Canada’s Roma

The Romani people of Canada have been met with both fascination and suspicion.

image: from film “Opre Roma: Gypsies in Canada”

For more than a century, Canadians have been fascinated by the colourful bands of “Gypsies” that roamed the country. There was a circus-like feeling when they came to town. Dressed in colourful costumes, women danced, told fortunes, sold herbs, and worked as midwives. Men made and sold copper utensils and furniture. Gypsies must have been  a rare source of entertainment in frontier towns like Kamloops.

Historical entries of the Roma are brief says Professor Cynthia Levine-Rasky, author of Writing the Roma:

“In historical almanacs, most encounters are discussed only fleetingly, such as the report of the “Gypsy show put on in Kamloops in 1898, or in description of visitors who dressed ’like Gypsies,’ or in the numerous sightings of nearby campsites (Canada’s History Magazine, June/July 2018).”

While these Gypsies were never identified as Roma, the nature of their activities closely corresponded with the people. The Roma liked the myth that the name “Gypsy” projected, so it’s understandable.

“Gypsy” obscures the people’s origin. In Europe, the Gypsy label was given to the Roma because they were thought to originate in Egypt. The Roma never identified a homeland. Their origins were further obscured as they took surnames from whatever country they landed in.

We now know that the Roma originated from Northern India in the eleventh century. Their exodus to North Africa and Europe suggests they may have been refugees from the spread of Islam into India.

In Canada, the most common subgroups of Roma came from the United Kingdom, Russia, and Hungary. In some respects, the Roma were like other ethnic group. “Also like other groups, the Roma have been misunderstood or regarded with suspicion,” says Levine-Rasky. “But, unlike with people with other ethnicities, the myth of the Gypsy travelled alongside the Roma wherever they went.”

One attack on the Roma is seared into their historical memory. The Roma settled into a camp near Glace Bay, Cape Breton Island, in 1935. Women told fortunes in town and the men, who were skilled mechanics, did odd jobs.

In the middle of the night five drunken miners attacked the camp, intent on raping two Romani girls; Bessie and Millie Demetro.  A reporter wrote: “hardly a member of the band escaped the carnage that followed.” Their father, Frank Demetro, fired a gunshot into the air to scare them off. He was arrested for firing another shot that killed one of the miners. Demetro was taken to hospital to care for his injuries and placed under RCMP guard. Frank’s brother Russel, fearing that Frank would not survive prison because he was diabetic, admitted to the shooting. Russel was tried but acquitted on a plea of self-defence.

Canadian Roma commemorate the event with a song in which Frank appeals to his wife Kezha: “Kezha, de ma ki katrinsa te kosav a rat pa mande (Kezha, give me your apron to wipe the blood from me)”

But don’t look for bands of Gypsies roaming the countryside today.

“When we learn of their historical travails, however, the Gypsy myth is challenged, just as it is when we encounter the Roma in Canada today –a dynamic and pluralistic community numbering about one hundred thousand and encompassing citizens of many faiths, occupations, and statuses,” says Levine-Rasky.

 

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