Remembering Rocky Jones

By Grace Kennedy

Isaac Saney sits at his desk in the small house on Dalhousie’s Studley campus; around him, stacks of books on black history and revolution teeter precariously.

Rocky Jones, who started the Transition Program at Dalhousie University (Photo courtesy of TEDxStJohns)
Rocky Jones, who started the Transition Program at Dalhousie University (Photo courtesy of TEDxStJohns)

He is the director of the Transition Year Program – a program designed help African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaq students start university.
The program currently has more than 20 black and Mi’kmaq students, but it wasn’t always this way.

“The black students in the ’60s and ’70s were primarily from the Caribbean and Africa,” Saney said. “So why weren’t there any black Nova Scotians from the historical black community here?”

Civil rights activist Burney “Rocky” Jones wanted to solve this problem.

In 1968, as an undergraduate student at Dalhousie, Jones and graduate student Jim Walker went on a hunting trip and discovered a solution.

“He and Jim Walker, over conversations in a hunting trip, huddled together in a tent because they were freezing, came up with the idea: why not have an access program,” Saney said.

Two years later, they started the Transition Year Program at Dalhousie. Jones would personally go to black and Mi’kmaq communities to find potential students.

By the program’s 40th anniversary in 2010, around 1,000 students had graduated from the program and going on to become lawyers, architects, nurses and leaders in black and aboriginal communities.

Jones “always said the most important accomplishment in his life was this program, the Transition Year Program,” Saney said, but it wasn’t his only accomplishment.

Considered to be “probably the most important political figure … in the second half of the 20th century in Black Nova Scotia,” Saney said.

Jones founded the Kwacha House, an inner-city self-help program for youth in 1965.

The program, unpopular with politicians and police, closed in 1968.

In 1989, he developed the Indigenous Black and Mi’kmaq initiative at Dalhousie to increase the representation of black and aboriginal people in law.

He graduated from the program in 1992.

In 1980 Jones ran for leadership of the provincial NDP; he lost.

He opened jewelry boutiques in Scotia Square and Mic Mac Mall to prove black-owned businesses could be successful and to pressure white retailers to hire more black staff.

“We really had a belief then that we could change society,” Jones told journalist Stephen Kimber in an interview.

“We believed in participatory democracy, in starting with neighborhoods and spreading out from there to change the whole country. That was a real belief.”

By his death in 2013, only a month away from his 72nd birthday, Jones had become an icon in the Nova Scotian civil rights movement.

“There’s not many things that you can look at in terms of civil rights in Nova Scotia over the last 50 years that Rocky Jones was not in some way involved with,” Kimber said this week.

The fourth out of 10 children, Jones was born in Truro in 1941.Preferring fishing and hunting to homework, he dropped out of school at 16 to join the army.

Three years later, he ended up in Toronto, where his political and social activism began.

In media headlines, Jones became known as “Canada’s Stokely Carmichael,” the American civil rights activist who coined the term “Black Power.”

When Jones returned to Nova Scotia in the mid-1960s, he brought the revolutionary impetus along with him.

“Rocky Jones is that flesh and blood interface, that link between this radicalization in what’s happening and he brings that to Nova Scotia,” Saney said.

Jones’ position as a black activist was often in opposition to the non-violent doctrine espoused by people like W.P. Oliver – another Nova Scotia activist – and Martin Luther King Jr.

“When Dr. Martin Luther King did the Massey Lectures for Canada, I was invited to critique them,” Jones said at a lecture in 2013.“My critique was he’s out of his mind to adopt a position where he should turn the other cheek and let people hit him and say ‘God forgive them for they know not what they do.’

“Screw that. They know what they’re doing. They’re hitting me and they intend to hurt you, and if you take that you’re a fool,” Jones said in the lecture.

In 1968, Jones invited members of the radical Black Panther group to visit Halifax.

During their stay, the black community organized what Saney called “the largest black political gathering in Canada to that point” – more than 400 African Nova Scotians gathered to create a secular, political group called the Black United Front.

“Bringing the Black Panthers to Nova Scotia created a tension and a fear in the community that forced people to take stock perhaps for the first time of how we as a society have treated blacks in Nova Scotia,” Kimber said.

The provincial and federal governments – out of fear, some suggest – decided to fund the organization.

It was situations like these that made the RCMP wary of Jones.

In the ’60s and ’70s, the RCMP kept tabs on Jones “I was most shocked when I realized they had thousands of pages of reports on him and his wife,” Kimber said. For the most part, Jones had a good sense of humour about being followed.

Jones would occasionally ask plainclothes policemen for rides since “you’re going to have to follow me anyway.”

But one of the reports was a detailed transcription of a private meeting between Jones and his friends.

“For Rocky, I think it was very disconcerting to know that one of the people in that room, people that he had trusted and probably in many ways continued to have relationships with, was informing on him to the RCMP,” Kimber said.

The RCMP eventually stopped regarding Jones as a potentially radical threat. But he never gave up his revolutionary position.

“He never lost that sort of edge, that edge that things had to be better,” Kimber said. “The radicalism that he had in his youth did not change.”

That consistency, Kimber said,made Jones an important figure in Nova Scotia’s struggle for civil rights and equality. Saney agreed, although he called that consistency “integrity.”

“I didn’t agree with Rocky in all his decisions,” Saney said, “but he was committed, dedicated, and a genuine soldier in the struggle for a better world.”