North Huron will not review infrastructure for potentially offensive names
BY DENNY SCOTT
After significant discussion, including community members arguing whether the term “Gypsy” is racist or not, North Huron Township Council took no action during its Monday night meeting as a result of the request from the Blyth Business Improvement Area (BIA) to review infrastructure names.
The BIA board initially made the request, citing the negative impact racist names, like Gypsy Lane, may have on businesses, especially with traffic being routed to the aforementioned street for the Blyth Festival’s outdoor shows on the Harvest Stage.
Before council discussed the issue, Nathanya Barnett, a long-time employee of the Blyth Festival, spoke to the term.
Barnett, who identifies as Romani, shared the story of her great-grandfather, a Romani individual, who fled persecution and came to Canada.
She said that the naming of Gypsy Lane is upsetting, as it is a slur, though not a particularly well-known one in Canada.
“That doesn’t negate the fact that it is and has always been derogatory,” she said. “It’s a word used by concentration camp officers [and] doesn’t have any business being a street name.”
She said Blyth is typically a welcoming community to both immigrants and tourists and the name goes against that view of the village.
Barnett went on to say the name embarasses her when she directs tourists there and makes her uncomfortable before urging council to make the right decision.
Rick McInroy, a resident of Drummond Street in Blyth, then spoke to the issue, asking if anyone had actually spoken to a [Romani] individual. He then suggested that changing the name may be “swinging… the pendulum… too far the other way” which could result in residents of Gypsy Lane or other streets with controversial or racist names having to change their identifications and other legal documents.
“Is it worth it?” he asked council. “Is it worth the costs of changing maps and names? The people making these excuses don’t have a pound of flesh in it.”
Frances Horvath, who uses the pronouns they/them, lives in Goderich and previously worked in Blyth and said that they were recently re-educated on how damaging the racist terms being discussed were. They also pointed out that other locations like Toronto were going through similar, but more expensive name changes as a result of negative connotations with infrastructure names.
They went on to say that council needed to recognize the greater good of the Romani people.
Margaret McInroy, a resident of Drummond Street, next spoke to the issue, saying that as a taxpayer she didn’t believe that erasing the racist term was worth the money. She then argued that the term should be a proud name because her relatives told her stories about the excitement that followed the Romani people to local communities.
After the public comment section was closed, Ray Hallahan, a resident of East Wawanosh, spoke on behalf of concerned citizens of Blyth regarding the change.
Hallahan, a former North Huron Council member, said he was speaking on behalf of residents who had heard about the potential change through The Citizen and were yet to be officially contacted by council about the change.
He said the change would cost ratepayers money and that the individuals most impacted would have to spend time changing their legal documents. He said he meant no insult to the Romani people, but felt it was important to respect the history of Blyth.
Hallahan, aside from representing Blyth ratepayers, said he was personally against the change because of his membership in the Huron Pioneer Thresher and Hobby Association and its mandate to preserve history.
He also says that the Blyth Festival may be able to write a play about the local history involved with Gypsy Lane to “give tribute… to this special culture and their contribution to Blyth history.”
Council received several other letters against the change as well.
Council debated the request near the end of the meeting, with Deputy-Reeve Trevor Seip saying the issue at stake shouldn’t be renaming existing streets, but putting in “checks and balances” to make sure yet-to-be-named streets are given proper monikers.
Councillor Anita van Hittersum disagreed, saying the term is offensive and council is obligated to take the concern seriously. She moved to have the issue sent to Huron County Council for a county-wide review, as, between streets and roads named with a colonial theme and issues like Gypsy Lane, there were bound to be problems elsewhere in the area.
Reeve Bernie Bailey agreed and said he would be happy to take the issue forward.
Bailey admitted he recently realized, as a result of the horrors inflicted upon First Nations people being uncovered across the country, that issues like this need to be addressed head-on.
“Now, as the journey comes forward, we’re realizing we should’ve been talking about [the residential school system] 50 or 60 years ago,” he said. “I don’t think [the Gypsy Lane] situation should be buried. It should be acknowledged as a mistake… This is bigger than all of us.”
Clerk Carson Lamb said council could push the issue to Huron County Council, but since the street in question is a municipal street, county council members could only make recommendations which could then be implemented by North Huron Council.
In the end, however, van Hittersum’s motion didn’t find a seconder from her fellow councillors and the issue was discussed no further. Council took no action as a result of the request or discussion.
Prior to council moving on from the issue, North Huron Councillor and Blyth BIA representative Kevin Falconer levelled accusations at the business group of working outside its purview.
Falconer pointed out that no one from the BIA was there to speak to the issue. He then reiterated that he believed the issue was out of the BIA’s mandate.
“I take great trepidation in even being here to talk about it when they won’t come out and explain what they were doing,” he said.
Falconer said he thought staff were going to discuss the issue with the BIA, which didn’t happen due to conflicts with the BIA’s rescheduled meeting. Lamb said that Falconer had “hit the nail on the head”, and that the issue was still on staff’s radar.
“For the benefit of the BIA, soon you will see something to remind them what their mandate is,” he said.