Prominent Canadian civil rights activist, politician, legal mind, institution builder and avid hunter, Burnley “Rocky” Jones is dead.
He passed away in a Halifax hospital last Monday night nearly 24 hours after falling ill at home. He was 71.
Jones, who suffered heart attacks in 1998 and 2006, was an active participant in a demonstration outside the United States consulate in Toronto in 1965 to support the Selma March organized by the Friends of the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee at the University of Toronto.
He played a key role in bringing the radical Black Panther Party to Canada and later established the Black Historical and Educational Research Organization project, which is a pioneering oral history initiative on Black culture and ran unsuccessfully for the New Democratic Party in a Nova Scotia by-election for Halifax Needham in 1980.
Close friend, Dr. George Elliott Clarke, said Jones was the rarest of people.
“He was one of those who gave a damn and made a difference,” said Dr. Clarke, who was collaborating with Jones and Dr. James Walker on a book on the Black Canadian movement in the 1960s. “He was a man who knew what he was talking about and was always so cogent that he could turn a crowd into a school and a congregation into soldiers. A learned man with a Master’s in History and an honorary doctorate, his real education though was his experience. He worked with Martin Luther King’s liberation movement in the American south and he came home to Nova Scotia and found it as backward, racially, as Mississippi. He saw it as his mission to challenge oppression and to be noisy about doing so. He was a rabble rouser because he knew that only if Black people were asked to wake up would they finally be able to start to overcome.”
Jones’ influence was limitless.
He was instrumental in the Black Panther Party setting up a chapter in Halifax, Miriam Makeba visiting Halifax and Harry Belafonte accepting an invitation to sit in his living room and eat curry while talking socialism with neighbourhood folk.
“Rocky’s legacy is such that we can truly say a giant has passed,” said Clarke. “Anyone who wants to live up to his legacy will have to be willing to sacrifice, suffer and pay the price of being spied on by police as he was for decades. That’s why we have few leaders and even fewer good leaders. Too many want to get paid as opposed to being willing to pay the price. Rocky will be remembered whenever you choose to protest injustice and inequality.”
Toronto lawyer, Davies Bagambiire, was a good friend of Jones for nearly four decades.
“I first met Rocky when I was a graduate student at Dalhousie Law School in the mid-1970s,” said Bagambiire. “I was fresh from Dar-Es-Salaam University in Tanzania which was a hotbed for radical and progressive thought on issues of democratic development and emancipation. Rocky was then with the Transition Year Program at Dalhousie and we held a series of ideological discussions together.
“I will remember him as a dear friend, a man who was deeply committed to the anti-racist struggle and one who worked tirelessly to ensure justice and equality for not only Nova Scotians, but Canadians as a whole. He committed his entire life to speaking out on injustice in all circumstances.”
Jones had agreed to write the foreword for a book, The Struggle for Equality and Justice in Education in Nova Scotia: The 1989 Racial Fights at Cole Harbour District High School which Rocked Canada, that Bagambiire plans to publish next year.
Jones’ sudden death shocked family members, friends and colleagues, including historian, Dr. Afua Cooper, who saw him just three weeks ago at The Wailers appearance at the Halifax Jazz Festival.
“The Wailers played for nearly 90 minutes and Rocky danced to every song while wailing chants that exemplified his own struggle and journey for liberation for himself and his Black community,” recalled the James R. Johnston chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University. “As an uncompromising and compassionate leader and icon of the Canadian civil rights movement, he gave his life for the rights and freedom of Black people. He was the great elephant and I am one of those who will honour his memory in continuing to work for the cause that Rocky worked for which is complete freedom for humanity, particularly the Black component of it.”
A 1992 Dalhousie University law graduate, Jones worked closely with the Aboriginal community on land claims, justice and education issues and five years later successfully argued the ground-breaking case R. vs. R.D.S Supreme Court decision on establishing the rules for determining reasonable apprehension of bias in the court system by judges, and establishing limits to the application of social context in judging.
An Order of Nova Scotia recipient, Jones was bestowed an honorary doctor of laws degree by the University of Guelph in 2004.
“Rocky was a real stalwart of the social justice movement on Canada’s east coast,” said former University of Guelph human rights and equity office director, Pat Case, who saw Jones two months ago. “During our conversation, he and his nephew told me about several issues that they were involved in in Nova Scotia, including building a new and important community centre for African Nova Scotians. That community has lost an amazing advocate.”
One of 10 children, Jones was the grandson of Private Jeremiah Jones, who single-handedly captured a German machine gun nest and its crew during the 1917 battle for Vimy Ridge in France.