By RON FANFAIR
She achieved all of her objectives – except one – in a very rich and fulfilling life.
Retired Major Dr. Marguerite (Peggy) Downes died last week in hospital after a lengthy illness without fulfilling her ultimate goal of becoming a funeral director. She was 70.
Born in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia to a deacon-carpenter-railroad father and artistic mother, Downes served as a Canadian Armed Forces Reservist for 45 years, rising to the rank of Major, thus becoming the highest ranking Black officer in Canada.
She joined the Royal Canadian Army Corps militia in Halifax as a driver in 1955 to provide familial support after her father’s death a year earlier. Before he died, she made a promise to him that she was going to win him a medal by joining the military. She received her first medal in 1968.
Downes also realized a promise to become a registered nurse, even though she never practiced full-time, to increase her career options. She passed the Civil Service Exam with a 100 per cent mark and took a job as a welfare worker with National Health and Welfare to support herself while taking night courses to obtain her nursing qualifications.
“I watched my father retire from the railroad and it reminded me of a song about the pendulum on the clock that stopped short, never to go again when the old man died,” she once said. “It always bothered Dad that he was not qualified for anything else. I vowed that I would never find myself without a second or third career.”
She transferred to the Toronto Reserves in 1956 and was promoted to Lieutenant of the #2881 Highland Creek Cadet Corps based at West Hill, and then Deputy Commanding Officer where she evaluated and set goals for her unit, enforced standards of discipline and behaviour, interviewed and counseled officers and monitored their personal and career development.
Downes later served as Unit Custodian and Drug & Alcohol Officer before retiring as Officer-in-Command, Charlie Squadron and proceeding to join the Queen’s York Rangers Army Cadets. She was also a Commissionaire with the Superior Court of Justice and the first African-Canadian to serve as an Aide-de-Camp to an Ontario Lieutenant-Governor. She served as ADC to John Black Aird, Lincoln Alexander, Hal Jackman, Hilary Weston and James Bartleman.
In addition, Downes was the only female in the defunct Toronto Negro Colour Guard, the first African-Canadian female affiliated to the Royal Canadian Military Institute and a member of the Toronto Signals Officers Club, the Empire Club of Canada, the Royal Commonwealth Society, the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps Association, the Warriors Day Council, the Ontario College of Nurses, Beta Sigma Phi sorority and a Life Member of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps.
She was also the founding director of the Voices of Joy Choir which was featured in several movies, including Amerika, House of Dias Dreare and Christmas and a member of the historic First Baptist Church since 1956.
To mark its 180th anniversary in 2006, the church – founded by former slaves fleeing the United States – honoured Downes and four other members for their over 50 years of continuous service.
“Peggy was exceedingly committed to the church and its choir,” said Pastor Michael Morris, who has been with the church for the past decade. “To be so dedicated to an institution for so many years is a testament to her faith. She will be missed around here.”
Downes, who served as the church’s musical director for 31 years before retiring last year, is the congregation’s second longstanding parishioner to pass away in the last three weeks. Joan Darrell, who joined First Baptist on November 4, 1944, died last month.
Historian and curator, Dr. Sheldon Taylor, said Downes was a stalwart in the Black community of Nova Scotia and continued to make an important contribution even after she left the province. She served as director of the Kay Livingstone Visible Minority Women’s Society of Nova Scotia and fundraised – with her very close friend and fellow Nova Scotian, Bev Mascoll, who passed away in 2001 – for the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Studies at Dalhousie University.
“Peggy was also unique in that she had a connection that allowed for the bridging of Canada’s old Black community with the new immigrant post-1960s community,” said Taylor. “She understood that it was important for our communities to expand. She was also extremely proud of her ‘Canadian-ness’ and she was a role model, especially for young women.”
A full-time employee with the Ontario Ministry of Health as a group inspector when she was not performing military duty, Downes enjoyed reading, gardening and golf, fundraised for Camp Jumoke and volunteered with the Out of the Cold program that caters to the homeless.
“Peggy was a remarkable person,” said her godson, Archie Alleyne, considered one of Canada’s premier drummers. “She was very close to our family and she was like a sister to me. She was also very kind-hearted and dedicated to the church.”
Named among the 100 Most Influential East Enders in 2000, Downes was bestowed with the Order of Merit, recognized with the Vice-Regal commendation and the Lieutenant-Governor’s Volunteer and Ecumenical Network of Women of African Heritage awards, honoured with an African-Canadian Achievement award for Lifetime Service and the Canadian Forces 125 Centennial Medal, inducted into the WP Oliver Wall of Fame and conferred with an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities by Eastern North Carolina Theological Institute.
Once married to pianist and jazz educator, Wray Downes, she is survived by her children, Deborah and Mark, who reside in British Columbia, Jacqui who lives in England and Wraylene, who is in Minnesota.
A funeral service for Peggy Downes was held on Thursday, June 11 at Fort York Armoury.