“Who are you when the world is not looking at you? What do you fight for even if it seems nobody is paying attention?”
These were questions posed by African Nova Scotian activist Lynn Jones to the graduating class of Mount Saint Vincent University at their convocation ceremony last week.
Jones received an honourary doctorate from the university last year, but spoke virtually at last year’s convocation where it was held entirely online due to COVID restrictions. As a result, she was invited to speak in person at this year’s convocation ceremony.
“It is a great honour to be invited to stand here today to speak to the graduating class,” she said. “But being in person comes with its own challenges. You can see today that walking is difficult for me, and in preparing to come and give this speech so much planning had to go into just navigating the space to get to the podium.”
Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU) was established in 1873 as one of only a handful of institutions in Canada where women could attend to seek higher learning. At the time women were still not allowed to vote. The Mount went on to develop a convent, schools, an orphanage, and health care facilities throughout Halifax, as well as North America.
“I also know that recently, your president, Dr. Ramona Lumpkin apologized for the role of Mount Saint Vincent University in residential schools,” said Jones. “It is a stark reminder that often the places that are progressive for some are built off the backs — off the very lives — of others.”
Jones spoke directly to the graduating class about how their decisions and judgement as educators going forward will have lasting impacts beyond their classrooms.
“Those of you graduating from this ceremony are planning to work in education,” she said. “The choices you make of care rather than punishment, understanding rather than judgement, listening instead of assumption, will be carried in the hearts of your students for years to come. You can build the world to come in the choices you make every day.”
Jones noted that one of the graduates was 80-years-old. She also spoke about her own mother, the late Willena Jones, who she says became the first licensed Black teacher in Truro, where she is from, after graduating at the age of 60.
She said that last year’s virtual convocation took place just months after George Floyd was murdered over a $20 bill at the hands of a white police officer in the US. She talked about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and how Floyd’s murder was an example of “over 400 years of brutality and anti-Black racism.” She even cited local examples of the legacy of slavery and racism.
“In Nova Scotia, a young African Nova Scotian mother was beaten and arrested in Walmart over a few lemons and a head of lettuce. A Black MLA was pulled over at gunpoint by the police during the provincial election campaign. A young man at a work site in Pictou was shot with a nail gun; his assailant received house arrest while young Black men sit in jail for much less. Black children tell stories of being suspended and alienated in schools. The stories go on and on,” she said.
Examiner contributor, El Jones, who is also a professor at The Mount, recently received a PhD from Queen's University in Ontario. She introduced Lynn Jones and said she used the opportunity to wear her Queen's PhD hood.
As part of her closing remarks, Lynn Jones reminded the students that they stand on the shoulders of past generations who stood on the shoulders of generations that preceded their own before thanking everyone and wishing them well.
“You are among the privileged of society," she said. "You have been blessed with the opportunity to pursue higher education and are also tasked with training minds in the value and substance of receiving a good education. I caution you to use this privilege wisely as education without action is miseducation.”
Matthew Byard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Halifax Examiner