DESPITE RACISM AND PERSECUTION, THE ROMA HAVE PERSEVERED IN CANADA.
Despite racism and persecution, the Roma have persevered in Canada.
IN SEPTEMBER 1919, IN SYDNEY, NOVA SCOTIA, a police officer encountered a group of settlers who had not been seen before — a group of twenty-one Roma who had recently arrived in the Cape Breton Island town. The plainclothes officer charged the men in the group with robbery, despite their claim of having no knowledge of the crime. Their brief stay in the county jail was followed by bail, release, and an arraignment. The police confiscated the group’s horses.
Sixteen years later, Cape Breton was the site of another incident involving a group of Roma, but the outcome could not have been more different. In early June 1935, a “Gypsy” camp was set up in the small town of Reserve, near Glace Bay. Some Romani women set up a business telling fortunes at the camp and from a storefront in Glace Bay. As skilled mechanics, the men sought odd jobs. The group encountered some minor annoyances with townspeople, but nothing that could have led them to anticipate what was to happen to them one week later.
Shortly after three o’clock in the morning, five drunk miners attacked the camp with a barrage of stones, sticks, and bottles. A newspaper reporter wrote that “hardly a member of the band escaped in the carnage that followed.” The miners pulled two girls, Bessie and Millie Demetro, from their tent with the intent of raping them. To scare off the invaders, Romani elder Frank Demetro fired a warning gunshot into the air; he was also suspected of firing another shot that killed one of the miners, Vincent McNeil. Demetro
required care at a local hospital for the injuries he sustained in the attack. He was placed under RCMP guard. Canadian Roma commemorate the event in a song named for Demetro’s plea to his wife, Kezha, for help after the miners’ assault, “Kezha, de ma
ki katrinsa te kosav o rat pa mande” (Kezha, give me your apron to wipe the blood from me).
The coroner’s hearing into McNeil’s death heard from many witnesses, including four Romani girls and one man. Demetro’s brother Russel, fearing that Demetro, a diabetic, would not survive a jail term, admitted to shooting McNeil. Russel Demetro was tried and acquitted on a plea of self-defence.
The 1935 case in Cape Breton is the most dramatic and violent of all documented incidents against Canadian Roma. In general the Roma made their way through Canada and peacefully settled here, just like so many other immigrant groups. Provincial archives and local historical society records reveal that Roma travelled through almost every region of the country as early as 1880. Men made their living as horse traders and as coppersmiths, while women worked as fortune tellers, midwives, and herbalists. Many Roma later worked in travelling carnivals.
Like other ethnic groups who migrated here long ago, the Roma worked to establish homes and to sustain themselves economically, often travelling as itinerant tradespeople or craftspeople. Also like other groups, the Roma have often been misunderstood or regarded with suspicion. But, unlike with people of other ethnicities, the myth of the Gypsy travelled alongside the Roma wherever they went.
This myth, which simultaneously sees the Roma as romantic wanderers and as swindlers to be feared, served to justify their mistreatment. When we learn of their historical travails, however, belief in 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.
The Roma have been in Canada for more than a century as part of a diaspora affecting all Romani subgroups. Despite their lack of identification with a national homeland, all Roma share an origin dating most likely to the eleventh century in Punjab, Rajasthan, and Sindh in northwestern India. They also share the Romani language, which is most similar to Urdu but also shares Sanskrit origins with Hindi, Punjabi, and Bengali.
Among Roma who came to Canada, the most common subgroups include the Kalderash, from what is now Romania; the Romanichal, from the United Kingdom; Gitano and Sinti (or Manouche), from central and western Europe; and various divisions of Romungro, who dwell mainly in Hungary.
Traditionally, the Roma neither used surnames nor identified themselves as Roma but instead referred to themselves as Russians, Ukrainians, British, and so on. This fact — together with English approximations of their European names, spelling variations, and their often having more than one preferred name — creates formidable challenges in identifying family groups in land grant records.
The earliest account of the Roma landing in Canada is found in the 1895 History of the County of Lunenburg. The entry for September 14, 1862, reads: “Gypsies arrived at Lunenburg (it was said for the first time), and pitched their tents in Mr. N. Kaulbach’s pasture.” Where this early group of visitors to Nova Scotia came from and who they were is unknown.
Author Matt Salo claims that groups of Roma (the subgroup known as Romanichals) arrived from the United Kingdom in the 1870s and that a group of Ludari Roma emigrated from Bosnia to Canada in the 1890s. Salo’s entry on “Gypsies/Rom” in the 1979 edition of the Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples informs readers that “passenger lists record Rom arriving at New York in 1899, 1900, and 1901 who claimed either to have been in Canada or to be headed here….”
Romani-Canadian author and expert on the diaspora Ronald Lee chronicles Romani settlements in what became Alberta
starting around 1902. These early settlers were descendants of Romani slaves in the Romanian principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. (The enslavement of the European Roma began with their arrival in the region in 1385 and continued until the 1860s.) Migrating to Russia, Serbia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and other countries, and then on to Argentina, Mexico, and Central America, these Romani families entered the United States before arriving in Canada.
Interactions between local residents and Roma travelling in small family groups occurred in almost every province. In historical almanacs, most encounters are discussed only fleetingly, such as in the report of the “Gypsy show put on in Kamloops” in 1898, or in a description of visitors who dressed “like Gypsies,” or in the numerous sightings of nearby campsites. While it is impossible to verify that these encounters were indeed with Romani families, the nature of the migrants’ activities — dancing, fortune-telling, the sale of handicrafts, and horse-trading, for instance — do correspond to Romani traditions at the time.
A 1909 account in Calgary describes one Jann Mitchell, a prosperous farmer said to be of “gypsy” ancestry who lived about eighteen miles east of High River, Alberta. On October 19, visitors from Vancouver supplemented his already large extended family and set up an impressive tent village on his property. About one year later in Eastend, Saskatchewan, Alice Freel writes in the book Range Riders and “sodbusters,” published by the local history society, that the RCMP were working to keep the “gypsies” on the move.
In her book Gypsies, Preachers and Big White Bears, Claudia Smith describes “gypsies” moving through Lanark County in eastern Ontario between 1890 and 1930. Their arrival was met with anxiety because, Smith explains, “people were dubious of these foreign looking folk and tales of treachery, though not of violence, preceded them. Signs barring them from certain buildings and areas of town were not uncommon.” The Roma went from door to door selling handiwork or making trades for garden produce, meat, or used children’s clothing. And the newcomers had valuable skills: They used wild plants to treat ailments in horses, burdock and nettles for hair growth, brambles for skin lesions, and cowslip and hops to quiet nervous or excitable animals. Perhaps because of the Roma’s expertise, or because of the chance to get a problem off their hands, “people often saved unruly horses that balked, bit or kicked to trade to the gypsies,” Smith writes.
An account from around 1905 in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, mentions a group of Roma. Translated into English, it describes “bohemians that the local people called gypsies,” who stopped their caravans to trade horses or to sell rustic furniture made of twigs and branches. Still farther east, we learn of a 1928 visit by three families of “Gypsy Coppersmiths” to Saint John, New Brunswick. In a 1929 issue of the Journal
of the Gypsy Lore Society, author J.R. Moriarty explains that the families remained for about two months and returned to Montreal when opportunities for local work ended. Readers learn that the men’s workshop was in an old ruined cellar at the back of the camp and that it contained all the tools of their trade. The women told fortunes while dressed in “the usual costume of these Gypsies, with long, braided hair, coins and necklaces.”
Numerous stories of Romani settlement exist as oral history. In his book Goddam Gypsy, first published in 1971 and later retitled E Zhivindi Yag: The Living Fire, Ronald Lee tells of one William Stanton, also known as William Evans, an Americanborn Romani man of the Kalderash group whose father was born in Canada and whose grandfather had arrived from Europe. Stanton planned to raise horses on a property near High River, but when he discovered that the water was contaminated
with petroleum he sold the land and began buying horses from locals, including Indigenous people, and shipping the horses back east to relatives.
According to Lee, Stanton was part of a group of Canadian Roma who settled in Leduc, Alberta, around 1902. The area was on a spur line of the Canadian Pacific Railway, making it easy to ship horses from there. An exchange was set up in which broken mustang horses were shipped east, and draft horses were shipped west to sell to immigrant farmers in what became Alberta and in parts of the North-West Territories that are now in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Lee also describes how the Roma sent horses from Western Canada to Toronto and Montreal, where they were destined for the Canadian military and for use in the First World War.
In a series of thirteen articles published from June 21 to August 5, 1909, the Evening Examiner of Peterborough, Ontario, tells the story of a visit by a Romani group. On June 21, a “band of gypsies” was rounded up. All of the sixty men, women, and children were jailed, the men put in cells and the women and children confined to the jail yard with all of their wagons. The men, one reporter wrote, “are a villainous looking lot and appear fit to undertake any crime.”
On June 22, all of the Roma were charged with loitering on the roadside, obstructing the highway, and interfering with passengers. The men received a jail sentence of one week, but the women and children were led to another site to look after themselves, since the cost of feeding the entire group would have been prohibitive for the town. The women were joined
on June 23 by another group of Roma, whose leaders gave the names Rosie and Michael George. As the Roma often did, the pair went along with the romanticized image of their people and were soon referred to by the authorities and in the press as “Rosie, the Gypsy Queen” and “Chief Michael George.”
The people of Peterborough collected around the campsite like tourists, such that “each family hearth was surrounded by a circle of curious sightseers, who watched with interest the culinary arrangements of the gypsies.” At a trial held on June 28, the Roma pleaded not guilty to the charges. After the court extracted a fine of $125 and a promise to leave the city at once, the men were freed from jail, and further charges were dropped. The authorities discovered that the Roma were “naturalized citizens of Canada having been here more than two years and therefore cannot be deported.”
A twist in the story occurred on Wednesday, June 30, when a Roma wedding took place in what was known as the Driving Park. Of the event, a journalist wrote, “the party is as gaudily dressed as an excited crowd at a Mexican bull fight or an Oriental population rejoicing over the ascension of a new Sultan.” The local 57th Regimental Band played. The groom was identified as J. Stoke and the bride as the daughter of Chief Michael George. Inquiries from a reporter about the officiant for the ceremony went unanswered.
Nearly a month later, on July 20, the “king” and “queen” returned to Peterborough from Ottawa to acquire evidence of the wedding. Rosie explained that the bride’s family had charged Rosie’s band with kidnapping the child bride and now required proof of the legitimacy of the wedding. By this time, the identities of the couple had changed from initial accounts. The bride was Katrina Miguel, aged twelve, a Bulgarian-Romani girl, and the groom was Spero Sterrio, also twelve, son of Christo Sterrio, a Mexican-Romani man. While no doubt shocking to many Canadians, the young age of the couple reflects Romani customs at the time.
A journalist found nothing but confusion among the crowd who gathered to hear the details, but he finally obtained this information from an older woman of the group: There was a wedding “carried out in a church the same as the Canadian ceremony, but they first had their own method or rite.” The Roma explained to the court that neither a contract nor the children’s consent were required for a marriage, hence the difficulty in obtaining the proof sought by the bride’s family. The entire episode concluded on August 5 with the presentation to the court of a brass tray, a wine bottle covered with a silken cloth, and a string of gold coins. Such artifacts are still used in some Romani betrothal ceremonies today, and they were then offered as proof that the wedding ceremony took place that June.
Aseries of stories in the Toronto Star, and one story in the
Toronto Globe in 1910, described a group of Roma who first appeared in the location of what is now the intersection of Toronto’s Eglinton and Bayview avenues. This “band of wanderers” was the first camp of “Gypsies” to be recorded in the city. The group was composed of four men, three women, three children, two bears (the Globe reports four bears), a baboon, some horses, and hens. The bears and baboon were kept as a street attraction for a paying public. Despite residents’ fears of theft from clotheslines and milk deliveries, no specific complaints against the group were reported. “Perfectly peaceful, they have shown themselves to be law-abiding citizens and people of wealth. They are no longer suspected of anything other than a too-vivid imagination when they tell fortunes, and as far as the neighbours are concerned they may stay there forever,” the Star reporter wrote.
The peace did not last. When authorities received complaints about the Roma as a “public nuisance” who mistreated their animals, they ignored the fact that the group had purchased the land on which its members were living. Police broke up the camp on February 4, 1911, and placed the entire group and its animals in the livery stable at 77 King Street West. The Humane Society (and also the Children’s Aid Society, according to the Globe) carried out inspections.
While the provincial secretary’s department in Ottawa reviewed the matter, the displaced family set up camp with another group of Roma located west of the Humber River near Mimico, Ontario. No final decision about the Toronto group is reported, but the authorities’ hopes of deporting them were dashed upon discovering that, like the Peterborough visitors, the Roma had passports authorizing their stay in Canada. The animals were sold to a group known as the Royal English Gypsies who held property on Queen Street.
Nine years later, the Star noted the arrival of eight families of “Serbian Gypsies” at York Mills, Ontario. These Roma were coppersmiths and, the newspaper reported, had “forsaken horse trading” for cars. Since this group made its living not by horsetrading but by making and fixing copper pots — as a photograph that accompanied the story shows — the reporter likely meant that they had replaced horse-drawn caravans with cars. One group photograph shows at least sixteen people, half of whom are children. A second photograph shows three men, two women, and a child standing with two large copper pots, the traditional trade of the Kalderash subgroup.
Another early account of the Roma was a 1920 address delivered to the Canadian Club by a British-born Romanichal.
This “band of wanderers” was the first camp of “Gypsies” to be recorded in Toronto. The group was composed of four men, three women, three children, two bears (the Globe reports four bears), a baboon, some horses, and hens.
Not to be confused with the well-known Romani preacher Rodney “Gypsy” Smith (1860–1947) who preached to British and American audiences, Captain Pat “Gipsy” Smith was an evangelist who served in the First World War and reached the rank of acting major. He spoke to his eminent audience about traditional Roma life. Referring to himself as Romany in ethnicity (a common alternate spelling of Romani), he informed members of the link between the indigenous language of Romany and Hindustan. Defining the Roma as a distinct people on the basis of their tents, caravans, upbringing, and the language known to all authentic Roma throughout Europe, Smith called them the “aristocrats of the road.” Their self-appointed status was, he claimed, superior to that of all other people.
In more recent years, the Roma have come to attention once again in Canada, but for different reasons. The 1990s in central and eastern Europe meant new freedom for many citizens of post-Communist nations, but for the Roma times went from tolerable to intolerable. During the Communist era, they had work, a regular income, housing, and education. These benefits came, however, at the cost of losing their knowledge of traditional crafts as makers of household products, foresters, blacksmiths, and musical performers. Suddenly, many Roma were out of work, with no economically viable trade to which they could return.
Hate crimes against the Roma increased in frequency as extremist groups organized themselves and took violent action against the easiest of targets: the “Gypsies,” who were blamed for various states’ economic problems. Even as the human rights movement replaced the term “Gypsy” with “Roma,” as a people they became extraordinarily vulnerable to violence. Paramilitary groups in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Italy, Austria, and Greece promoted anti-Roma beliefs and often took violent actions against the Roma, the largest ethnic minority group in Europe according to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.
Like hundreds of thousands of other immigrants and refugees before them, the Roma saw in Canada a better way of life, free from persecution. Since the mid-1990s, they have been arriving and claiming asylum here from countries throughout central and eastern Europe. In 1998, for example, Canada received 204 refugee claims from Bulgarians, 1,230 from Czechs, 294 from Hungarians, and 346 from Romanians. The large majority of these people are Roma, but their relatively small numbers passed without notice.
However, in 2010, 2011, and 2012, Hungary ranked first among all source countries for asylum seekers in Canada, with a total of 8,605 people arriving in those three years — numbers that did get the Roma noticed. Since 2013, the number of Romani asylum seekers from central and eastern Europe has diminished considerably due to a host of restrictive measures implemented by the federal government — these were aimed at expediting refugee claims for people from “designated countries of origin.” The Romani families who have been allowed to stay are, like hundreds of thousands of other immigrants, making this country their own.
The Gypsy Lore Society, founded in the United Kingdom in 1888, is an international repository of research and writing on the Roma peoples and “analogous peripatetic
cultures” worldwide. In a 1934 issue of the Journal of the
Gypsy Lore Society, author Andrew Marchbin included a footnote describing one Elizabeth Stanley, the spokesperson of a Romani group of about forty or fifty people who spent time in Montreal in 1882. The women sold willow and cane baskets from door to door, and the men traded in horses, mainly from the group’s property in Rhode Island.
Defending the undeservedly poor reputation of her people, Stanley said, “You see, sir, there’s no swindling yere, but clear money, and we comes to Montreal and leaves more money than we ever takes away. We pays our debts, thank God, and are honest folks. People says hard things of Gypsies, but not one of our folks was ever arrested. Never one of our folks killed his wife, sir, or any other person. We don’t do that, thank the Lord.”
Marchbin writes wistfully that “sometimes to-day a picturesque wandering Gypsy caravan, on a business trip in one of the northern states of our southern neighbour, will cross the international boundary and visit us, camping in some beautiful spot and making the forest ring to the music of their melodies.” Unlike the United States, Canada hosted no permanent Romani settlement in either the East or the West, Marchbin contends. Canada was just an “occasional market depending on the season.”
Marchbin was wrong. The Roma have lived in Canada for more than a century. As in the pages of a treasured scrapbook, their history reads like a collection of disparate narratives with its mix of oral histories, antiquated scholarly research, journalism, and amateur historians’ accounts. At once the subjects of fear and fascination, of tolerance and disapproval, the Roma have long been a people whose stories are typically told for them. With the voices of Ronald Lee, Micheal Butch, and others like Gina Csanyi-Robah, director of the Canadian Romani Alliance, Dafina Savic, director of the anti-discrimination organization Romanipe, artist and writer Lynn Hutchinson Lee, and Juno Award-winning musician Robi Botos, individuals are now telling their own stories.
As Romani refugees from a dozen countries join Canadian Roma, the collective scrapbook will be enriched with stories written not for them but by them. Canadian Roma? Va, Rrom
Kanadácha! (Yes, Canadian Roma!)
Romani children washing at a camp on the Humber River in Toronto’s west end, 1918.
A Romani woman with her two children at a camp in Peterborough, 1909.
A Romani camp in Ontario’s Muskoka district circa 1885 to 1895.
Right: Two Romani women with their children and caravans at a camp in Peterborough, 1909. Below: A Bulgarian-Romani woman and child at Innisfail, Alberta, in 1904. Below: An article from the Toronto Daily Star dated February 4, 1911, describes life...
A group of girls walk along a road near a Romani camp at Lambton Mills, Ontario, in 1911.