NORTH HURON – Gil Garrett, artistic director of the Blyth Festival, penned an open letter to North Huron council after a request to change the name of a street in Blyth from Gypsy Lane to something more appropriate was tabled by council.
A petition was brought forward to North Huron council at its Sept. 13 meeting. Coun. Anita Van Hittersum made a motion to send the matter to Huron County council for discussion, however nobody seconded the motion and it was tabled.
“While the petition was not ultimately accepted because of a procedural issue, I cannot help but wonder if the people who signed the petition realized that on the day their representative spoke to council, Mr. Hallahan would be standing opposite the great granddaughter of Herbert Field, a Romani man who fled persecution, to try to give his family a better life in Canada,” wrote Garrett in his letter.
“The bravery of this young woman to come forward in a climate of such outrage, is beyond commendable. The man she spoke of that night, Herbert Field, was her maternal great grandfather. He escaped Europe between the wars. The persecution his people had faced for centuries was unbearable, and he hoped Canada would be his refuge.”
Garrett went on to talk about the history of the Romani people and their struggles with enslavement and their placement in concentration camps during the Second World War.
“As Herbert Field tried to carve a new life for his children in Canada, he had to watch as the Second World War erupted overseas, and his home community, his people were rounded up by the end of a rifle; shoved into concentrations camps, and gassed,” Garrett wrote. “More than 600,000 Roma were killed in the concentration camps. The Third Reich officially called the Roma people ‘Gypsies.’”
Garrett described the great-granddaughter’s nervousness at standing before council and angry townspeople and reiterated that the term is derogatory.
“Gypsy was the name used by those who wanted his people, their culture, and their history erased. She explained that to this day, for her, and her family, and many in the wider Romani-Canadian diaspora, the word continues to carry those very connotations. A word used to degrade and dehumanize,” wrote Garrett.
“The resounding response from council upon meeting Herbert Field’s great-granddaughter was to say: we don’t care enough to even look any further into it.”
Added Garrett, “Did the people who signed the petition, who started it, realize that their representative would be telling a local young woman, to her face, that her great grandfather’s legacy was irrelevant to North Huron?”
Garrett also spoke at length about the former councillor Ray Hallahan’s remarks about the Blyth Festival possibly creating a play to honour the Romani people.
In an interview, he told the Wingham Advance Times that there has never been an idea like that, nor was he approached by Hallahan to talk about such a thing.
“To make a play about the Romani people coming to trade in the Village of Blyth, we would obviously want to hire a Romani-Canadian playwright to write it. And we would want to hire Romani-Canadian actors to be in it. We’d want Romani-Canadian musicians to play tunes and ultimately, we would want to welcome as many Romani-Canadian patrons as possible to come and join us in the audience to help us celebrate this history,” Garrett said.
“There is no way, in good conscience, that Blyth Festival can invite any of these people to our town as long as we continue to have a street named with an overt ethnic slur against their people and an official local attitude that says we are not even willing to contemplate changing it.”
Added Garrett, “How could Blyth Festival invite this community to town when our municipality cannot collectively even take responsibility for calling their people by their appropriate name?”
In the letter, Garrett asked council if North Huron is a community “who would rather preserve a street name that we now know is derogatory and hurtful against a vulnerable minority, rather than deal with the inconvenience of changing some addresses?”
“Do we value them so little that we are willing to look into the face of one of their great-granddaughters, one who has survived to carry on their culture and tradition in the face of centuries of genocide and persecution, and tell her we don’t care what she feels or thinks: there is simply no way we are changing the name, period full stop?” he asked.
“Are we really going to sit here and tell her that regardless of her efforts to appeal to our sense of compassion and justice, we refuse to pass a motion to even look into this? Is this how we, as a town, are going to officially treat one of the most historically persecuted minority groups in the world?”
Added Garrett, “By choosing not to even acknowledge that the name ‘Gypsy’ is derogatory, and refusing to even consider whether or not to redress this situation?”
Garrett ended his letter by urging council to call an emergency meeting and introduce a new motion to review the names of public infrastructure, and to second and approve the motion.
He also urged council to “jointly draft an unequivocal apology to Ms. Barnett and her family, asking her to forgive our collective error in judgement.”
“We can do better in Blyth,” he said.
Garrett submitted the letter to council, which was included in the Oct. 4 regular council meeting, but no councillor brought it out for discussion, leaving the matter up in the air.
Cory Bilyea, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wingham Advance Times