Posts tagged ‘Resiliency’

August 4, 2016

Migration and Resilience: International and Interdisciplinary Perspectives

I was invited last fall to speak as part of a panel to the idea of migration and resiliency. If you can stand it, here is my speech, posted at the Centre for Excellence in Research on Immigration and Settlement (CERIS Ontario) website:

In it, I start with my own family history of settlement, than look to the many ways that resiliency is manifested on the ground among newcomers, youth, and residents of our city of Toronto. Finally I describe the implications of this frame for community programs and services.

August 15, 2010

It’s always something: Life and death on a city block


The man across the street from me died recently. He is the twelfth death that I can remember on the block during the time I have lived here.

The Dalai Lama once said to remember that whenever you enter a room with others, there is always pain somewhere in the room. This is my remembrance of pain on the street, my own included. It’s perhaps a macabre exercise but one that underscores the thickness of our neighbourhoods.

When I lead Jane’s Walks in the neighbourhood, we fly through the neighbourhood. This tour will pause much more frequently and cover little more than a city block.

The only people I know who have gotten mugged in my neighbourhood both got mugged at the underpass to the railway tracks at the top of the street. And the restaurant at the other end is nicknamed the Kick & Stab.  This is some of what has happened in the spaces between these two places:

  • A corner brick house was built by a man during WWI. The woman who lived in it promised payment when her husband returned. Lost is the reason why, but the builder was never paid. His daughter bullied the new little girl who moved in after that – bullying passed on generationally, and spatially.
  • Further south is the family that raised a crowd of children, one they lost when he was eleven. Four neighbourhood boys had found an open sewer grate and crawled down for an adventure. What they found was a pocket of deadly gas. Only the two quickest boys were able to climb out. The others succumbed. His father bankrupted himself, suing the City for neglect.
  • Walking again south, we come to the house where five-year-old Jeffrey died with his grandparents after his young parents were found incompetent. However, his grandmother, barely better equipped, became overwhelmed. The testimony at the trial which I remember is how one of the neighbourhood mums, a woman I knew by sight from the local school ground, visited one day and found Jeffrey’s grandmother giving him a bath in the basement. The grandmother told our neighbour she didn’t know if she could manage. Within months, the weight of a toddler, 21 pound Jeffrey died of neglect and septic shock. A new, happy family lives behind those walls now, a little girl, who knows of him, in the bedroom where Jeffrey had been locked. It overlooks our backyards.
  • Turning right, here is where Louie ran a store for years, robbed just as frequently. His face was always relieved when he saw you were a customer. He’s gone now, and the owners of the store around the block have bought a big dog. Their faces are perpetually nervous too.
  • Here an old man found in his basement apartment, not having the strength to walk out on his own, relying on his neighbours to fetch groceries. The police found him when there was a fire in the building.
  • Here the brother and sister, grown, the patterns set when they were young. He was suspended, then expelled, from the local grade school. She lured into trading her young sexuality for favours.
  • Here the man who didn’t see his family for fifteen years until he was able to save enough for them to emigrate,  his toddler turned to a teenager.
  • And here the mother who went mad. And recovered. Sort of.
  • Here the man who has depression who won’t tell anyone. His wife miscarried, too.
  • Here the man so alienated from his family that he didn’t attend the funeral of his disabled son.
  • Here the brother who became a drug addict and then committed suicide. His father beat his mother.
  • Here the house that was filled with young people, lost to the world. They burned the house down setting off fire crackers in the waste can. One of them, panicked, rushed to the second floor porch, certain she was trapped, waiting for the fire trucks. Her friends, rushing out to the front sidewalk, chanted, “Jump, jump, jump.” Two households were burned out, neither covered by insurance.
  • Here the man who doesn’t talk to others. He’s in the hospital a lot.
  • Here the elderly mother whose dutiful daughter stayed close until she met a man who took her money. When the mother objected, they found a long-term home for her.
  • Here the woman who moved here with a draft dodger and had a beautiful child. But he lives on the streets now.
  • Here the daughter with special needs so carefully tended because her friendliness makes her vulnerable.
  • Here the daughter who died of cancer in her early 20’s.
  • Here the man who nursed his lover through the final stages of AIDS. Now, a couple who lost a child unborn.
  • Here the man who beat his wife until she left. His grown sons visit sometimes.
  • Here the woman and two children who emigrated here, to follow her husband, then to find they had no status. Her husband beat her too. She left him, and met a woman, a white Canadian who stepped in where her husband left off, we didn’t like her. The mother was almost deported, but neighbours put up the surety, testified on her behalf. The Canadian woman moved her away from this neighbourhood. The last we heard, she was homeless and mad. We don’t know what happened to the children. Now there, a women whose time is occupied with her suicidal sister.
  • Here the husband who was so cheap he wouldn’t let his wife have a visitor over for tea because electricity and tea bags cost money.
  • Here a four-year-old child lived, her Mum her only support, a woman who too became addicted. The neighbours each took turns watching over the child, feeding her, until her grandmother arrived months later and set things straight. I saw her grown and well.
  • Here, two bad landlords.
  • Here the smoker who died of lung cancer, saying, “I feel so stupid. I’m scared.”
  • Here the man who never told his family he is gay. But they never visit.
  • Here the partner who strayed, had a child with another woman, then left.
  • Here another straying man, whose lover left him. His wife wouldn’t take him back. And, then, a woman with a hundred friends who was self-conscious she was alone in life, single.
  • Here a father who swears his son is slow because of an undetected gas leak.
  • Here the couple who, when they moved, left pictures drawn on the wall of the wife having sex with their labrador dog.
  • Here the father who lost his legs and then his life to diabetes. An adult son also died. His wife had bottles delivered regularly to her home until she was put in housing. She’s better now. Then, a tenant who never worked after a construction accident.
  • Here the two half-brothers who lived and aged together for more than 3 decades, the older one passed away first, his brother’s name on his lips, his brother’s arms around him.
  • Here, another alcoholic and a tenant, in the basement, who couldn’t live peaceably with her partner.
  • Here the family that faced with dread that the daughter had inherited the mother’s disease, the men stood stalwart by these wives, only grouching about parking or snow removal.
  • Here the family who bought a home, a dream they could just afford, but it burned down early one morning, grandmother escaping with grandchildren, because the little boy who lived in the basement apartment found some matches. They didn’t have insurance either.
  • Here the mother who shepherded her two sons to school everyday, past her ex-mother-in-law, who would speak to none of them.
  • Here the woman, schizophrenic, who has managed through medication and personal strength and neighbourliness, to raise her child well.

There’s more, there’s always more, but that’s enough. As my neighbour June would sum up such events, “It’s always something on [our street].”

read more »

August 25, 2009

Life in a town of 900

A few days ago, I travelled through the town of Skagway, Alaska on my way for a day of horseback riding and canoeing in the Yukon. Our bus driver, Mark, settled in the sea-side, shipping town fourteen years ago and proudly showed us around before we got on the highway. He explained, in very concrete terms, the sociology of life in a very small community.

A wintertime population of about 900, none of them there all at once, he explained, absorbs to up to 10,000 people every summer day when the cruise ships arrive.  The town’s summer population is swelled also buy the in-migration of commercial operators, happy to sell amethyst, gold and jade to the summer crowds. Others come looking for seasonal work. The summer time resident population swells to 2 – 3,000.  Many of them are housed in trailers at the edge of town – which Mark said residents called their “ghetto”, probably, I thought because of the poor quality of the housing, distant from any services.

Because of the small size of the town, Mark explained the importance of a strong sense of community in a hostile and changing environment. “It means,” he said,”that we don’t all necessarily like each, but we have to look out for each other.” For example,  fundraising benefits are regularly held for those facing medical or other life crises to help defray the unexpected and exorbitant costs.

Mark also amazed us when he explained why the border guards were so friendly. The social networks in a small town are dense, he explained, because everyone does a lot of different things. They have to if they want things to go.

“I’ll be back here at the border in a few hours to work. I keep their mechanical systems running. But that’s just what I get paid for,” he said, launching into another spiel. “I also do a weekly show on the local radio station and I am on the volunteer fire department.

“Because there’s is work to be done and if we don’t do it, who’s going to?”

June 21, 2009

Community hubs recommended for young and old

The same week the Pascal Report on the implementation of full-day kindergarten in Ontario was released, the Ontario Professional Planners Institute (OPPI) released a Call to Action on building age-friendly communities. Bracketing opposite ends of the life cycle, the reports shared some very similar recommendations.

Both reports emphasized the role and importance of community hubs and the integrated delivery of services. Pascal recommended that schools serve families and the broader spectrum of their needs, while the OPPI called in a series of recommendations for government services to be delivered locally and for seniors and children’s services to be co-located. Both also addressed expanded learning opportunities for each age group.

The reports underscore the point that a focus on place-based strategies aids those who are most needy and least mobile: the elderly, parents with strollers, newcomers with more limited social networks and low–income people who rely on transit.

The benefits of this strategy are also shared. As the former mayor of Bogotà, Columbia, eloquently explained about some of his innovative strategies:

“Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children we will have a successful city for all people.”

—Enrique Peñalosa to Yes Magazine


A few other praiseworthy notes on the report by Dr. Charles Pascal, the Premier’s Special Adviser to the Ontario Premier on Early Learning:

  • By addressing the entire 0—12 age range, Pascal affirmed that the introduction of full day kindergarten was not a panacea to the challenges that many children face (he cites Willms’ research estimates of up to 60% of all children are vulnerable). As, as economist James Hechman shows, early investment must be followed up to be effective [emphasis added].
  • Pascal also recognized and named the summer learning loss which occurs for most low–income kids. The opening of schools as community hubs should bridge some of that gap.

read more »

April 28, 2009

Disease and the regenerative power of cities

An appropriate quote, in these pandemic times, from Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cites:

Vital cities have marvoulous innate abilities for understanding, communicating, contriving and inventing what is required to combat their difficulties. Perhaps the most striking example of this ability is the effect that big cities have had on disease. Cities were once the most helpless and devastated victims of disease, but they became great disease conquerors. All the apparatus of surgery, hygiene, microbiology, chemistry, telecommuications, public health measures, teaching and research hospitals, ambulances and the like, which people not only in cities but also outside them depend upon for the unending war against premature mortality, are fundamentally products of big cities and would be inconceivable without big cities. The surplus wealth, the productivity, the close-grained juxtaposition of talents that permit society to support advances such as these are themselves products of our organization into cities, and especially into big and dense cities.

February 13, 2009

February 17 Event: Neighbourhoods & Mental Health

Urban Moods and Urban Myths: Do Neighbourhoods Matter for Mental Health? Café Scientifique. Presented by The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Centre for Research on Inner City Health (CRICH). Tuesday, February 17, 7-9 pm: Gladstone Hotel, 1214 Queen St. West, Toronto. Free, all welcome.
To RSVP, e-mail Tynama at smh dot toronto dot on dot ca

February 1, 2009

Local school reviews: the problem of declining enrollment, pt. 2

So, if school enrollments are dropping across the country, what are some of the emerging solutions?

As I mentioned in my last post, our local grade school, one which has stood in the east end of the city for more than one hundred years, is facing an accommodation review. As its enrollment has been dropping over the past decade, like the majority of Canadian school, it’s not much of a surprise. (For more on this trend of declining enrollments, see People for Education’s special report published last spring. Full disclosure: I worked with this great group of parent activists for years.)

However, what’s different now, compared to the panic of ten years ago, is that the school board review is not simply about how to close this neighbourhood school. The proposed solutions are far more creative:

First, recognizing the trend a few years ago, the school began to hunt for magnet programs, which could boost enrollment. French Immersion was rejected as an option (on account of the perhaps-stereotypical image of idling SUVs ferrying children from nearby wealthy neighbourhoods), but the school council has recently been exploring housing an alternative school.

Second, the school board has agreed, through the accommodation review, that students  attending the local school can stay at the school until grade 8, thereby increasing the number of students inside its walls.

A cynic (or someone with a long memory) will rightly point out that this is only an option because Design & Tech  and Home Ec. programs have essentially been eradicated from Senior Schools (grades 7/8).  Dedicated, specialized classroom space was de-funded during the Harris years, and most schools cut these programs. Ergo, grade 7/8 schooling can now be delivered in any general classroom. In sum, there is no longer any reason to ship kids away to bigger, more specialized schools at the end of grade 6. So why do it?

There is a real upside to this decision though; that is, that it minimizes the number of shifts students face within a short scope of years (at the ends of grades 6 and 8). Keeping students at their local schools means they can maintain the social relations they have built over years.

One of the best studies to demonstrate the importance of strong relationships in building the resiliency of children and youth was done two years ago by Resiliency Canada, Toronto Public Health and Doorsteps Neighbourhood Services, called A Community Fit for Children and Youth. Children and youth in this age group who felt connected to their families, their schools and their communities were the least likely to participate in risky behaviour. Yet at the age of twelve or thirteen (just as they were leaving grade six and entering grade seven), they were also beginning to  feel disconnected from these same supports. Part of the challenge from the reports’ recommendations was to families, educators and communities was to examine how to maintain these important connections.

I learned this on a deeply personal level,  one day, when my son was still in grade school, he and I began to talk about the people that he knew in our neighbourhood. It began as an idle question, but soon, gifted souls that we are, we began to make a list of everyone he knew. By the time we got to one hundred people, we stopped, exhausted and awed at the strength of these visible ties he had to our community. Those sorts of social connections need to fostered, and our local school review may just provide the opportunity to do that.

%d bloggers like this: