“Hate was impossible for me to internalize”: RIP Rocky Jones

How does one even begin to honour the memory of the larger-than-life Burnley Allan “Rocky” Jones? Jones was an activist’s activist, a person of prodigious commitment and energy, who struggled tirelessly against discrimination, war, poverty and injustice for half a century. 

A brilliant organizer and public speaker, Rocky could best be described as a radical pragmatist who created institutions that will long survive him, and who reached out to the community as a whole, building bridges and fostering cooperation

For a glimpse of his rich humanity, listen to his TEDx talk, above. He speaks with quiet passion and authority about breaking down social barriers—not just the ones imposed from the outside, but those within one’s own mind.

And here’s a flashback of an extraordinarily articulate young Jones in 1966, when the Black community of Africville was being demolished by the Halifax municipality, its residents literally carted away in dump trucks.

Jones became politically active in 1965 while he was living in Toronto, and he just never stopped after that. He didn’t merely agitate—he built. Oh, how he built:

Jones was a founding member of The Black United Front of Nova Scotia, National Black Coalition of Canada, Dalhousie University Transition Year Program (where he taught for 10 years), Dalhousie Law School Indigenous Blacks and Mi’kmaq Program, African Canadian Liberation Movement, African Canadian Caucus of Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotia Project….Along with his wife at the time, he formed Kwacha House, Eastern Canada’s first inner-city self-help program for the culturally diverse, lower socio-economic population. Jones created the Black Historical and Educational Research Organization (HERO Project), a pioneering oral history project on Black culture.

A strong advocate of prisoners’ rights, Jones was involved in the establishment of the Black Inmates Association and the Native Brotherhood of Dorchester Penitentiary and Springhill Institution. Jones developed programs for women in the Kingston Prison for Women, Halifax County Correctional Centre and in the community.He developed a wilderness experience program for ex-inmates and oversaw two production companies also staffed by ex-inmates. Jones was the Executive Director of Real Opportunities for Prisoner Employment (ROPE), a self-help organization for ex-inmates.

The head spins. He chaired Ujamaa, a major Halifax economic cooperative project. After the age of 50, he earned a law degree from Dalhousie University and became a successful (and, needless to say, controversial) lawyer.

In 2004 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Guelph. In 2010, he was invested in the Order of Nova Scotia, a long-overdue honour. Not bad for a man once considered a dangerous revolutionary, and followed around for years by the RCMP, who accused him of teaching eight-year-olds to make Molotov cocktails, and otherwise stirring up (in their words) Nova Scotia’s “docile colored population.”

He was still speaking out forcefully this year. During a guest lecture at St. Francis Xavier University in January, he suggested that staff hiring there, and the curriculum, might still be discriminatory. True to form, he was not antagonistic: “I’m not saying all of this to start a fight with St. F.X. I’m saying this to say: ‘Look — we need your support. We cannot (eradicate bigotry) alone.’”

“But this is what happens when you start speaking out against the powers in place,” he said. “You become a threat.”

Almost inevitably, there were PSAC connections. In 1996, some of our members and their allies in Halifax occupied the Gottingen Street Canada Employment Centre, slated for closure during a period of Liberal downsizing. They held on for 122 days, and Rocky was in the thick of it, acting as a spokesperson, his powerful oratory and his sheer personal presence commanding considerable respect. Working for Legal Aid at the time, he also provided legal advice, and would drop in regularly to the CEC just to hang out with the occupiers. He was a guest speaker at a PSAC course on non-violent resistance in Ottawa, and his sister, Lynn Jones, was a prominent PSAC activist.

For those who are not sufficiently impressed by this sketch of his record of achievement, here are some more links.

Rocky will be sorely missed, but he would be the first person to insist, perhaps a little impatiently, that we just carry on, organizing and building a better future for everyone. And that, rather than mourning his passing, is no doubt the best way we can honour his memory.