New database at Beaton Institute Helping to Preserve Island’s Multi-cultural Fabric

by NationTalk on April 1, 20081253 Views

March 31, 2008

(Sydney, NS) – At the Beaton Institute of Cape Breton University, new work is underway to maintain the Island’s diverse multi-cultural heritage.Among the tens of thousands of items in the archives are hundreds which contain documentary evidence of elders and tradition bearers in various ethnic communities in Cape Breton ranging from Mi’kmaw, Ukrainian, Italian, and Polish to Belgian, Hungarian, Jewish, and African Nova Scotian. A new digitization project will result in the preservation of a representative sample of the Institute’s Aboriginal and Ethno-Cultural holdings. This will increase accessibility to these records, stabilize their deterioration, and increase the representation of Aboriginal peoples and under-represented ethno-cultural groups in Canada’s archival heritage.

Current records – compiled in a research tool known as the Ethno-Cultural Resources Inventory Database – include audio tapes, photographs and manuscripts which cover topics as diverse as community history, religious practices, foodways, gender issues, folksong, and personal experience narratives.

“We consulted with community stakeholders to bring some community context to the process of choosing which records to digitize,” says Catherine Arseneau, Manager of the Beaton Institute. “Representatives of the various Ethnic groups included in the inventory as well as researchers currently engaged in cultural studies were part of the discussions.”

Cape Breton Island has a rich cultural history that extends well beyond the waves of 19th Century Scottish and Irish settlers and the empire-building French and English explorers of 100 years before. From the indigenous Mi’kmaw people to generations of immigrants seeking better opportunities for their families, Cape Breton’s multi-cultural population has contributed greatly to its unique character. Immigrants from Europe, Asia, the Middle-East and Caribbean Islands brought their customs and traditions with them to this small island on the East Coast of Canada, and while they worked hard to fit in and survive in their new surroundings, they also held on to what they had left of their native lands.

Over the years, some of this heritage has been preserved and remains in practice while other elements have all but disappeared. Individual family traditions, culturally-specific organizations, and religious pursuits go a long way to maintaining ethno-cultural customs, but changing times and industrial evolution can put more pressure on these institutions than they can bear and the old ways often drift into memory or get lost altogether.

The financial support for this project is provided by the National Archival Development Program, which is delivered by the Canadian Council of Archives in partnership with the Department of Canadian Heritage, and Library and Archives Canada. With this funding, the Beaton Institute has been able to start the much-needed process of preserving these holdings and improving community awareness and access to them.

The digitization process will be an ongoing one as the Beaton Institute works in collaboration with the Centre for Cape Breton Studies and the university community to make its archival holdings widely available in a safe format.

A database will be created that is compliant with provincial and national standards, thereby establishing necessary infrastructure for future access projects. At least 150 records will be digitized and made available through the province’s ArchWay website, the Atlantic Scholarly Information Network hosted by Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Digital Archive Initiative (DAI) website, and the Beaton Institute web site hosted on

The Beaton Institute is a cultural archive mandated to preserve the social, economic, political and cultural history of Cape Breton Island.


Catherine Arseneau
Manager, Beaton Institute
Cape Breton University
t: (902) 563-1326

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