Research Report 2007

Research Goldmine

Old black and white photo of a family

A new project will make data collected in Newfoundland censuses from 1911-1951 more readily available to those doing historical, genealogical and genetic research. (Photo courtesy of Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL))

Memorial University and the Newfoundland and Labrador Statistics Agency showcased their leading role in a massive project to digitize census data when national players for the Canadian Century Research Infrastructure (CCRI) gathered in St. John's this past year.

CCRI is a five-year, pan-Canadian initiative to develop databases from information collected between 1911 and 1951. It will make rich details of a rapidly changing society available at the click of a mouse.

According to Atlantic team leader Dr. Sean Cadigan, Department of History, until now researchers have had to spend considerable time gathering and analyzing the paper records, and substantial budgets were required to cover time, photocopying and, in some cases, travel to where the records were stored.

A significant component of the project is the inclusion of data from censuses done in pre-Confederation Newfoundland, which can offer insight not possible in other Canadian jurisdictions.

Canadian privacy legislation limits the depth of detail that can be drawn from censuses, Dr. Cadigan explained. Examination can only be done at the census division and subdivision level and these are larger than specific cities and towns. Moreover, individual and family identification is forbidden, at least until the data is a century old.

"You can't do what we call microhistorical research under those restrictions," said Dr. Cadigan.

However, censuses done in pre-Confederation Newfoundland do not fall under that legislation making it a goldmine for research.

"The importance of this for research is immense. For pre-Confederation Newfoundland, you can look at smaller centres and even families, and track the movement of people," he said. Far beyond identifying trends, he asserted, this allows researchers to understand the human stories behind the stats.

It can also provide valuable, if not always comfortable, insight, helping researchers gain a more accurate picture of how people moved in and out of communities in the early part of the 20th century. "The data shows that there was a transitory nature to our population even then."

And the potential benefits extend to fields other than social history. Dr. Cadigan noted that genealogists, family historians and genetic researchers will have a wealth of new information at their fingertips.

Funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation is making the collaborative project viable.

Dr. Cadigan's team will meet in August with members of the five other CCRI centres: York University, University of Toronto, University of Victoria, Centre interuniversitaire d'études québécoises at Université Laval and UQTR, and the University of Ottawa, which is at the project's helm.

The Memorial team, which is also responsible for digitizing data collected in the other Atlantic provinces, will demonstrate the prototype of a searchable database it has developed a significant step forward at the CCRI meeting. Dr. Cadigan hopes this prototype will serve as a model for all national centres, pushing the project considerably ahead.

Public access to the pre-Confederation Newfoundland data won't happen until at least late 2007. For the time being, this goldmine is kept under tight security at Confederation Building.

Advancing health care with historical records

Discovering essential genealogical links may help clarify the genetic basis for transmission of a disease. In the past, health researchers looking for genetic links for a particular disease, especially if it was rare, would spend years visiting residents in small communities, searching through church records, and exploring the Provincial Archives. This process was expensive, time consuming and at times incomplete. The Canadian Century Research Infrastructure (CCRI) has the potential to greatly facilitate such research by providing accurate, timely and inexpensive family links. This will be done in a way that optimally protects patient privacy.

The Population Therapeutics Research Group, a non-profit research organization within the Faculty of Medicine, is working with the CCRI team to develop a province-wide heritability database that can be used to reveal genealogical links among individuals with a particular disease. This infrastructure would be a unique provincial asset, as the pattern of migration and isolation that existed in the past has resulted in Newfoundland being recognized as a unique founder population. Thus, conducting research in Newfoundland can shed light on the genetic basis for disease and the exploration for best treatment options.

"The CCRI database has the potential to change the way genetic research is conducted. Instead of taking years to find a critical genealogical linkage, it may take just minutes. This will lead to better health outcomes for Newfoundlanders," explained Dr. Proton Rahman, associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine and principal investigator with the Population Therapeutics Research Group.

Knowing that two seemingly unrelated patients with a similar disease share a common ancestor can be a clue that leads to exposing the genetic basis of disease. And using the relatedness database offers better protection of patient privacy than the current research methods. Instead of a researcher visiting community members or the archives, unidentifiable information can be placed in a computer program along with other family and demographic information. The program compares this data to the CCRI dataset and determines the probable degree of relatedness and potential common ancestors.

As Dr. Rahman explained, "The CCRI project has the potential to significantly improve the research process, bringing health benefits into the community more quickly."

For more information, visit: http://www.mun.ca/history/fac_staff/cadigan.php