Roma Civil Rights movement


Ronald Lee

The Roma Civil Rights Movement in Canada and the USA


The background of Roma groups in Canada and the U.S.A. varies greatly; Vlach-Romani groups, mainly of Kalderash and Machvaya, arrived in the Americas in the latter 1890s and the Kalderash were first reported in Canada around 1900.1 Other groups such as the British Romanichals, Scottish Nakins, and Irish Minceir, the Lovari, the Karpati Roma, the Xoraxane, the Beyash, Ludars and the Rudari, date back to the 1860s, though earlier in the U.S.A. In 1956, the Hungarian Romungre and Olah Roma fleeing the Russian invasion of Hungary arrived.2

Once fluent in the majority languages, Roma migrants to North America were able to hire lawyers to help them with their problems with the police and to set up the usual Romani, symbiotic defensive network, among the non-Roma. They were never forced into ghettoes or settlements, although they generally lived in the poorer sections of towns and became invisible once they abandoned their nomadic lifestyle, with the mass use of the automobile and following the Great Depression. However, some of our leaders and educated elite were startled out of their marginalised and semi-invisible integration, first by awareness of the campaigns of European Roma and then, after 1989, by the arrival of Roma refugees from a post-communist Eastern Europe that had been captured by nationalism, neo-liberalism and racism.

Although the Roma did not experience official government programs of assimilation, Nazi genocide, or the assimilationist and educational policies of the Communist era, we have suffered from ethnic profiling by law-enforcement agencies and the media, subscribing to the mythology of the “honest Romanies” and the “criminal gypsies [sic]” and makes explicit the sometimes hidden, anti-Gypsy ideology of the majority.

Thomas Acton | A Report on the Situation of Roma in the United States, c.1988 | report | United States of America | 1988 | rom_30008 Rights held by: Thomas Acton I Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Thomas Acton - Private Archive

Roma became what Professor Rena Gropper described as “the Hidden Americans”.3 In multicultural societies where darker skin is common, we adopted the defensive mechanism of being Rrom le Rromensa thaj gadzhe le gadzhensa – Romani among Roma and non-Roma among outsiders. Until fairly recently, Roma, especially the more integrated Roma, remained in the closet. With the end of Communism, both Canada and the US gained multiple communities of former Romani refugees from many European countries. It is this influx of post-Communist states’ refugee Roma that created a need for Romani activism in Canada, and to some extent in the US.

Ioana Constantinescu | Interview with Ian Hancock | 2017 | rom_30062_1 Rights held by: Thomas Acton / Media Laboratory of the University of Texas at Austin (shooting&editing) | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: RomArchive