Frobisher Bay : ambiguity and gossip in a colonial situation

Koster, Ditte A. (1972) Frobisher Bay : ambiguity and gossip in a colonial situation. Masters thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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This thesis reports on five months anthropological fieldwork conducted in Frobisher Bay, Baffin Island, from August till the end of September, 1971. It is divided into two parts. The first four chapters are mainly descriptive with the exception of the theoretical orientation presented in Chapter I. The remaining chapters are analytical. -- Chronologically, the researcher's first impressions of Frobisher Bay, the field strategy and the theoretical perspective for the analysis of the data is presented in Chapter I. The professional, transient Euro-Canadians, and in particular the elementary school teachers, are the focus of the researcher's attention. Their view of their social reality, the ways in which they define their social and educational situation, and the manner in which they perceive the Eskimo community are presented as a case study of the broader phenomenon of civil servants in the Canadian Arctic. The data are presented within the framework of symbolic interactionist theory as developed by George Herbert Mead and other sociologists. Blumer's (1969) statement of the present position of this orientation on the study of human society and human conduct is outlined. -- In Chapters II and III the growth and development of Frobisher Bay from a small, American airbase in 1942 to the present major civilian, administrative center in the Eastern Arctic is described, as well as the history and present make-up of the Eskimo and Euro-Canadian population. This is set within the context of the historical process of culture-contact in the Baffin region from the time of the discovery of Frobisher Bay by Sir Martin Frobisher in 1576, The whaling and fur industries, the activities of the Church of England missionaries and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are described. Life styles of the present Frobisher Bay population of approximately twenty-three hundred people are compared. Data are given regarding the socio-cultural background, employment, housing, recreation, and social interaction of the two sectors of the population. -- In Chapter IV a short historical account of formal education in the Canadian Arctic and in Frobisher Bay specifically is presented. I outline the present educational structure and facilities and some of the findings of recent anthropological research on cross-cultural education. Focussing on the Baffin region and Frobisher Bay respectively, the Northwest Territories' Department of Education policies and programs are investigated. Data on the 1970/71 school year are given in Tables 4 to 18. They contain information on the staff and pupils of the elementary schools: national background, age, sex and marital status, training and teaching experience of the teachers; pupil enrollment in Frobisher Bay from 1955 to 1971, grade and age distribution during the 1970/71 school year, as well as school attendance figures. This material is analyzed in comparison with Hobart's (1970) data on elementary education in ten Western Arctic communities. -- Chapter V consists of a presentation of definitions of social situations, often perceived as "problems" by Euro-Canadian residents in Frobisher Bay. It appears that many of them are situational in nature, derived from or arising out of the ambiguous situation which the Canadian North presents to many of its Euro-Canadian residents, especially transient professionals. Much of this information is transmitted through gossip. Although some of this may seem trivial and superficial at first glance, my argument is that much of the gossip is an expression of peoples' feelings about living in the North. Many feel that they have to justify their reasons for being in Frobisher Bay and the role they are playing. They also frequently evaluate and conjecture about other peoples' reasons. These reasons are described in three main categories: financial, professional, and personal reasons. -- In this section of the thesis Euro-Canadians' perceptions of "Eskimo problems" are also discussed. These are often related to values and opinions regarding benefits or detrimental effects of the welfare system, including its influences on the Eskimo sense of identity, self-esteem, and responsibility. Such perceptions divide the Euro-Canadians into assimilationists and integrationists, with blatant racism and radical reformism at the extremes of the continuum. Distinctions are made between old-timers and newcomers. Local perceptions of "escapists" and "drifters," "idealists" or "Peace Corps types" are discussed. As an example of professional attitudes and affiliation with different service agencies, the minutes of the Coordinating Committee on Social Problems are considered. -- Chapter VI contains definitions of educational situations, also often perceived as "problems" by the teachers of the Sir Martin Frobisher elementary school. The heterogeneity of this group in terms of background, training, and experience in the North and elsewhere leads to conflicting opinions regarding definitions of the Frobisher Bay school situation. The physical spread of the school, the relative social isolation of some of the teachers, and the various types of classes taught by them (integrated, segregated, and token-integrated) adds to the overt and covert disagreement among the teachers about the appropriate philosophy and goals of education in the North and the desired daily classroom practices. Two professional occasions, the Teachers Orientation sessions, and the Curriculum Workshop brought out many of the teachers' feelings, particularly in relation to the New Northern Curriculum, which is being introduced by Yellowknife's Department of Education. -- There seemed to be consensus, however, among many of the teachers with regard to their general definition of the situation: a lack of relevant, useful information to help solve educational problems in the classroom. Many teachers relate this lack of information to a failure in communication: 1) little or no communication with and guidance from the regional education office; 2) a lack of informal help and interest from the Principal; 3) a lack of sharing of ideas among the teachers themselves; and 4) a complete lack of information regarding the community, especially the Eskimo residents. Since the teachers perceived official channels of communication on the local level as insufficiently open, and information received on the two professional occasions as ambiguous and contradictory to the social reality of Frobisher Bay as they perceived it, they were forced to rely on informal channels of communication: gossip with other Euro-Canadians in the settlement. I present the argument that most Euro-Canadians have only limited and professionally specialized knowledge of the Eskimo community and that therefore much of the information received by the teachers may well give them a distorted view of that community. -- In Chapter VII I analyze the material of the two preceding chapters in relation to the theoretical perspective on gossip provided by Allport and Postman (1947), Paine (1967) and Shibutani (1966; 1967). Giving specific examples, I present the thesis that gossip in Frobisher Bay is inherently different from that treated in most traditional anthropological literature. I note that Frobisher Bay gossip is a mechanism of informal communication used by small, local groups in crisis situations in an attempt to reduce perceived ambiguity. The situational necessity for gossip and its nature and function, arise out of the fluid character of the settlement's social structure. In such situations previously accepted norms of behavior become inadequate. Emergency action of some kind is required. Furthermore, the felt ambiguity in connection with the perceived lack of information requires special social mechanisms to provide incoming employees with the necessary information for the adequate fulfillment of their jobs and the arrangement of their social lives. At the same time, old-timers assert and protect their vested interests in occupational and social spheres. Gossip is one way of handling this type of situation. -- In Chapter VIII I attempt to pull together some of the main threads which run through the preceding discussion. The various observations and concepts presented are put in the context of the colonial situation existing in the Canadian North, which, as defined by Memmi (1967), is the most ambiguous situation possible for those confronted with its inherent contradictions. Local perceptions of insufficient and/or ambiguous information, isolation, stagnation, mediocrity and high turnover of personnel are treated with reference to this colonial situation. Memmi's distinction between colonials, colonizers, and colonialists draws attention to the ambiguity of the colonial situation and the kind of moral choices Euro-Canadians are forced to make when in the North. It is my view that many civil servants in the North, including teachers, because of their structural affiliation with the dominant social system, are unable to live in the North as colonials. Their ethical convictions as educated, middle-class professionals prevent them, on the whole, from becoming colonialists. As colonizers, then, they are required to cope with the frustrating, ambiguous situation as "reluctant imperialists" employed by institutions whose goals and practices often conflict and which they cannot fully support and condone.

Item Type: Thesis (Masters)
Item ID: 7253
Additional Information: Bibliography: leaves 230-245.
Department(s): Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of > Sociology
Date: 1972
Date Type: Submission
Geographic Location: Canada--Northwest Territories--Frobisher Bay
Library of Congress Subject Heading: Gossip--Northwest Territories--Frobisher Bay; Frobisher Bay (N.W.T.)

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