In a world of rapid change, Dr. Sarah Breen is working to ensure rural British Columbia is included in research and equipped with the knowledge to flourish into the future.
The BC Regional Innovation Chair in Rural Economic Development (RIC) was established in 2006 with the goal of developing regional capacity, economic diversification and support provincial/national networks. Breen assumed the RIC position in late-2020 where she is building on the past and moving forward with projects that will help support rural communities, particularly in the Columbia Basin-Boundary region.
“Even though it is such an important part of our economy and the bedrock of our history, the rural stories do tend to get a little lost,” says Breen. “This isn’t typically intentional, it’s a function of the sheer volume of people living in urban places that tends to outweigh the rural. But, we need to pay attention to the differences because we can’t have good public policy if that policy is not serving all our communities.”
One of nine regional innovation chair positions across the province, the Castlegar-based RIC is the only one focused specifically on rural economic development. Funded through a $2.5 million endowment fund created by the provincial government, local governments and non-government sources, the RIC partners with crown agency Innovate BC to deliver valued research.
Framed by rural regional resilience, the work Breen will undertake in the coming years is multi-faceted. Research streams will focus on mobilizing human capacity, technology and innovation, and building for the future. Working with government and non-government partners, Breen is currently assembling a team that will include Selkirk College learners in different programs and post-secondary students from partner institutions.
“It’s about bringing forward credible information to help people make sound decisions,” says Breen. “For me it’s less about standing up and simply advocating for rural places. We are bringing forward an evidence-based case about why it’s important, this is why it benefits our communities, why it benefits our province and why it benefits our country. ”
Deep Rural Roots Frame Understanding
Breen’s zeal for understanding and analyzing information has been a lifelong passion. Starting her post-secondary pathway with a Bachelor’s degree in Geography from her hometown Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Breen continued with a Masters in Geography from Newfoundland’s Memorial University and PhD in Resource & Environmental Management from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby.
“It’s a combination of curiosity and problem solving, I am genuinely interested in learning,” the 37-year-old says about her academic spark. “Research is very much a problem solving exercise.”
Her resume is thick with contributions to rural research at multiple levels, senior policy analyst positions with government, work with the private sector and an adjunct professor position at the University of Saskatchewan. In choosing Breen for the RIC role, an Innovate BC peer reviewer noted that she is considered “one of Canada’s most impressive and leading new scholars in the fields of rural development, community economic development and regional economic development.”
“We are incredibly fortunate to have recruited Dr. Breen to serve as our RIC,” says Dr. Terri MacDonald, Director of Applied Research & Innovation at Selkirk College. “Her expertise in applied research, policy analysis, rural considerations and experiential learning for students, coupled with strong partnerships from both within and outside of our region make her an ideal fit for this role.”
Discovering the West Kootenay while working on her PhD as a research assistant, Breen came on a data collecting roadtrip to the region in 2011. Finding the perfect blend of scenery and lifestyle, she fell in love with the rural location and eventually moved to the area full time in 2016. She joined the team at Selkirk College’s Columbia Basin Rural Development Institute (RDI) as a research assistant for two years and after a stint working remotely with the BC Provincial Government as a senior policy analyst, has returned to take on a new challenge as the RIC.
“I’m proud of what I have accomplished and I want to do more in this role,” Breen says. “This is an opportunity to bring more attention to this region because we are a bit of a powerhouse in what we are doing at Selkirk College. I’m happy to barge into the academic scene with the very good work being done at a rural college.”
Developing Future Leaders Through Research Experience
As she settles into her role, Breen is wrapping up work already in progress and preparing for new projects. An important focus of her work will be student involvement through a teaching and mentorship philosophy.
“The value of education is not providing information to students for them to remember and repeat,” she says. “Rather, the value of education is enabling students to become critical thinkers by empowering them with the knowledge and tools needed to thrive in their personal and professional lives.”
As one component of a growing and bustling team of faculty and student researchers at the Applied Research & Innovation Centre (ARIC) in Castlegar, Breen will put emphasis on research that helps build a stronger rural economy while taking into account challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.
“By the time government and industry leaders are asking questions in critical moments, it can often be too late,” Breen explains. “It shows the need for proactive and ongoing research that some might consider a little bit boring. Basic data collection allows us to look at trends over time so that when we are talking about employment or education or industry performance, we can look back and make an informed choice and actually understand what is going on.”
You can learn more about the BC Regional Innovation Chair in Rural Economic Development at: https://selkirk.ca/research/ric