From the Halifax Daily News, November 20, 1995.
1960. Toronto. Rocky Jones’ tooth is killing him. He needs a dentist but, having just arrived in an unfamiliar city, he doesn’t know any. Someone suggests he see a “Dr. Best on Dundas Street.” But when Jones shows up for his appointment, he suddenly changes his mind. He’ll be all right, he tells the dentist. Just give him a few painkillers and he’ll be on his way.
Jones’ problem is that the dentist, like Jones, is black. Growing up in Truro, Jones had never once met a black dentist. Or doctor. Or lawyer. Black people, he knew, didn’t do those kind of jobs.
He needed a real dentist. A white dentist. He got his painkillers and left.
1995. Halifax. Rocky Jones, 53, is riffling through a cardboard carton on the floor in the middle of his cluttered office. He is trying to pin down exactly when it was that Kwacha House — the government-funded Halifax youth project he and his then-wife ran during the late sixties — closed permanently.
The carton is full of RCMP surveillance files. “Listen to this,” he says, pulling out a sheet of paper marked SECRET. “Blank — that’s me — has been attracting converts by teaching eight-year-olds to make Molotov cocktails and promoting free sex.” He shakes his head at the absurdity of it all. “Still,” he adds, reaching for another paper from the thousands he obtained through a Freedom of Information request, “this is great for figuring out exactly where you were at any point in time.”
During the sixties and seventies, the mounties considered Jones — the same man who, only a few years before, had run away from being treated by a black dentist — one of the most dangerous black radicals in Canada. They believed he was fomenting revolution among what they described as Nova Scotia’s otherwise “docile colored population.”
Today, some in Canada’s criminal justice system still consider Rocky Jones a threat, but for different reasons. Jones is now a lawyer whose weapons of choice are legal briefs and lawsuits. But he can wield them as well as any Molotov cocktail.
No one is more surprised that Rocky Jones ended up a lawyer than Jones himself. One of 10 children from an over-achieving Truro family, “I was always the one in the family to fuck up,” he recalls with a laugh.
Growing up in Truro’s small black community “was the closest, tightest, safest experience a kid could have,” Jones recalls. “I had as many mothers as their were women on the street.”
Like others of his generation, Jones rarely considered the racism around him — he couldn’t bowl in the local alley, couldn’t play pool in the pool hall, couldn’t eat in certain restaurants. “We were taught at home that we were as good as anyone else,” he says, “but we had no experience of blacks in power. I never even considered the idea that black people could be lawyers or hold any kind of position of authority.”
Jones, who concedes he preferred hunting and fishing (“it’s still my favorite way to relax”) to homework, quit school at 16 and joined the army.
Three years later, in 1959, Jones took a civilian job driving a tractor-trailer truck in Toronto.
His political and social awakening began there when he met and married his first wife, Joan, an “exceptional” woman “who directed my reading and made me aware of all sorts of things that were going on.” (Although they later split up and Jones is now remarried, he still describes her as “one of my best friends.” During Kwanza, the black festival, he and his second wife and their 16-year-old daughter often celebrate with Joan and their now five grown children and several grandchildren from the first marriage.)
Jones himself soon became an activist too. Coming home from work one evening, he happened on a demonstration in front of the U.S. consulate. A group of whites were protesting the denial of voting rights to blacks in the U.S. south. At home that night, he and his wife talked about the fact that “it wasn’t right for whites to stand up and fight for blacks when no blacks were involved.”
They became regulars at the consulate protests where the media soon discovered him. “The press wanted a Canadian Stokely Carmichael.” Thanks to “a natural speaking talent — I discovered I could motivate groups” — Jones soon became an in-demand speaker at civil rights demonstrations in the U.S. and Canada.
By 1965, he decided to take his new-found activism home to Nova Scotia, a place he now realized was as racist as any southern U.S. town.
In Halifax, he and Joan helped set up Kwacha House, a Company of Young Canadians’ project targeted at inner-city youth. Contrary to the image in the RCMP surveillance reports, Jones says Kwacha House was no school for revolutionaries. “The young people themselves were in control,” he explains. “They decided what the priorities should be.” Those included everything from turning a vacant north-end lot into a co-operatively run playground to organizing opposition to city plans to create another massive public housing project in their neighborhood.
Kwacha House, unpopular with local politicians and undermined by those secret surveillance reports, closed in 1968.
By then, however, Jones was a force to be reckoned with. He became a key organizer of a huge public rally to protest Halifax’s attempt to appoint a city manager who’d been accused of racism in his previous job, and served as an eloquent voice of black anger and frustration during Encounter, a highly-publicized week-long 1970 public forum on Halifax’s future.
When he invited some American Black Panthers to visit Halifax, the powers-that-be were so frightened they agreed to finance a new, black-run organization known as the Black United Front.
Even as he was shaking up Nova Scotia society, Jones went back to school to get his BA (and later MA) in history, became a founder and a part-time lecturer in Dalhousie University’s Transition Year Program for blacks and natives, organized an oral history project to document the province’s black population and even opened his own jewelry boutiques in Scotia Square and Micmac Mall.
“Everything was political,” says Jones. The boutique, for example, was designed to show blacks a black-owned business could be successful while giving Jones a platform to press white mall retailers to hire more blacks.
“There were a lot of exciting times,” Jones says now. He adds he isn’t surprised the RCMP kept tabs on him. “We knew the phone was tapped and we knew we were under general surveillance, but I would never have guessed that they would have people assigned to follow me even when I traveled.” While there were funny moments — Jones remembers asking for a lift from a carload of plainclothes’ policemen (“You’re going to have to follow me anyway,” he told them) — other incidents still chill him. He reads from one surveillance report detailing almost everything said at a private meeting. “They had to have somebody in that room,” he says angrily.
“We really had a belief then that we could change society,” he says. “We believed in participatory democracy, in starting with neighborhoods and spreading out from there to change the whole country. That was a real belief.” He stops. “I still believe it today.”
But Jones’ way of expressing his beliefs — as well as his view of the nature of the black struggle — evolved.
During the late 1970s, for example, he tried his hand at electoral politics, running unsuccessfully for office as a New Democrat. Later, after helping organize IBM, Dalhousie University's innovative law program to encourage more blacks and natives to become lawyers, Jones himself became one of the program’s first graduates in 1992.
“But law was never a dream for me. It’s more of a way of continuing to do the political things I want to do and have a profession that allows me to make a living without being dependent on government.”
Politically, Jones says he now considers himself a pan-Africanist. “I believe in the internationalization of the black struggle. I believe we need to develop a more Afrocentric way of looking at the world.” He stops, considers. “That philosophy,” he concedes, “is in conflict with the reality of my life. I live and work in a white organization. My second wife is white. . .”
But there is no denying Jones’ continuing commitment to the cause.
Today, as a staff lawyer at Dalhousie Legal Aid, he is still very much an activist. He represents the family of a young girl who was allegedly strip-searched by police without her parents’ consent; took on the case of a protester Halifax city council had threatened to evict after he camped out in a city park to protest the city’s failure to adequately compensate former Africville residents; and is now even trying to challenge the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal over its criticism of the province’s only black judge for allegedly being biased against the police.
Though he says he finds such cases exciting, “I have no idea how long I’ll stay in law. The pay ($35,000 per year) is terrible, the hours are incredibly long and the job itself is very stressful. I came to this fairly late in life and I’m just not sure how long I can keep it up.”
Whatever he does, however, Jones is quick to make the point that he’ll continue to be involved in the larger black struggle. “Oh, absolutely.”
He’s come a long way from the dentist’s office.
Copyright 2011 Stephen Kimber