The background of Roma groups in Canada and the US varies. Vlach-Romani groups mainly of Kalderash and Machvaya arrived in the Americas in the latter 1890s and were first reported in Canada around 1900. The first major Canadian news event with photos was a Kalderash wedding in Peterborough in 19091.
Other groups such as the British Romanichals, Scottish Nakins, and Irish Minceir, the Lovari, the Karpati Roma, the Khorakhane, the Beyash, Ludars and the Rudari, date back to the 1860s and before in the US. In 1956, the Hungarian Romungre fleeing the Russian invasion arrived2.
Historically, Roma in the Americas were never persecuted to the extent they were in Europe. 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. They adapted to changing technology at their own speed in their own way. They were never forced into ghettoes or settlements and became invisible once they abandoned their nomadic lifestyle with the mass use of the automobile and the Great Depression. They were, however, startled out of their marginalised and semi-invisible integration, first by awareness of the European Roma campaigns, and then after 1989, by the arrival of Roma refugees from a post-communist Eastern Europe which had been captured by nationalism, neo-liberalism and racism.
Although the Roma that settled in the US from the 19th century, 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. Two of the worst racial profilers are former detective Dennis M. Marlock and sociologist John Dowling3, whose former web-site listed people who have been accused of infractions but not yet convicted and those who had been charged and later acquitted. He subscribes to the mythology of the “honest Romanies” and the “criminal gypsies” and makes explicit the sometimes hidden, antigypsy ideology of the majority.
Roma became what Professor Rena Gropper described as “the Hidden Americans”.4 In multicultural societies where darker skin is common, we adopted the defensive mechanism of being Roma le Romensa thaj Gadzhe le Gadzhensa – Romani among Roma and non-Roma among outsiders. Thus, 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.
A long-term International Romani Union member who was a Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Ian Hancock, started the IRU Romani Archive and Documentation Centre at the University of Texas in 1976, which as well as underpinning the teaching of Romani Studies at the University provided and evidence base for legal actions in defence of Roma.5 At the end of the 1980s, even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hancock started an informal e-mail chain on civil rights issues, mainly defamation. This grew into the first Romani e-mail-list and website, named Romnet. This was a vehicle for rapid international reaction to antigypsy incidents that had not existed before, linking ordinary people across continents for the first time. By the time it circulated its third address list in 1996, however, the majority of its members were non-Roma academics. These were followed by non-Roma students and journalists flooding it with naïve questions, and sometimes racist opinions. In the words of Hancock, its webmaster, “Romnet became gajonet, and then it was gone-net!” A Romani-language e-mail forum named Drakhin (grapevine) rose from its ashes; but by now it was one of many. The younger generation from many groups are now openly identifying themselves as Roma and linking with others on the internet, in symposiums, web sites, blogs, meetings, cultural events and university seminars. The Romani flag is appearing everywhere, and the anthem Djelem Djelem is heard at almost every Romani musical event, and our youth takes pride in their ethnicity and culture.
There has always been “internal activism” among the Vlach-Roma in the Americas. The local kumpanija of each town and city has been governed by the Kris-Romani and the local shato. (Shato, derives from English “big shot.”) This term has now replaced the European Romani term baro for a local Vlach-Romani community leader in Canada and the US. Sometimes he is hereditary, but more often self-appointed with community consent, a “fixer” who works with law-enforcement officers, lawyers and local agencies, like the welfare department and the licence bureau. Such men are often assisted by educated people of part-Romani background, such as Lorcan (Larry) Otway in New York, who has legal training and has worked for decades in the US with Romani shaturia, and Irish-Traveler leaders. Some prominent shaturia include the late Waso Russel Demitro, who was succeeded by his son George in Montreal and now by his grandson Young Russel; Lazo (Larry) Butch in Toronto, and now his son Micheal T. Butch, currently chairperson of the Toronto Roma Community Centre; Shorty Wilson in Ottawa, and in the US, the late Steve Kaslov in New York, and his grandson George Kaslov; Tom Stanley of Detroit, Tom-Tom Eli of New York; John Nichols of Wildwood, N.J.; Lazo Megel of Virginia Beach, and Moyo Merino of Los Angeles. When shaturia die, they are usually referred to by the local media as “Gypsy kings” although while alive, American shaturia often self-identify as “senators,” befitting citizens of a republic. Their Canadian equivalents in a monarchy still often refer to themselves as “kings.”
These men do a lot of valuable work for their local communities, as local trouble shooters and work through the local Kris-Romani, to resolve family disputes within the kumpanija. Occasionally, a local leader in Canada/US will become involved in what will be defined as ‘external activism’. One early example was Steve Kaslov, who founded the American “Romani Red Dress Gypsy Association”, E Tsoxa e Lolí, in 1927. He approached Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, when FDR was running for governor of New York. Kaslov had rented a venue to hold a Romani trial, and he learned that FDR had not been able to rent a local hall for his rally.6 He generously gave up his hall to FDR. In gratitude, FDR promised to create a New Deal for American Roma much like the Native-American New Deal that he brought in later, which greatly impressed Eleanor Roosevelt.7 However, nothing came of this first attempt to create a Romani nation and a school for Romani children, although others like the John Tene in Boston and Titha Janko in Chicago, also tried (unsuccessfully) to establish Romani schools, in the 1980s.
In 1978 John Tene accompanied Ian Hancock, actor Yul Brynner and Ronald Lee, to the UN in New York, to present the petition from the International Romani Union to the UN, asking for recognition for Roma. The IRU received a NGO Status Category III consultative position at the UN in 1979, which was raised to Category II 1993, after representations by RADOC. In 1985, Ron Lee accompanied a delegation of American-Romani shaturia, to a meeting of the US Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington, D.C. to protest the fact that there was, at that time, no Romani member of the Council. The delegation consisted of John Tene, Lazo Megel (Virginia Beach), Moyo Merino (Los Angeles), Ronald Lee (then Canadian IRU representative) and Grattan Puxon (UK). Three American non-Romani women also attended; anthropologist Dr. Gabrielle Ternauer, Leita Kaldi, editor of John Tene’s activist newsletter, and Professor Rena Gropper.
A year later, Tene and Puxon protested at the White House, with a group of American Roma wearing the Z-triangle, demandeding that the United States Holocaust Memorial Commission appoint a Romani representative. These Romani shaturia also attended the annual Yad Vashem ceremony in the Rotunda, in Washington. For the first time, the Roma victims of the Roma genocide under the Nazis, were mentioned. In 1997-98, USA IRU representatives, led by Ian Hancock and John Nickels, initiated unsuccessful attempts to obtain collective reparations from Swiss Banks holding unclaimed Nazi deposits of Roma and Jewish assets.8
‘External’ Romani activism in the USA and Canada really only began after the end of Communism
Small numbers of Roma had been arriving in North America as refugees from Communism, since the end of the Second World War and the formation of the Eastern Bloc. They had rarely been identified as Roma. Roma were considered to be nationals of their countries of origin fleeing Communist oppression. Only when they came in large numbers, once racism ceased to be repressed as it had been during the Communist era, and unemployment hit Roma after the end of nationalised industries, did antigypsy agitation bring forth civil rights activity.
In the USA, Voice of Roma was founded by Sani Rifati in 1996, and incorporated as a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization in 1999, in Sebastopol, California. It became the most active group, organising an annual Herderljezi Festival (the Muslim, Roma spring festival, which also appears as St George’s Day among Christian Roma and is celebrated by heterodox Alevis in the Balkans and Anatolia)9. With a prestigious Board, including Petra Gelbart (now Roma Digital Archive Music Curator), it also sponsors cultural activities and musical tours across the country, and maintains an office and relief project for people in need, in Kosovo.
Canadian Roma also reacted to the mistreatment of Roma refugees, and despite a smaller population, created more NGOs than Roma in the USA. As the Canadian media began printing warnings about the dangers of incoming “Gypsy criminals” and engaged in general “Gypsy-bashing,” the Western Canadian Romani Alliance (in Romanes, O Khetanipe Rromano La Vestutnona Kanadako), was founded in 199610, in Vancouver, by Canadian Romanichal activist Julia Lovell and her colleague, Spanish flamenco artist, Mario Torres of the group Los Canasteros, to combat the vilification of Czech-Romani refugees, in the local media.
A national movement began with the Roma Community Center of Toronto, the second Canadian Romani NGO to be established. In the spring of 1997, I was living peacefully in semi-retirement, in an old farm house on the outskirts of a village near Kingston, Ontario. The late news featured a report about the arrival of Czech-Romani refugees in Toronto. Viera Rollerova, editor of Novy Domov (New Homeland), the Czech-Language newspaper in Toronto, was interviewed about the Czech-Romani refugees. She commented, in her impeccable English, “These Gypsy bums [are] just coming Canada to get welfare, sit on [their] arse and drink beer...” I thought to myself, “It's time to get off my arse, go to Toronto and kick arse.” I came to Toronto, first to be interviewed on Canada AM radio as a “Gypsy leader”, and then, with the help of immigration lawyer Patricia Ritter, who provided us with an office space, to found our Toronto NGO. Along with Amdi Asanoski (a Muslim Rom from Prilep, Macedonia), Lynn Hutchinson-Lee (a Canadian Romanichal artist and activist), and Czech-speaking, non-Roma, Paul St. Clair, we founded the original Toronto Romani NGO then called the Roma Community and Advocacy Centre. We were soon joined by Hedina Sijerčič from Sarajevo, who became editor of the first Romani publication in Canada, Romano Lil, and a literary collection, Kanadiake Romane Mirikle11. As a journalist, I was copy editor and my wife, Nina Bottaccini, created our first web site in Canada.
The first battle of our fledgling NGO was with Alderman Gordon Chong in Toronto. He had been quoted in the tabloid Toronto Sun as stating that when he was growing up in Toronto he saw “Gypsies running brothels, where the men would stand outside calling in men to have sex with their wives and daughters.”12 We approached the then Toronto Mayor, Barbara Hall, and she called a Council meeting, demanding that Alderman Chong apologize or resign. After three calls for an apology, or a vote for his dismissal, he apologized. Ronald Lee called the Toronto Sun asking for a retraction, explaining that what Chong had described were fortune-telling establishments. I also explained that prostitution is a grave offence under the kris-Romani and was never practiced by Canadian Roma, but of course, they refused. Later, a group of local skinheads demonstrated in front of the Lido Motel in Toronto where Czech-Roma refugees were temporarily housed. They carried signs stating: “Canada is not a trash can” and “Honk if you hate Gypsies.”13 The following weekend our NGO with the help of some local Toronto civil rights organizations held a street party for Czech Roma to welcome them to Canada. Our non-Roma supporters carried signs stating: “Honk if you hate Skinheads,” Brought to court by Ontario Prosecutors, the skinheads were finally acquitted on a technicality in 2003.14
The Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board held a nation-wide teleconference in 1997, with a panel consisting of Dr Ian Hancock, Claude Cahn (ERRC Budapest), Radoune Nucier (UNHCR) and Yvan Jobin (Dept. of Trade and Foreign Affairs, Ottawa). Their assignment was to decide whether or not there was sufficient persecution of Roma in the ‘New Democracies’ (central and east European states such as Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary), to make it necessary for them to seek Convention-refugee status in Canada. It was decided that, in some individual cases, there could be sufficient grounds to qualify some potential refugees as genuine claimants, under the Geneva Convention on refugees. A new category, “Roma,” was then added to the list of refugee claimants. A country conditions paper and file were created for each home country of the Romani refugees, and a group of adjudicators was assigned to oversee the hearings. The numbers of Roma accepted under this system have roller-coasted from abysmally low, under xenophobic Conservative governments, to higher under multi-culture-promoting, Liberal governments. The only political party that has supported Roma refugees is the New Democratic Party, particularly from the late Jack Layton and his wife Olivia Chow, to Peggy Nash, Cheri De Novo and Thomas Mulcair.
In 1998, the Toronto and Vancouver NGOs collaborated on the Canadian Film Board production, Opre Roma,15 about Roma and Romani activism in Canada, which did much to present Canadian Roma as a formerly, almost unknown, Canadian ethnic minority. This helped our joint campaign “Call Us Roma, Not Gypsies.” We were eventually successful in influencing the Canadian media to use the term Roma rather than “Gypsies”, in their coverage of Romani issues.
In 2014, Gina Csanyi-Robah, a Canadian born Hungarian-Romani activist who had been successful executive director of the Toronto Roma Community Centre since 2008, moved to Vancouver and launched the Canadian Romani Alliance, which groups most of the NGOs. Along with Hedina Sicerčič, she has become an inspiration to the increasingly active women’s movement, amongst Canadian Roma16.
Serbian-Romani activist, Dafina Savic founded the NGO Romanipen, in Montreal17, where Zoltan Hering has also worked tirelessly, to help his fellow Hungarian Roma, since the 1960s. Since 1999, the Roma Community Centre has also created many cultural events, including Christmas parties with toys for Romani children, an annual celebration of April 8th, International Roma Day, an annual commemoration of Roma resistance day, and an annual picnic18. When Ronald Lee was teaching the only university-level course on Romani history and culture at the University of Toronto (NEW 343 H1S 2003-2008 inclusive), we held a local seminar in 2003, and an International Seminar in 2004, at the University of Toronto, attended by Ian Hancock, Sani Rifati, Alexandra Oprea, William A. Duna, and Thomas Acton, with music bands from Vancouver and Toronto, and Caravane from Quebec, a carnival-style music and dance group run, by French Sinti artist Sarah Barbieux, who has been a French-speaking activist and author in Quebec, for more than three decades. A recent adjunct to the Roma Community Centre, is the World Romani Dialects Interpreting Bureau, established by Bulgarian Romni Nazik Deniz, who has been active in the NGO since 2000. Another active Bulgarian Rom is Miloslav Slavchev, vice-chairman of RCC Toronto in 2017.
The internet, Facebook and Twitter, remains an important factor in Romani activism. This has allowed Roma to create Romani web sites, share ideas, post videos, create petitions, distribute news, and create blogs with group discussions. No longer can some fashion designer create a new line of women’s lingerie, hypothetically called “Gypsy Freedom” (sic), with impunity, or some “wannabe,” non-Romani “witch”, advertise herself on a web site, without receiving a barrage of irate complaints, via email, from dozens or hundreds of Roma, Romanichals, Sinti, Kale, and others from all over the US and Canada. More importantly, injustice against Roma can be protested by internet ‘watchdogs’, such as Glenda Mershom-Bailey, Lela Savic, Amanda Shor, William (Bill) Bila, Teresa and Victoria Rios, to name just a few, who are constantly monitoring cyberspace.
Loosely linked to these organisations, Roma activists work on an almost daily basis, helping fellow Roma with their specific problems. Since 1997, Amdi Asanoski, has been helping Roma newcomers to Canada with their immigration problems and other issues. Zoltan Hering has worked tirelessly to help his fellow Hungarian Roma in Montreal, since the 1960s. The late, Dule Jovanovic from Serbia, was another such unsung, Romani activist. One colourful local Romungro, self-styled Toronto “king”, was Rezso Dudas, who specialized in organizing Romani events, featuring music and Hungarian sausages, in the 1980s. William (Bill) Bila is a Romani activist and businessman, working in many countries. Born in Slovakia, he grew up in the USA, then became a Canadian citizen, and worked with the Roma Community Centre in Toronto. He is now an activist in Europe, and in the forefront of the fledgling, Romani and Sinti LGBT movement, as well as general human rights organizations for Roma.
The academic Romani community in Canada and the US has grown, since Ian Hancock pioneered Romani studies at the University of Texas at Austin from the 1976. We now have Ethel Brooks, Associate Professor at Rutgers also, a Romani representative at the United States Holocaust Memorial Commission; Margareta Matache (Harvard FXB Center), Petra Gelbart (State University, N.Y.), Kristina Raeesi (University of Alaska at Anchorage), Cristiana Grigore (Roma People’s Project, Columbia, NY), Jessica Reidy (LIU/LIM New York), and Alexandra Oprea, graduate lawyer (UCLA), and lecturer on Romani women’s issues. More up and coming, young Romani graduate students, will soon join their ranks.
We also have a growing number of Romani music groups, such as Band of Gypsies, run by Danny Fender Jr. in California, Romani virtuoso, Vadim Kolpakov, in the USA, and The Gypsy Rebels, run by Micheal T. Buch in Toronto, along with the refugee group, Romani Rota, and jazz star, Robi Botos, from Hungary, with many other newcomer artists, in Canada. In the USA, Kalderash film maker, George Eli, is a controversial figure, who has already made several films about Roma. In Hamilton, Canada, John Huculiak has created the annual, Kali Sara festival.
This variety and intellectual vigour among Romani communities in the USA and Canada, led them, from the very beginning in 2001, to be full participants in the Romani, Pan-American Council of the Organisations and Kumpanias of the Americas, (SKOKRA)19, and of other international organisations. This forward, and outward-looking approach, shows how Roma in the Americas are increasingly concerned to help the large populations of their people, living in far worse conditions in Europe and Asia.