Nova Scotia

'The power behind the throne': Civil rights activist Joan Jones remembered

The activist from Nova Scotia worked for decades to fight for civil rights in Canada and was one of the founders of Black History Month in Halifax.

Those in the community 'knew that she was the glue that held everything together'

Joan Jones in an interview with CBC News at Nelson Whynder Elementary School in 1997. (CBC)

Joan Jones, a Nova Scotia activist who worked for decades to fight for civil rights in Canada and was one of the founders of Black History Month in Halifax, has died.

Walter Borden, an actor and activist who has known Jones since 1965, confirmed she died on Monday. She was 79.

"Joan was always behind the scenes, she did not like to be out front," Borden said in a phone interview Monday night from Toronto.

"And so therefore the public at large didn't know that much about her, but those of us in the movement and in the community knew that she was the glue that held everything together — everything."

Jones and her husband at the time, Burnley (Rocky) Jones, started the Nova Scotia Project — a social activism organization that tackled racial discrimination.

Joan Jones with her children from file video from the 1960s. (CBC)

"Rocky was the founder of that, but Joan was the power behind the throne — the queen of the movement as we called her — and she was to the organization and indeed to the civil rights struggle in Canada," said Borden.

"Joan was the Angela Davis for us and it was so fitting she and Angela should meet a couple of months ago.... Those of us who had been there since the beginning understood how significant the two of them standing there together was."

Davis is a well-known African-American civil rights activist who played an integral role in the Black Power movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

Jones, Borden said, played a powerful role behind the scenes.

"Those of us who now have a profile, we all know that we got our learning at the round table in Joan Jones's kitchen and she was the one who was our biggest supporter, out biggest critic, our everything. She was behind it all," he said. 

Her son, Augy Jones, said his mother's power and influence behind the scenes is a message to younger activists.

"You get in where you fit in. And sometimes you're going to be part of a movement and change that you're name is never called, but that doesn't mean that you weren't important," Jones said in a phone interview from Antigonish, N.S. 

"Behind the scenes of most stories that we see in the news that are based on change and equity, there's always people behind the scenes that are very important," said Jones. "You can pitch in and be important in a lot of different ways and Joan was very important."

He said his parents were equally critical in creating civil rights programs and spaces, including Kwacha House, a meeting place where attendees developed ideas for the advancement of black people in Nova Scotia.

"I'm very happy that people are recognizing Joan Jones's role in the civil rights movement in Canada," he said.

Joan Jones was interested in the struggle, not the limelight, said Dalhousie professor Isaac Saney, who specializes in Nova Scotia black history.

"I think the fact that she doesn't have the prominence is indicative of the fact that women are written out," he said.

"People I don't think are aware of the critical role she played," said Saney. "She is the person who politicized the consciousness of Rocky Jones."

She was a key organizer in the Black United Front, a group that helped clients find affordable housing, employment and legal assistance, and advocated for black leadership within the community.

"The Black United Front becomes this sort of radical umbrella organization that unites all black Nova Scotians across the province," said Saney. "She became a very important political matriarch to many people in the community."

'Partisan for justice'

George Elliott Clarke, an award-winning author and poet, was a friend of Jones. 

He said people should recognize Jones was the "brain trust, the Renaissance woman, the all-round mentor for many of us who were involved in activism in one way, shape or form in Nova Scotia."

Clarke said he was the paperboy for the Jones family in the mid-1970s.

He said people used to congregate around their house because she always had a big pot of curry cooking and people could come over and help themselves to a bowl with some bread.

"My strongest memories really go back to my later teens — 17, 18. I spent a lot of time with Joan and Rocky and all the folks who were part of their circle, activists who were partisan for justice," Clarke said.

Jones also wrote a column for the Chronicle Herald on human rights and the conditions of black Nova Scotians.

"She was an important organizer, but she was also an important thinker," Saney said.

She and Rocky Jones invited members of the Black Panther Party to speak in Halifax in 1960s. The couple's human rights advocacy attracted RCMP surveillance and their home, phone and mail were monitored for years.

Politics and social issues

Borden said Joan Jones's family was like his second family. He said he lived with them for 25 years. When she passed away, he said her daughter called him to let him know.

"Because she knew, well, she just knew Joan and I were extremely close and really, the two of us were the only real remaining two from that original organization, really," Borden said.

Borden said he was shocked to hear Jones had died.

He had been in Halifax recently to be in Neptune Theatre's production of Noises Off and had dinner with her. They talked about politics and social issues.

"It was just a normal thing to launch immediately into that area of our interest and have another round table conversation about all that was going on and how we viewed things. And that was just a couple of weeks ago," Borden said.

With files from Amy Smith and The Canadian Press