The Royal Canadian Geographical Society
  
Making Canada better
known to Canadians
and to the world.







Publishers of Canadian Geographic Magazine Publishers of géographica


 

Research Grants

2008 Research Grant Recipient


Brittany Shuwera
University of Winnipeg

Northern exposures

Photo: Ellen McDermott
Before last summer, Brittany Shuwera had never been to the North. Growing up in Vita, Man., 100 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, she had listened to her father, who worked for the federal government, tell stories of his travels to places as far away as Resolute, Eureka and Alert, in Nunavut. She had learned about aboriginal traditions from him and admired the bone and stone carvings he brought home. Later, as a geography student at the University of Winnipeg, she also learned about Yellowknife from her adviser Patricia Fitzpatrick, who had lived there for two years. So when Shuwera chose to pursue her undergraduate thesis fieldwork in Yellowknife — funded, in part, by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society — she was fulfilling a lifelong dream of visiting Canada’s North.

During her three-month stay in the Northwest Territories capital last summer, Shuwera explored Yellow knifers’ sense of their city through “participant employed photography,” a method that, she explains, “puts a camera in the hands of participants so that they may photograph elements of their community they feel adequately represent their sense of place.” By asking her new friends to record their emotional attachment to the city in images, she saw Yellowknife through the eyes of its residents.

When she distributed digital cameras to the subjects of her study — residents who were not raised in the North but have lived there for 20 or more consecutive years — “people were mostly concerned about what kinds of pictures they should be taking,” says Shuwera, whose instructions were intentionally vague. Among the 10 participants were a teacher, a writer, artists and a government official, all of whom have witnessed the city’s changing economic landscape over the past two decades.

The results were as varied as they were revealing and included urban scenes, people, animals and landscapes. Shuwera asked the participants to describe what appealed to them about each picture and inquired whether the photos held any symbolic meaning. The only trend, she says, is evident in the many landscape photographs that seem to celebrate “just being able to spend time outside and being so close to nature.”

Shuwera has presented her research at the University of Winnipeg and at the Canadian Association of Geographers’ annual conference and plans to publish it. Afterward, the young geographer intends to live and work in Yellowknife for a year or two, exploring her own deep emotional ties to the North.

— Samia Madwar



Brittany Shuwera
University of Winnipeg

Final Report: The Dynamic of Change: Place Attachment in Yellowknife, NWT

Figure 1: Conducting an interview with a participant in August, 2009 (Brittany Shuwera, left)
Sense of place is experienced when people give meaning to a locale based on social interaction and emotional attachment. It has been an interest to geographers for over thirty years, and as such has implications for community development studies and forest and park management, to name a few. It is particularly interesting to this study because it has not been extensively studied from a temporal vantage point in a northern resource-dependent community. The boom-bust economies that they are often subject to impact resource communities such as Yellowknife, NWT socially, economically, and culturally. Furthermore, development in Yellowknife is undertaken in a markedly different fashion than historically in the north; thus it is important to understand how sense of place has changed. The central question then, is what sense of place do residents of Yellowknife ascribe to their community, and how has this perception changed over the past 20 years? My job was to answer this question during my field work in summer 2008 and over the 2008-2009 school year in order to complete my undergraduate thesis at the University of Winnipeg.

Figure 2: The shield rock inside Yellowknife. (participant photo used with permission)
The months preceding the summer of 2008 were spent preparing for my trek north. During this period I wrote my proposal, and applied for ethics and grants to fund my study. Once I achieved these steps I boarded a plane for my first summer away from Manitoba. I arrived in Yellowknife on May 2 nd to still frozen lakes and short bushes covered with stubbornly melting snow. I found immediately that people up there were friendly and, like me, usually found themselves without the comfort of blood-related kin. What I didn’t expect to find however, was that the friendships I was building were exactly the sort of connections that my research subjects would later describe to me as their main reason for staying in Yellowknife despite an at-times uncertain economic future and harsh climate. Their sense of place was shaped by the very same social attachments I found myself experiencing. Within a few weeks, I found people willing to participate in my project and soon thereafter began my work.

My research involved ten participants who were not raised in Yellowknife but have lived there for the past twenty or more years. They were each loaned a digital cameral and asked to take photos of places they are attached to in and around Yellowknife. Informally, there were closer to twenty people who contributed to my findings by sharing with me their sense of place; only ten provided direct data (i.e. photographs). In addition, and where possible, participants provided old photos that they have taken to show how their sense of place has changed over the years. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with each participant (see figure 1) in order to learn, through description of place and reflection of experience, the sense of place each participant ascribes to their community.

Figure 3: The shield, shown here inside one of Yellowknife’s high schools. (participant photo used with permission)
I came up with a questionnaire that I used during each semi-structured interview designed to gain information from people about what was most important to them about their city. “Why did you take this picture? How often do you go here? Is there anything missing from the photo? And, does it symbolize anything to you about Yellowknife?” were just some of the questions I asked. Through this activity, not only was I able to collect valuable sense of place data, but I was able to learn about Yellowknife in a more meaningful way: through storytelling. The nature of sense of place and how it is formed involves experiences and emotions that cannot be described in a purely objective or quantifiable way. Thus, telling stories about a place rather than describing its physical features and events is more conducive for collecting data about one’s attachment to place. I was able to hear from my participants their reasons for moving to and staying in Yellowknife, events occurring in places involving their family and friends and most importantly: stories about their life at home. This process was to me the most valuable learning experience of my summer in Yellowknife.

Figure 4: The open pit mine at Diavik, NWT. (participant photo used with permission)
Upon returning to Manitoba in late August, my challenge was to analyze the data. I did this by devising a system of classification that I used to assign an alpha-numeric code to each photo. The codes consisted of a temporal classification (old or new photo) and an attachment characteristic (perceptual, emotional or experiential; and environmental, economic, symbolic or emotional). I used the information provided to me in each interview, content of the photograph, direct observations and literature where applicable to triangulate results and assign codes.

Several themes emerged during the analysis showing that over time sense of place has evolved into a strong attachment based primarily on the social interaction people have with Yellowknife and also on attachments to the physical landscape. Undoubtedly a main reason for many to have remained in the community is the economic benefits associated with the current diamond ‘boom’ that Yellowknife is experiencing. However, though economically the city provides an attractive lifestyle, it is in large part the social interactions that have fostered a strong community connection for the sampled residents. Further, physical features such as lakes and shield rock (see figure 2 and 3) have provided a favorable setting to which residents have ascribed meaningful attachment. This marked connection with the natural surrounding environment was common to all participants in varying degrees. This finding suggests that it is in part the physical components of place that contribute to a sense of place.

Figure 5: One participants family member. (participant photo used with permission)
The results show that over time, sense of place evolved into a strong attachment based primarily on the social interactions people have within Yellowknife. Undoubtedly a main reason for many to have remained in the community is the economic benefits associated with the current diamond ‘boom’ that Yellowknife is experiencing. Several photos included reference (either symbolically or directly) to the economic gains they have experienced living in the city. One participant even provided me with a picture of the open pit mine at Diavik to show the landscape associated with the diamond boom (see figure 4). However even though economically the city provides an attractive lifestyle to most who live there, it is in large part the social interactions that have fostered a strong connection for the sampled residents. These social attachments are represented in photos that depict gatherings with friends, school sporting events, family outings, holidays or even pictures of family members (see figure 5). Physical features such as lakes, shield rock or even the aurora (see figure 6) have provided a favorable setting in which residents formed an initial and lasting sense of place. This marked connection with the natural surrounding environment was common to all participants in varying degrees which suggests to me the importance of an aesthetically pleasing natural environment to one’s affinity for place.

Figure 6: The aurora borealis, a common sight in Yellowknife. (participant photo used with permission)
Through the course of this research project, I found that in combination the social, economic and natural attachments to place that residents have formed in Yellowknife have contributed to an overall sense of place that has clearly intensified over time. This intensified sense of place was visible to me through the vivid images provided by participants and the stories and descriptions they were able to share with me. Without doubt, over the past 20 years each individual’s connection to the community has strengthened. In combination, the social, economic and natural attachments to place that residents have formed in Yellowknife have contributed to an overall sense of place that has clearly intensified over time. In other words, over the past 20 years, each individual’s connection to the community has strengthened.

The Dynamic of Change: Place Attachment in Yellowknife, as my thesis is formally known, is expected to be complete by April 2009. The data, including more than several of the photos provided to me by participants, will be presented at a colloquium at the University of Winnipeg in March 2009. I plan to return to Yellowknife after my graduation in June 2009 to begin my working career and live again among natural beauty that Yellowknife has to offer.

— Brittany Shuwera


top

Share this page






   Copyright © 2017 The Royal Canadian Geographical Society SITEMAP  |   CONTACT  |   PRIVACY POLICY  |   TERMS OF USE  |   FRANÇAIS