Joan Jones, 79, Force Against Racism in Nova Scotia, Dies
Joan Jones, a low-key but determined crusader for racial justice and equality in Nova Scotia, whose black population has faced discrimination and hostility for centuries, died on April 1 in Halifax, the capital of the province. She was 79.
Her daughter Tracey Jones-Grant confirmed her death. She did not specify a cause.
The American-born Ms. Jones went to the province in the mid-1960s with her husband, Burnley Jones, and the two set about galvanizing black residents on housing, employment and other issues. There was considerable work to do.
Racism was entrenched. Though the black population had roots going back centuries — some people were the descendants of slaves who had fought with the British during the American Revolution and had resettled there — the black community was never large and had never had much political power. School segregation persisted into the 1950s. Black residents (there are about 22,000 today out of a population of 965,000) had disproportionately high dropout rates, incarceration rates and unemployment rates. Nova Scotia was sometimes referred to as “the Mississippi of the North.”
A particular sore point in the mid-1960s was the destruction, in the name of urban renewal, of a black community in Halifax called Africville.
“Racism is in the customs, the institutions, the system and the psyche,” George F. McCurdy, executive director of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, said in an interview with The New York Times in 1984 on the occasion of the opening of a Black Cultural Center in Halifax.
That was the environment the Joneses entered into when they settled in the province, and they quickly took on the issues.
“Canada is often seen as somehow divorced from the 1960s,” Isaac Saney, a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax and an authority on black Canadian history, said by email, but all the civil rights injustices familiar in the United States were present there too, including in Nova Scotia, whose image of quaint fishing villages belied the racial tensions and inequities there. The Joneses further disrupted the idyllic stereotype by injecting a measure of black radicalism into it.
Mr. Jones, who was known as Rocky, was generally the face of the emerging movement, but Ms. Jones was the source of many of its ideas.
“While Rocky got almost all the media coverage,” Dr. Saney said, “it is important to underscore that she was a central organizer and intellectual author of the many political activities and events that were initiated by and sometimes are seen solely as the product of Rocky.”
The Jones home in Halifax became the focal point for those concerned about civil rights.
“Our group of ’60s idealists would gather in the Jones family kitchen to discuss, debate and argue about causes and solutions for the problem of racism in Canada,” James W. St.G. Walker, a history professor at the University of Waterloo, said by email. “Joan Jones presided with a very firm hand. She didn’t hesitate to correct us, and this included Rocky, when she thought we were missing a point or making a mistake.”
In 1965, the Joneses were among the founders of Kwacha House, a gathering place for black youths in Halifax, with Ms. Jones handling the day-to-day details.
“Kwacha House became an important space where a generation of youth — who are now active in the African Nova Scotian community — gained a sense of self and empowerment,” Dr. Saney said.
In 1968, the Joneses brought Stokely Carmichael (who would soon take the name Kwame Ture) and other members of the Black Panthers to Halifax, and in November of that year they helped organize a “black family meeting,” as it was billed, that drew more than 400 people to the North Branch Library in Halifax to discuss issues of injustice. Dr. Saney said it is thought to be the largest political gathering of black Canadians held anywhere up to that point.
The organization the Joneses helped found amid that ferment, the Black United Front, adopted the radicalized language of the Black Panthers and similar groups and in the ensuing decades took on housing and employment discrimination, police brutality and more.
The Joneses later divorced, but Ms. Jones remained committed to the cause, helping to found a number of organizations focused on race-related issues and speaking out when she found it necessary. In 1992, when one of her granddaughters, who was 9, was harassed by three boys, who used a racial epithet, she pressed the girl’s school to institute an anti-racism program. But, she told The Vancouver Sun at the time, the need to fight such battles generation after generation was dismaying.
“It seems to me that if you are serving the black community in Nova Scotia, you have to keep repeating yourself,” she said. “You have to keep saying: ‘This is hurting me; your school program is still inadequate.’ ”
Joan Carol Bonner was born on Sept. 26, 1939, in Buffalo to Elsie and Eugene Bonner. She was raised in Oakville, Ontario, and attended Oakville Trafalgar High School.
She met Mr. Jones, a native of Nova Scotia, in Toronto; they married in 1961. Dr. Saney said that it was largely at Joan’s urging that Rocky increased his awareness of the kinds of issues that people like Malcolm X and James Baldwin were talking about.
“She politicized him,” he said, “introducing him to reading extensively in history, politics, global affairs.”
Dr. Walker, co-author with Rocky Jones of “Burnley ‘Rocky’ Jones: Revolutionary,” published after Mr. Jones’s death in 2013, characterized the couple’s dynamic this way: “Joan was the navigator. Rocky was the fighter pilot, extending the struggle into the public battlefield.”
That activism, and especially the couple’s association with the Black Panthers, brought them to the attention of law enforcement. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police spied on them for years. In 1994, after police records of the surveillance of the Joneses and others from the 1960s and ’70s became public, the police commissioner, Philip Murray, issued an apology for racist language that had been used in those records.
“The material contained blatant racial stereotypes that portrayed black women as ‘prolific child bearers’ and black men as layabouts, thieves and drunks,” The Globe and Mail reported in 1994.
Ms. Jones, though, told the paper that the apology didn’t undo the damage the surveillance had caused. “I strongly believe that they interfered with our ability to have certain jobs or to have an income in this city,” she said.
Over the years Ms. Jones held several jobs with Canada’s public works department, was a consultant to the provincial government, was a co-owner of two boutiques, and worked for Nova Scotia Legal Aid, retiring from that agency in 2008. She also wrote a column on race relations for The Chronicle Herald of Halifax in the 1990s. John DeMont, a columnist there, memorialized her in an article after her death.
“During the decade or so that Jones wrote a regular column on race relations for this paper she got some of the worst kind of letters from readers,” he wrote, “but just kept writing.”
In addition to Tracey Jones-Grant, Ms. Jones is survived by another daughter, Casey; three sons, Agassou, Patrick and Shaka; a sister, Donna Bonner; 13 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
In 1995, Ms. Jones was interviewed by The Chronicle Herald in connection with Black History Month observances in Nova Scotia, something she had helped plan. (Black History Month was first observed nationally in Canada the next year.) She said that though racial problems seemed intractable, being a role model by continuing the fight was important.
“It’s part of our responsibility,” she said, “to educate, nurture and bring along the next group that are going to have to deal with those things.”