Emancipate yourself from Mental Slavery

Those words from Bob Marley’s Redemption Song were birthed in Nova Scotia. “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery,” was part of a speech delivered by Black rights activist Marcus Garvey in Sydney Nova Scotia in 1937. Marley likely heard about the speech because he came from the same region in Jamaica as Garvey.

African Nova Scotians had been freeing themselves from mental and physical slavery long before 1937. And still are. Garvey may have been inspired by the example of the Royal Maroons. These descendants of enslaved Africans arrived in Halifax in 1796 proud, defiant and smart. They had been deported by the British from Jamaica for raging a guerrilla war to secure their freedom.

Within 4 years of their arrival they had convinced the colonial authorities and business interests to pay their way to Freetown, Sierra Leone. In return they “promised” to ship slaves back to Nova Scotia. With the Maroons “emancipation from slavery” assured they never got back in touch with the greedy Haligonians.

This resilience and ingenuity is characteristic of “Afri-cadians,” which is the term Canada’s 7th Parliamentary Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke coined to describe the descendants of former slaves in Nova Scotia. Resilience in the face of racism, poverty and exclusion which continues in Nova Scotia today as the Feb 21st edition of The Current reminds us.   

Here is a mere sampling of the outstanding talent among African Nova Scotians.

Portia White was born in Truro NS in 1911. She became the first Black Canadian concert singer to win international acclaim. Her voice was described as a “gift from heaven.” Even though she was considered one of the best classical singers of the 20th century she never made recordings. They, like her bookings, were made difficult because of her race. 

Viola Desmond was born in Halifax in 1914. In 1946 she refused to leave her seat on the main floor of a movie theatre in New Glasgow which was reserved for “whites” and to sit in the balcony reserved for “non-whites.” She was dragged out of the theatre, taken to jail and eventually fined. She is considered the Rosa Parks of Canada. Maybe it should be the other way around since Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Alabama 9 years later.

In 2010 Viola Desmond was granted a “free” pardon by Nova Scotia’s first Black Lieutenant Governor, Mayann Francis. “Free” as in she had never done anything wrong.  Viola Desmond’s picture below will be appearing on the new $10 bill in March, 2018.

Burnley “Rocky” Jones was born in Truro in 1941. He became an internationally known community organizer and human rights lawyer. In his early activist days the media began referring to him as “Rocky the revolutionary.” He was the catalyst behind Nova Scotia’s Black United Front. Even though officials trembled at his name, he knew how to get the largely white media to pay attention to matters of importance to African-Nova Scotians. His fierce creativity led to many breakthroughs including the famous Supreme Court of Canada judgement, R v (R.D.S.) It involved a black youth who was arrested for allegedly trying to free his cousin who had just been handcuffed. The first judge acquitted him but the decision was appealed because she was black herself and there was an “apprehension of bias.” The Supreme Court restored the original acquittal noting:

A judge who happens to be black is no more likely to be biased in dealing with black litigants, than a white judge is likely to be biased in favour of white litigants. All judges of every race, colour, religion, or national background are entitled to the same presumption of judicial integrity and the same high threshold for a finding of bias.

This is interesting to read in light of the Colten Boushie decision.

Sadly Rocky Jones died in 2013 but not before a sizeable portion of his autobiography Burnley “Rocky” Jones Revolutionary was written. It was completed by James Walker with an afterword by George Elliott Clarke.


  1. R.D.S. appeared on the same stage with me at my Halifax book “unlaunch.” His real name is Rodney Small and he is Business Manager at Common Good Solutions, a resource to social enterprises in Nova Scotia. He told me that rather than trying to free his cousin he had asked his cousin if he wanted him to tell his mother what had happened. Read the story behind his landmark case here. Rodney is also a guest on The Current’s series on race mentioned above.   
  2. For more on the Bob Marley connection to “Canada’s Ocean Playground” see Jon Tattrie’s book, Redemption Songs: How Bob Marley’s Nova Scotia Song Lights the Way Past Racism
  3. Marcus Garvey often ended his speeches with the words, “one love.”


First you dream then you lace up your boots. ~ Portia White

Get the manager. I’m not doing anything wrong. ~ Viola Desmond

The prejudice and discrimination and the racism that I have faced over my lifetime could have made me a hater, 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. ~ Rocky Jones

“One thing I can tell you is statistically I’m not supposed to be where I am today. And I have many young men that I grew up with who are either doing life in prison, or are six feet under the ground. ~ Rodney Small

Invention is craft; Improvement is art. ~ George Elliott Clarke from his poem The Senate of Canada: An Update-in-Progress

Musical selection this post is Think on Me. This selection of songs represent the only available recordings of Portia White’s beautiful contralto voice. It includes the French Canadian song “La Bas Sur Ces Montagnes.”

As a bonus here is Molly Johnson’s version of Redemption Song. Took me a while to find this one.


Moose Hide, A Love Story

Cultural Transformation One (Baby Gerber) Step at a Time

Government Innovation Isn’t Your Main Problem

Eyes Wide Shut, Carmen Papalia’s Guide to Democracy

Don’t Forget the Other Innovators

Artisans for the Common Good

The Role of Containers, Hacks and Metaphors in Social Change

A Bystander’s Guide to Civility in a Time of Rage

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