Burnley Allan (“Rocky”) Jones, lawyer and Black Canadian activist (born 26 August 1941 in Truro, NS; died 29 July 2013, in Halifax, NS). Jones spent much of his life fighting for social justice for Black and Indigenous people in Canada; his was a strong voice in the areas of human rights, race and poverty. As a lawyer, Jones focused his attention in these areas, also advocating for prisoners’ rights.
Early Life and Career
Burnley Allan Jones was born in the Marsh, a Black community in Truro, Nova Scotia, to Elmer and Willena. His grandfather Jeremiah (Jerry) Jones was an unsung hero of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, during the First World War. Burnley first encountered anti-Black racism at age 12, when he realized he wasn’t allowed to bowl in the local bowling alley, play pool in the pool hall or eat at certain restaurants. He watched his White friends play pool, and eventually the owner broke the unwritten race barrier and let Jones play with them. As an adult, Jones described it as an early victory: he’d desegregated the pool hall in Truro.
“The prejudice and the discrimination and the racism that I have faced over my lifetime could have made me a hater,” he said in 2012. “But my beginnings growing up in a small Black community […] filled me with such love and compassion for others that hate was impossible for me to internalize.”
At 16, he joined the army and served for three years. At 19, he moved to Toronto and worked as a truck driver.
“Rocky the Revolutionary"
While living in Toronto in the 1965, Burnley Allan Jones came across a protest at the United States consulate. He noticed that most of the protesters were White, yet they were protesting the fact that Black Americans in Alabama could not vote and suffered violence for their political activism.
Jones joined that protest and quickly found himself being interviewed by journalists. “Black people deserve to vote and the FBI has to use its powers of arrest in Selma [Alabama],” he told reporters.
He was quickly compared to Black Panther Party leader Kwame Ture, and media outlets nicknamed Jones “Rocky the Revolutionary.” It was the first time Jones had heard about Ture, who popularized the phrase “Black Power,” which Jones soon adopted as a rallying cry.
“Black Power is recognition that power can bring about more changes than an appeal to man’s morals,” he said in a 1967 speech. “It is a concept of Black consciousness, the need to assert that Blacks can make decisions for themselves.”
In 1965, Jones moved to Halifax to pursue activism in Nova Scotia, where his connection with the Black Panther organization brought him to the RCMP’s attention. Documents obtained by the Canadian Press in the 1990s would show the RCMP tracked Jones and his wife, Joan Jones, for 11 years. The police tapped their phone, followed them home, and intercepted their mail. The couple often saw police staking out their home.
Halifax was razing the Black community of Africville at this time, and police stepped up monitoring Black Nova Scotians. In Razing Africville, author Jennifer Nelson details how police used agents and informants to go undercover into Black nightclubs, attend community meetings and monitor university students. Nelson cites an RCMP report about the Black community in Guysborough County that was littered with racial stereotypes about “wild, unruly and unclean” children and another report detailing the “illiterate, semi-illiterate and hoodlums” who listened to the Black Panthers (see Racism, Prejudice and Discrimination).
Jones met Ture at a writers’ conference in Montréal in 1968 and struck up a friendship. Jones invited Ture to visit him in Halifax, ostensibly to go fishing — Jones was an avid hunter and fisherman. Ture travelled to the city with his wife, the singer Miriam Makeba, in October that year.
When Jones arrived at the Halifax airport with Ture, he was astonished at the huge police presence. Police followed their car back into town, and when they went to eat at a club, they found police sitting in cars, standing outside and perched on rooftops. Police watched the men throughout Ture’s 18-hour visit and saw him off at the airport.
A second Black Panthers delegation visited Halifax in November, also at Jones’ invitation.
After obtaining copies of his RCMP files in the 1990s, Jones would often consult them when trying to figure out what he was doing on a given date.
In 1967, Burnley Jones and his then-wife, Joan, helped create Kwacha House, an interracial club where people could talk about discrimination and find ways to combat it. The National Film Board’s Encounter at Kwacha House — Halifax follows a discussion at Kwacha House about racial prejudice and discrimination in work, housing and education. Jones speaks at length during the 17-minute documentary, which brought his name and ideals to a bigger audience.
In 1968, he helped found the Black United Front of Nova Scotia. The grassroots organization started with a meeting of 400 representatives of the province’s Black community and dedicated itself to obtaining Black equality in the political and economic fields.
While studying for his bachelor’s degree in 1970, Jones helped Dalhousie University create the Transition Year Program to get more Black and Indigenous students studying at the university.
Throughout the 1970s, Jones travelled across Canada and the US to give speeches on oppression and liberation. Twice during this period, arsonists set his family home on fire. No one was hurt in either attack.
He closely followed the Donald Marshall, Jr. inquiry, which concluded that Nova Scotia’s criminal justice system failed the Mi’kmaq man at every turn, from his wrongful conviction for murder in 1971 to his 1983 acquittal. The Royal Commission into the case came to the “inescapably distressing” conclusion that the province’s criminal justice system did not fairly treat Black and Indigenous people.
Jones came to believe that racism in the justice system could be best countered by having more Black and Indigenous lawyers and judges. In 1989, he helped create the Indigenous Blacks & Mi’kmaq Initiative at the Dalhousie Law School. The program was created to bring more Black and Mi’kmaq people into the legal profession to reduce racism.
He became one of the first students to enrol in the program and was class valedictorian when he graduated in 1992.
Burnley Jones practised law at Dalhousie Legal Aid for several years before founding B.A. “Rocky” Jones & Associates. He worked with Indigenous communities on legal issues involving land claims, justice, education and the environment.
He became an advocate for prisoners’ rights and helped establish the Black Inmates Association and the Native Brotherhood at prisons in Dorchester, New Brunswick, and Springhill, Nova Scotia. He worked as executive director of Real Opportunities for Prisoner Employment, a self-help group for former inmates seeking work.
In 1997, he appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada in R v. R.D.S. A White police officer in Halifax had arrested a 15-year-old Black boy (known as R.D.S. in legal documents) for allegedly interfering with the arrest of another youth. The judge, who was Black, acquitted the boy and noted that police officers had been known to overreact with “non-White groups.” The Crown argued this showed the judge was biased and won a new trial.
Jones took the case to the Supreme Court, which restored the acquittal and said the Crown gave no evidence proving the judge had been biased.
He argued other high-profile cases accusing Halifax police of racist actions towards Black Nova Scotians and helped members of the former Africville community fight for compensation for the demolished village.
Toward the end of his life, Jones saw improvements for Black Canadians. “Individually, I think people have improved and a lot of doors have been opened,” he said in 2012. “Collectively, I believe the community is falling further and further behind. The gap between rich and poor, generally speaking, is getting wider and in the case of the Black community, it’s even more pronounced.”
He saw “drastic” problems in the education system as it teaches Black culture and instructs Black students, along with a criminal justice system he saw as being “much worse” for Black people today than in the 1960s.
He died in Halifax on 29 July 2013.
Honours and Awards
Jones earned many honours and awards in his life, including: