Fairview Historical Society Articles Archives

Submitted by: Devonna Edwards

In Our Own Back Yard and Not So Long Ago!

Many knew the Romani people as “Gypsies” but they preferred to call themselves “The Roma.” Romani people originated from Northern India. Years ago they camped in tents and wagons travelling in caravans with their horse and wagon, wandering from place to place having no fixed address.

Over the centuries they have been misunderstood, subjected to discrimination and persecuted. In “The Second Word War” between 500,000 and 600,000 were exterminated by the Nazis and today there are still reports of hate crimes and attacks on Roma communities.

The Romani people of Canada have roamed our country for many years. In the 1830s or 40s some English Gypsies were given land in western Canada for service to the English Crown, mainly for supplying horses to the British Army. They created homesteads at several places but didn’t work the land themselves, they hired farmhands to do so and they used the farms as camp sites while they traveled throughout Canada. By the 1920s most Roma families left their farms and traveled to Canadian cities where some moved into empty stores, setting up the front section for their fortune-telling business and living in a curtained off section in the back. They not only traveled widely through- out Canada but traveled back and forth between Canada and the United States.

When they visited Nova Scotia, people were fascinated when they came to town, they usually arrived in beautiful painted high covered wagons pulled by handsome horses with several horses and cows tied behind. They arrived with all their family members and pet dogs, as well as a collection of chickens, hens, geese and cocks. The women were dressed in bright cottons, they wore mid-calf length skirts and a bosomy blouse gathered at the waist. A headscarf decorated with golden coins covered their hair and several bracelets adorned each wrist which made a giggling sound when they walked. Large looped earrings, along with many rings and necklaces added to their exotic appearance. On their feet they wore sandals, slippers or boots and sometimes shoes. The men wore lose fitting black trousers, a dark overcoat and shirt along with a waist coat with silver buttons. They wore black closed shoes and a broad brimmed hat on their head. They usually sported sideburns and moustaches.

Women smoked pipes and the children smoked cigarettes, which was quite a peculiar site for the town folks at that time.

The women went through the city from door to door selling lace work, necklaces, cheap jewelry, and herbs. They also told fortunes (divination) which in 1930 led to two Gypsy women, Kathleen and Cecilia Markovitchin being arrested in Halifax because at that time it was against the law, covered under section 443 of the criminal code “Pretending to use witchcraft.” The Romani people have been known to have psychic powers; they read crystal balls, palms and Tarot Cards which they are credited with the invention of them. They also have been known to cast charms and spells.

The men sold or traded horses, they were excellent trainers and their horses were always well fed and groomed. The men also made and sold copper utensils and tin-ware as well as furniture.

Lloyd Boutilier told the story of the Gypsies coming to Halifax in 1908. He remembers that they camped in a field in the western part of the city and at night they sat around their camp fire and sang songs and danced. He thought it was wonderful entertainment though nobody seemed to understand their language. He said it was a loving and tolerant atmosphere and he never heard of any bad incident.

Although the number of Roma in Halifax was very minuscule in 1929, only one small band had set up an encampment on the Halifax Commons. It was a lively atmosphere at night when they gathered in a circle around their camp fire; singing, clapping, crying babies and yapping dogs accompanied by musical instruments that could be heard from afar. The Gypsies led a different lifestyle and because of this many people distrusted and were afraid of them, believing rumours of them stealing horses and children.

In the 1900s they also camped in the north end of Dartmouth, on an old unused road which sloped from Windmill Road down to the shores of the Halifax Harbour. In the book, “A Goodly Heritage” it said that when some Dartmouth families brought them vegetables from their gardens, the head of the Gypsy encampment made it clear that their charity was not welcome. They only remained there for a few days, then quietly moved on during the night or in the early morning hours.

In the early 1950 Donnie Poole remembered that he and his friend Ray Hobbs, both around the age of 13 or 14, visited a band of Gypsies when they had an encampment on Kempt Road. Today the site is where Kempsters Restaurant is located. They camped there with about 50 tents. Donnie said that his friend was the only man that he knew that could mix with the Gypsies and be accepted by them, maybe that was because he was a talented singer.

Also in the 1950s the Gypsies had an encampment in a vacant area on the Bedford Highway in Rockingham. That location is where years ago Donaldson’s Sawmill stood and today an Irving Gas Station occupies the site.

Today some Romani people continue to lead a nomadic or semi-nomadic life style but many have entered the professions, settled down in one place and adapted to community life.

The Roma are extremely proud of their heritage, many celebrating the local and national holidays where they live, as well as important holidays. Christmas is the most important celebration for Christian Roma and during that season they have large family gatherings which are more meaningful to them then gifts. Laughter, singing old Romani songs, music and dancing are a huge part of their holiday as well feasting on delicious food. Traditional meals found on all Roma Christmas tables are “Sarma” also called Pherde Shax (stuffed cabbage), Mirror Carp Soup (fish soup) and a dessert called “Kolako” which consists of walnuts, cocoa and jam rolls.

Also oral storytelling is a very important Roma tradition at Christmas.

“Bahtalo Krechuno” is Romani Gypsy language meaning “Merry Christmas.”

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