Chapter 1: An Exploration of Connections
Article: “Hurricanes in Toronto: Distance, Identity, and the Jamaican Diaspora”
by Susan P. Mains
Vol. 50, No. 1, Summer 2007, pp. 1-8
Chapter themes reflected in the article: migration, human-environment interaction, location, cultural diversity, and diffusion
As the saying goes, we often start to appreciate things once they are no longer around. If we apply this to places, we frequently are unaware of our affections for a specific town, neighborhood, or extended family in another country (including all their idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities) until their presence is suddenly placed in the path of potential danger. Threats to communities come in various forms. Social, political, and environmental changes, for example, can produce a diversity of tumultuous landscapes—from street protests, curfews, and the closure of businesses to the destruction of buildings and extensive loss of life. Our belief that unpredictable “bad things” tend to happen to “other” people and places means that we are often as unprepared emotionally as we are physically for events that seem both out of the ordinary and, by extension, out of place.
Our sense of a physical and emotional proximity to places becomes tangible when returning to a favorite destination, whether it be in person or by reaffirming cultural links, is increasingly difficult or impossible at times when we most desire and need to show support and ensure that loved ones are safe. Such an example of simultaneous connection and separation can be viewed in relation to peoples' experiences and responses to major disasters. For example, Hurricane Katrina in the US (2005) and the Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami (2004) became very public touchstones to the precariousness of everyday life and to peoples' efforts to reconnect and reconstruct the social and built environments that had quite literally been swept away.
Another related example, although currently less visible in international media, is Hurricane Ivan, which traveled through the Caribbean islands in September 2004 leaving substantial physical, economic, and social turmoil in its wake. While this posed a more immediate danger for those residing on the Islands, watching a possible disaster unfold from afar proved to be a substantial emotional challenge for many family members and friends of islanders who lived overseas e.g., those living in the Canadian city of Toronto, one of the main destinations for Caribbean migrants (see Figure 1). At the same time, however, constructive responses came from many individuals and community groups who were galvanized into various forms of supportive action. In order to explore the varied ways in which this Caribbean storm system initiated a very particular presence in the Canadian cultural landscape, I traveled from Jamaica to Toronto and met with a range of Toronto-based Jamaican residents, government officials, community organizations, and journalists immediately before and after the hurricane. When initially planning this trip, I had intended to focus my research on Jamaican migrants' experiences of living “in foreign,” combined with their changing notions of citizenship and community identity. However, the unplanned arrival of the hurricane storm system and my own anxieties after arriving in Canada about the safety of friends and family on the Island led me to also explore this emotional connection to place and the collective sense of responsibility that many people feel for their native land. From local patty shops, grocery stores, and neighborhood cafes to local and international newspapers, television, and radio stations, a range of information and activities related to Hurricane Ivan in Toronto provided a tapestry of stories depicting community outreach, transnational communities, and the multiple spiritual and physical “homes” to which Jamaican migrants frequently belong.
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