Why heavy rains make me think of NOLA… Thursday, Jul 11 2013 

Guest post by Isaac Coplan, MES grad student at York University and former CINT 912 student at Ryerson University.

Two nights ago I took an hour and a half to get home (usually a 45 minute commute). I ran through heavy rain and arrived at my lobby to find that the power was out.


Shortly after the rain started, York Commons, York University. Photo by Tanya Gulliver.

Shortly after the rain started, York Commons, York University. Photo by Tanya Gulliver.

I climbed up the stairs to the 8th floor while I swore out loud. When I got to my place, I looked out past the balcony at Wilson ave. and Highway 401, both bumper to bumper. They remained perfectly congested until 930pm. My partner and I sat without power and ate sandwiches. Our stove is electric. We only have one blueberry scented candle and a wind-up flashlight that was giving my partner a headache by the end of evening. All in all it was kind of fun; we played chess and then crazy eights and hung out by blueberry candlelight. Our water was still functioning (though I think the hot water was out by 10pm). Our iPod touch was able to function as our alarm when both of our cell phones died. When I went to sleep, I had a brief moment of thinking that the lights and power may still be out in the morning when I woke up, what would I do then? Our AC had been out for hours and we were starting to get a bit muggy, our food probably wouldn’t last more than a couple of days in the freezer.

Flooding on King St in Toronto. Photo by Steph Vasko.

Flooding on King St in Toronto. Photo by Steph Vasko.

Throughout Toronto, hidden waterways that used to mark the landscape prior to colonialism, development and re-development reached out their swampy arms and flooded the Gardiner Expressway and basements throughout the downtown core. The water systems reminded us that they are there, and that they can’t really be tamed or routed. Sure enough, at 230am the lights flickered back on and scared us. The returning electricity saved our food and allowed us to plug in our cell phones. Other than the stoplight out at the end of our street and wet pavement, the events from the day before were hardly a memory by the morning.

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans probably started in much the same way as this heavy rainfall. It wasn’t the largest hurricane that had passed through the region. Many people start off by having hurricane parties and meeting up with friends. It all probably started off pretty fun, but then at some point, that panicky feeling that things may not get better ended up being true. People ended up losing family homes and suddenly being without places to stay. Displaced, they were reaching for inexistent assistance from people in other states and from their own government. People drowned in their attics, or in the flow of water. The news referred to them as refugees and the media began immediately to blame the victims. The infrastructure that was supposed to protect those people in the Lower 9th ward and St. Bernard Parish was insufficient and the storm surge reminded everyone that it was in charge (not the Army Corps of Engineers). FEMA trailers were lined with asbestos and other harmful chemicals for those who even qualified. The remnants of Katrina are still in New Orleans. Those who lost people, places and signifiers to the storm surge of Katrina will think of it when they see every new storm coming.

Now, heavy rains make me think of this displacement and temporality of shelter as I know it. I look outside and it forces me to think about the privileged position that I am in. I live high above the water level if there ever is a flood. I may or may not have power, but my living space is cool enough and I am consistently hydrated. I have food to eat, even if there is a chance that it will go bad. I have a place that I can return to when the rain falls quickly. I have a place that is safe, where I have dry clothes and a support system. In Toronto, there are lots of people who don’t have that. There are lots of people displaced who are threatened by severe weather. People living in unsafe housing or outdoors whose possessions are at continuous risk of being destroyed, stolen or “cleaned up”. For those people, every rainstorm can be as devastating to them as Hurricane Katrina. Their ‘heavy rains’ may not even be tied to weather, they are tied to social, political and economic positions that they are placed in often through no fault of their own. We have an obligation to make sure that everyone has safe housing, and that there are adequate supports for those who are displaced. When the heavy rain is over, and my power is back up, I have the privilege of breathing a sigh of relief.

It really is time for change, to end displacement as we know it.

It doesn’t take a dream, it just takes a commitment.



Meaning of Home Sunday, May 26 2013 

I miss New Orleans soooooooooo much. It literally hurts to miss it this much.


miss new orleans

In my Homelessness in Canadian Society class that I taught at Ryerson University for several years, we played a “game” called the “Meaning of Home”. It was an interactive activity designed to get students thinking about the most important factors in defining home and what the loss of these factors (in the process of becoming homeless) might be like.

Having moved around so much in the past few years, and living in a bit of a tenuous housing situation now, I am starting to understand it in such a different way myself. June 2010-February 2012 I lived in Arabi, St. Bernard Parish (I arrived at the end of April but was staying with my students for the month of May). March 2012 to (technically) mid March 2013 I lived in Abita Springs, St.Tammany Parish. But, I spent a month (end of August to end of September) in a hotel in Metairie, and most of October 27 to March 17th in New Jersey in shelters, tents and hotels.

Moving back to Canada, I didn’t know where I would be staying. I planned to couch surf; crashing at my parents or friends until I found something more permanent. I lucked into a great condo for the summer through my PhD supervisor’s connections. It’s very much lacking in furniture but it has (now, thanks to the donations of friends) the basic amenities.

So I have a house (in a sense) but do I have a home? When I was in Louisiana, home usually meant Toronto. When I was in New Jersey I always had to clarify because “back home” could mean Toronto or Louisiana depending upon the topic of conversation. Now that I’m in Toronto, I miss my home/friends/networks/communities in Louisiana. A friend told me today that it was time for me to come back home to New Orleans, and a big part of me agreed with her.

There is also a part of me that I suspect revels in the rootlessness; I know that if I was in Louisiana last week, chances are I’d be in Oklahoma or Texas now helping with recovery efforts in those states. I miss the ability to pick up and go help people, especially because I get so fulfilled from doing that work. In Toronto I feel more stability, in NOLA I felt the freedom of the casual culture.

Of course, there are anchors here in Toronto. I’m dating two amazing guys who I’m very fond of and our connections grow stronger with each date; that couldn’t be maintained if I wasn’t here (at least not to the same degree). I have a fabulous job as Project Coordinator of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network. It’s temporary (til May 2014) but I’m sure there are ways to stay connected to their work after that. I’m back on campus at York University; I lectured twice last week, joined the Senate as a student senator for the Faculty of Environmental Studies, and am lecturing again this week. I’m closer to my family and friends, geographically anyways. I’ll get to go to PWAC@MagNet this year after missing it last year.

And yet, my soul is in New Orleans. There is something about that city that drew me in from the first day I set foot on the soil back in 2008. I miss it every day. There is an expression/picture that became really popular after Katrina that said “Roots Run Deep”. Indeed, in Floodlines, Jordan Flaherty explains that more people from New Orleans live their whole lives not just in the city (compared to other cities across the US) but in the same neighbourhood, often on the same block.

roots run deep

photo by Amanda Fotes

I don’t have those historical roots, but the graft took. I’ve grown into the city and into St. Bernard Parish. While I know I will visit, and hopefully soon, I don’t know when, or even if, I’ll ever be able to spend large chunks of time there again. So much of my heart is there though….

Leaving A Bit Of My Heart In NOLA Friday, May 11 2012 

As I stood in line for my Customs interview, I predictably began to sweat. I mean, I’m not a rabid ex-con or anything, but standing in front of those officers just makes me want to confess to things I had nothing to do with (Note to self: NEVER take a career in the Secret Service). The attendant ushered me forward and, much to my surprise, the customs officer turned out to be the man who had witnessed my mother’s hysterics while dropping me off an hour earlier. “This isn’t a coincidence, you know. Your mother made sure I watched over you until you crossed our border”, he snickered. I began to relax as he scanned my documents. He asked me why I was going to New Orleans and, as rehearsed, I stated it was a part of my course at Ryerson University, that I would be meeting twenty others down there, later this afternoon. I handed him the letter and, as he scanned it, looked up at me and said quietly “You’re going to New Orleans for a lot more than just some school work.” I began to grow nervous but his next comments surprised me. “It’s taken this country years to do there what it would have taken a day for them to do anywhere else. People like you and your classmates just warm my heart. Volunteers work their fingers to the bone for people they don’t know. My family and friends there appreciate it, I assure you. God Bless you, your mama must be proud.” He then handed me back my documents, we exchanged well wishes, and I went on my way.

I don’t the think the enormity of his statements hit me until later in this trip. Up until we departed from Toronto, my preparation for this trip had been purely academic. I hadn’t had the chance to think about what others think about what we’re doing here. Notably, I mean that in the least self-aggrandizing way. I simply mean that the work that we’re doing, the work that thousands of volunteers before us have done, has not and will not go unnoticed. People with no connection to the victims of Katrina have reached out their hands and hearts to make even the most marginal of differences. Acknowledgment isn’t necessary, purely because that drive to help comes from within. But it was interesting to hear it from someone whom is on the outside – even just a customs officer – who doesn’t lie within the assigned “confines” of victimhood or relief.

Working on the sites that we have, learning what we have, meeting the people that I’ve met, and sharing parts of myself to the classmates with whom I’ve grown so close to has been one of the most liberating experiences I’ve ever had. I’m leaving a little piece of my heart in New Orleans, and am already counting down the days until I return.

– Maria

NEW ORLEANS! I’m gonna blog the crap outa y’all! Monday, Aug 29 2011 

Rebuilding the City

Hey Everyone!

Hope everyone is well! As some of you may know, I have been back in New Orleans since Aug. 19th and will be staying here until the 31st. I must say it has been another roller coaster ride of experiences and emotions as I get pulled deeper into the vibes and rhythms of the city. But I am going to keep this short and sweet…for now 😉 Just wanted to get everyone excited by letting y’all know y’all have 10 blogs coming from me over the next few weeks on my adventure here and different things I have come across. I will definitely be writing a blog about Robert Christy’s welcoming home party as well as topics including “Neighborland”, The New Orleans Healing Centre Grand Opening, and a brief look into the interviews I did with some citizens. If anyone would like to see any specific topics PLEASE let me know and I will get them in there! ❤ And everyone please comment and share what you think about what I have to say and share it with friends. The more help everyone gives me with this series of blogs, the better my next set will be from my next visit!

Bryan McGill (5th Year Environmental Studies Student @ York University, Toronto)

RIP Wendy Babcock Wednesday, Aug 10 2011 

This is another NOLA to Toronto post. While I don’t always miss TO, there is nowhere I would rather be at this moment. My friend, Wendy Babcock, was found dead at her home yesterday; an apparent suicide. Wendy’s loss hurts; all death does but this is the second suicide in my circle in the past 13 months. My ex-wife Tricia killed herself last July. Suicide, post-Katrina is New Orleans; most people I have met know one or more people who have taken their own life.

In November 2009, CBC profiled Wendy on the show Connect With Mark Kelley. View the video here.

Wendy had, by all accounts, a horrible childhood. She was abused by her parents, lived in a group home, became a ward of Children’s Aid Society, aged out of care, dropped out of high school, became a child sex trade worker (her client list included a very well-known current Toronto politician, lawyers, doctors, police officers etc). She had a child as a teen who was taken away and whom she never stopped fighting for. Her friend and roommate Lien Pham was murdered in October 2003.

She also had an incredible life. She became an activist for the rights of sex workers. She won the first Public Health Champion award from the City of Toronto in 2008 for her activist worker including “co-initiating a partnership with the Toronto Police Services to ensure that sex workers can report incidents of assault without fear of persecution or prosecution, and being a member of the advisory group to the Special Victims Unit.”

She earned a diploma from George Brown College’s program for counselling and advocacy for assaulted women and children. She worked at Street Health for a number of years as a harm reduction worker. She helped found numerous groups including the Bad Date Coalition, the Safer Stroll Project, Sherbourne Health Bus Sex Workers Stop, Regent Park Community Health Centre’s Sex Worker Drop In, and self defense training for sex workers.

Despite dropping out of high school at 16, in the fall of 2009 she started law school at Osgoode Hall, York University. Osgoode’s building, and the building the Faculty of Environmental Studies is in, are right next door to each other. We often saw each other on campus during her first year. She would sometimes catch a ride downtown with me after school so that I could take advantage of the HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes and she could save herself a long bus ride.

In November 2009, her friends threw her a fundraising party at Goodhandy’s. I emceed the event which brought together a host of sex positive performances to help cover the $18,000 she needed for school. The party didn’t raise that much, but it did a great job at raising Wendy’s spirits and publicizing her story.

I heard from Wendy recently, as did many others in our mutual circle. I was shocked to hear the news of her passing last night. I spent a lot of time crying last night and today, thinking about her. She really was a bright light in the world. Someone who fought back against all the crap that was thrown her way and who seemed to be making progress against her demons.  I want to talk more about anxiety, depression and suicide – especially the way it manifests in New Orleans – but today I just want to honour Wendy. I am grateful to have known her for the past 6 years or so.

RIP Wendy Babcock – you are  loved and already missed. xoxo

Almost ready to leave…! Saturday, May 14 2011 

In three hours from now I will be on the plane to New Orleans! I am so excited to finally be going. I’m still packing as I write this, going over everything a couple of times but I am sure I will still forget something.

The last couple of weeks have been crazy for me and topped it off with a small fender bender this morning on my way home which delayed my packing by over two hours.

Had so many things I wanted to do before I left but just ran out of time (sorry dirty room and dirty car) but it will be more than worth it when I land in a couple of hours. I haven’t slept yet so I’ll be running on pure adrenaline and caffeine until I can squeeze a nap in; which will hopefully be on the plane. Breakfast in New Orleans…mmm

New NOLA students Monday, Nov 29 2010 

Pascal and I are excited to announce that we once again have two sections of students scheduled to travel to NOLA during May. We have a few spaces left – mostly in the last half of the month – but suspect that they will be filled within a short time.


From left to right:






May 2009

These 5 guys worked in the Lower 9th ward with Common Ground rebuilding a house.



When I am back in Toronto at the end of January/early February I will get the chance to meet them as we will be holding four classes (2 sets of two classes). Pascal will teach the remainder of the classes while I will do the on-the-ground organizing in New Orleans; hotels, restaurants, speakers, volunteer opportunities etc.

After a hard day’s work gutting St. Mary of the Angels school in the Upper Ninth ward the group stretches out the kinks.

From left to right:


Pascal (instructor)


Rachel (hiding someone)



This will make the third year that Ryerson will be sending students to New Orleans. It is the second year that we will have York University students joining us and for the first time we will have a student from Kings College at University of Western Ontario in London.

For the third year we will also be volunteering with the St. Bernard Project who last year awarded Ryerson with a Rebuilding Award. Seeing a family come home (below a Welcome Home party May 2010) is the biggest award and reward that there is.

Fundraising…send a student to NOLA Wednesday, Mar 10 2010 

Hi all

This is a fundraising appeal to help send students to New Orleans this May to take part in rebuilding work. They will be rebuilding housing and replanting wetlands as well as other community participation initiatives.

Donations over $20 that require a receipt should be made out to Ryerson University. Donations that don’t require a receipt and under $20 also welcomed. You can also make a donation via PayPal using Visa or Mastercard – falcngrl@gmail.com (If you need my mailing address for a cheque, let me know).

For my American Friends – you can donate directly to the organization on our behalf and get a tax receipt https://www.networkforgood.org/donation/MakeDonation.aspx?ORGID2=262189665 and put Ryerson University in the designation or dedication lines. This will go to their expenses but without funds there would be nothing for us to do when there 🙂

This trip is part of a course that I teach at Ryerson (co-teaching (now yay!) with Pascal Murphy). We are taking two groups of students – 20 in each class – for two weeks each. Just to give you an interesting breakdown of numbers:
* there are 5 York students, 34 Ryerson students (including continuing education) and 1 non-student.
* there are 4 male students and 36 female students (grl power!!)
* just over 1/2 have taken or are taking the homelessness course
* almost 2/3rds are students of colour (despite the racial make-up of New Orleans this is rare for volunteers).

Bios for students are on our blog at https://toronto2nola.wordpress.com as well as info about our experience last year!

Students are available to do a presentation after the trip in the GTA area. I am able, with past students, to do a presentation before the trip if you have a potential fundraising opportunity.

There is also a video made by some of last year’s students (about thirty minutes in length total) available at:
Part 1 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zF2w3ZkhLZE

Part 2 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-3_YnZgdeC4

Part 3 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDLuzdNjHiM

Part 4 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oAq_UnELoK4


PS Tweeters and bloggers – please spread the word!!

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