NORTH HURON – Angry residents from Blyth spoke their minds at the beginning of the in-person council meeting on Monday evening after a plea from Nathanya Barnett, a Romani descendant, for council to allow the request from the Blyth BIA to change the name of Gypsy Lane.
Barnett told council she was there to honour her great-grandfather, who fled persecution in Europe and moved to Canada. She lives in Goderich and works in Blyth.
“The word Gypsy is a slur,” she said. “I know that is not well known in Canada, but that does not negate the fact.”
Several Blyth residents yelled up at the stage where councillors were sitting, Reeve Bernie Bailey standing up and pounding the gavel for order in the gallery.
After order was restored, Bailey heard the people in the gallery one at a time as they itemized their list of reasons why the Blyth BIA request for the name change was a waste of time and money.
One member of the public said it would be a horrible experience for the residents to have to change their official documentation and identification, and is something that the township just plain can’t afford.
One spectator spoke about how while John A. MacDonald did some bad things, he also did some good things, so changing the names of schools and the like was similar to what is happening in Blyth. Another person spoke about fond memories of Gypsies coming to town because all the children wanted to run away with them because they didn’t have to go to school.
Ray Hallahan spoke on behalf of the Concerned Citizens of Blyth, saying that there had been no notice from council about the letter from the BIA and that the Blyth Festival could someday make a tribute play to the Gypsies who inspired the name.
Dorothy Johnston wrote a letter to North Huron council demanding proof that the word “Gypsy” is a racial slur, citing the Mirriam-Webster dictionary’s listing of the word. But, she did not include the full description, leaving out the beginning of the listing, which states it is “sometimes offensive.”
“I believe you people are trying to make trouble where there is none,” she wrote. “Maybe we should call our street Pig Tail Alley, oh no, this might offend the pigs.”
Coun. Anita Van Hittersum motioned to send the matter to Huron County for discussion, but nobody seconded the motion, and the debate ended.
Reeve Bernie Bailey spoke to the Wingham Advance Times after the meeting. He wanted to clarify that the matter is not finished. Bailey said they would be looking at the bigger picture over the next year to locate any derogatory names in the township that should be renamed appropriately.
Education and talking about the why is critical to this council, Bailey said, and by no means is this over.
About the term “Gypsy”
The term “Gypsy” is considered a derogatory term for some of the people who consider themselves Roma.
Roma, singular Rom, also called Romany or Gypsies (considered derogatory), is an ethnic group of traditionally travelling people who originated in northern India. Still, they live in modern times worldwide, principally in Europe.
During the Second World War, the Roma people were targeted by the Nazis and imprisoned in concentration camps, like the Jewish people. The Canadian government formally recognized the Romani genocide in August 2020.
The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust reports that “the Porrajmos (‘the Devouring’) is the term used to describe the Nazi genocide of Europe’s Roma and Sinti population, who were targeted for total destruction. Historians estimate that the Nazis and their collaborators murdered between 200,000 and 500,000 Roma and Sinti people. Many more were imprisoned, used as forced labour, or subject to forced sterilization and medical experimentation.
On the night of Aug. 2, 1944, the ‘Gypsy Family Camp’ (The Zigeunerlager) at Auschwitz-Birkenau was liquidated. Two thousand eight hundred ninety-seven men, women, and children of Roma or Sinti origin were murdered in the gas chambers by Nazi officers. Their bodies were burned in pits.
Cory Bilyea, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wingham Advance Times