policy advocacy and engagement; capacity building among faculty, students and community organizations engaged in collaborative research; and in building Canada’s community of practice for community-based research through communications and network support (for more information, visit

Work is ongoing through CBRC and through other collaborative initiatives on issues that linger for academics doing community-based research. These include recognition for tenure and promotion; developing and disseminating best practices in community-based research; and ethical practice in community engagement by university scholars. Even though Canada is a world leader in developing research ethics related to Aboriginal research, much remains to be done on ethical standards for community-based research more broadly.

Some may see sustainability as another challenge. Will funding priorities change? Will younger scholars see the demands of community engagement and the attendant rewards as contrary to their long term career interests? The objective need for high quality community-based research in Canada (and beyond), and the rewards for communities and researchers when community-engaged research is done well, are clear. It is therefore imperative we work to ensure funding stability for community-based research, and that the work of researchers in this area is properly recognized. AM

Katherine A. H. Graham is Chair, Community Based Research Canada, Professor of Public Policy and Administration, and Senior Advisor to the Provost at Carleton University.