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Rocky Jones, pioneering African Nova Scotian human rights activist, dies at 71

Lawyer involved in fight for racial justice until very end of his life

by Ben Sichel

Rocky Jones addresses a crowd at Dalhousie University in Halifax in February. (Hillary Lindsay photo)
Rocky Jones addresses a crowd at Dalhousie University in Halifax in February. (Hillary Lindsay photo)

'JIPUKTUK (Halifax) - Prominent lawyer and racial justice advocate Burnley (Rocky) Jones has died of a heart attack at age 71. 

Jones was prominent in African-Canadian activism for nearly 50 years. Until shortly before his death, he spoke publicly at meetings on topics such as the use of St. Patrick's-Alexandra school. Jones was chair of Ujamaa, an organization that aimed to be a political presence within the Black community in Nova Scotia.

In February, Jones gave a talk at Dalhousie University in which he linked capitalism and racism and urged the mostly-white crowd to consider the benefits they had received from centuries of anti-Black racism in Nova Scotia. 

"You, collectively, you benefit from the fact that slavery existed and that Black people were used as cheap and readily available labour," said Jones. "That's been passed down through generations.

Jones was scheduled to speak at Solidarity Halifax's People's History of Nova Scotia conference this October.

On her Facebook page, Halifax's poet laureate El Jones shared prominent Nova Scotian writer George Eliot Clarke's reaction to Rocky Jones' death:

"[He] was the greatest of us. He gave and

he gave and he gave. He said, "Take." And we did
and we did and did. Again and again and again.

He was everything: Father, friend, teacher, leader.
We didn't always follow. Sometimes we doubted, But
Rocky never doubted us.

The only good thing about death is that it clarifies.
We can now look back and see clearly--clearly: There
was no one who did more to advance all black people
in Canada--at great personal cost--than did Rocky.

There's a Chair in Black Studies at Dalhousie; there's
a TYP [Transition Year Program] at Dalhousie and at the University of Toronto; there
are Black and Mi'kmaq professionals--graduates of TYP--all
over Canada; there's a Human Rights Commission of Nova
Scotia; there are Supreme Court judgments (tacitly in our
favour); and there are dozens, if not hundreds of semi-students,
like me, all over the planet: All of us owe our existence
to Rocky's example and his many struggles--plural.

He was imperfect, yes. But his imperfections were part of
his charm, his charisma, his joie de vivre. He danced, he
joked. He was always partly a country boy who fished and
hunted. He loved life--and those who do so are not always
constrained by others' petty sensibilities.

I can't be eloquent right now. I just remember the man
who was always there--always 'right on'--always 'down' for
the cause, so long as it was 'righteous,' and whose analysis
of race--in its socio-economic and political ramifications--
was always compelling. He was a people's intellectual who
trained insurgent, people's intellectuals.

He gave his life to make ours better. It is an epic
sacrifice, and his passing calls us to recognize the
necessity for analysis----to figure out a way forward through
the perpetual chaos of the moment.

The passing of Dr. Burnley 'Rocky' Jones is a reveille for
would-be black radicals to continue his work--of speaking
truth to power and calling for the overthrow of iniquitous power....

As a child of the African United Baptist Association of
Nova Scotia, I ask God to bless Rocky's soul. May we survivors
seek to live up to his spirited example.

Read CBC's coverage and reactions to Jones' death here.

See a video of Jones addressing a crowd in New Glasgow this past June on the need for a Black political organization here (Black Nova Scotia News Facebook page).

Read a 1995 profile of Rocky Jones by Stephen Kimber here.

See an excerpt from the 1967 film "Encounter at Kwacha House" featuring Rocky Jones here.


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