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Raymonde Chevalier Bowen, born into a wealthy family, began her social activism at a young age, fighting against Quebec’s so-called padlock laws. (Courtesy of the family)
Raymonde Chevalier Bowen, born into a wealthy family, began her social activism at a young age, fighting against Quebec’s so-called padlock laws. (Courtesy of the family)

Raymonde Chevalier Bowen advocated for peace and women’s rights Add to ...

Raymonde Chevalier Bowen was born into a life of privilege and became a strong supporter of many social causes, including women’s rights, nuclear disarmament and anti-war efforts.

In 1960, along with her cousin, the political reformer and late senator Thérèse Casgrain, she was one of the founders of the Quebec branch of the Voice of Women. At a time of deep global insecurity, the VOW drew together thousands of women across Canada opposed to nuclear weapons.

“She came from a very political family,” said long-time friend Pamela Sachs, who joined Mrs. Bowen in the VOW at the time of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which many historians say was the closest the world came to a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. “Ray was trying to stop the spiral of nuclear armament.”

Mrs. Bowen, who died on Sept. 24 in Ormstown, Que., of natural causes at the age of 97, worked for decades for the cause of peace, especially during the Cold War, as well as the political and economic rights of women. Along with her VOW work, she also helped to found the Fédération des femmes du Québec.

The late 1950s and sixties was a time of widespread public fear about nuclear war, the testing of nuclear weapons and the radioactive fallout that spread from test sites. The VOW wrote letters to the federal health minister, pointing out the rising danger from nuclear tests, and in 1962 a 300-member VOW “peace train” went to Ottawa to present petitions to the government.

“We want as many women to come as possible,” Mrs. Bowen, who was in charge of publicity, told the Montreal Gazette before the event. “It’s hard for many to get away – they have children in school or at home. It means finding babysitters.”

In March, 1962, Mrs. Bowen and Ms. Casgrain travelled to Switzerland to voice support for nuclear disarmament at an international conference. The VOW was written about in newspapers across the country, mostly in neutral or favourable tones, although a Canadian Press report from Geneva opened with a note of sarcasm: “Two ‘desperately respectable’ Canadian women tried with some perplexity Sunday to make the voice of their sisterhood heard at the 17-nation conference on disarmament.”

Raymonde Chevalier was born on July 18, 1919, in a house known as Bois-de-la-Roche, in Senneville, on the western tip of Montreal island. The large château-style home, at the heart of a 600-acre agricultural estate, was built in the 1890s by her grandfather, Senator Louis-Joseph Forget, a prominent player in Canada’s financial and business sectors and one of the richest French Canadians of his day. Her mother had married Armand Chevalier, a banker, and Raymonde’s family lived in another large house on the estate.

Actor Christopher Plummer also grew up in Senneville and, although he was 10 years younger, became close friends with young Ray, as she was known. The two were part of a group that made amateur dramatic films in the 1930s.

“I practically grew up with Ray, her family and friends,” Mr. Plummer said. “She hypnotized us all with her daredevil energy, her wild humour, her dark glamour and, of course, those deep beautiful eyes.”

The Chevalier family also kept a home in the elegant, upper-class area of downtown Montreal once known as the Golden Square Mile. Mrs. Bowen once said the first time she knew about class distinctions was when she read Lady Chatterley’s Lover. (Despite its racy reputation, the D.H. Lawrence novel was more a critique of England’s landed social class.)

Her first involvement in social activism was with the Montreal Civil Liberties Union, which fought against the so-called padlock laws brought in by the government of Premier Maurice Duplessis. The 1937 legislation, officially known as the Act to Protect the Province Against Communistic Propaganda, allowed police to padlock the doors of organizations such as communist newspapers. (It remained in effect until 1957, when it was struck down by the Supreme Court.)

Mrs. Bowen’s involvement in various causes was influenced by her cousins, Raymond Boyer, a McGill University professor and high-profile left-wing activist, and Ms. Casgrain.

“Thérèse Casgrain was one of the women who got the vote for women in Quebec in 1940. Thérèse was very active in the peace movement and together they helped found the Voice of Women in Quebec,” said Marianne Roy, Mrs. Bowen’s eldest daughter.

“She and Thérèse were on the founding board of the Fédération des femmes du Québec, which to this day is the main women’s organization in Quebec,” she noted. A March, 1966, article in La Presse was accompanied by a picture of the founding members of that group, including Mrs. Bowen, Ms. Casgrain and Monique Bégin, later a federal Liberal minister of health.

Their group fought for issues such as equal pay for work of equal value, and pushed to see more women in political leadership, especially in provincial and federal cabinets. The group’s early work led to a number of changes in Quebec, especially in labour law.

Though she and her family and friends were influenced by the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, her pacifism also developed through personal experience in the Second World War. Her youngest brother, Frederic Chevalier, a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force, was killed in March, 1942, while laying mines off the coast of Holland. He was 21.

She was active in volunteer work on the home front during the war and, in 1940, she married Desmond Farrell in the family chapel at Bois-de-la-Roche. He would soon serve as an RCAF pilot overseas. Squadron Leader Farrell’s Wellington bomber went missing on June 7, 1944, leaving her with their two-year-old son Dominic, always known as Nick.

In 1945, she married Group Captain Georges Roy, a bomber pilot who had been shot down over Germany on his 33rd mission in October, 1944. The couple settled on her family’s estate in a house that was designed to accommodate the needs of her husband, whose leg had been amputated in a German hospital. They had three daughters, Marianne, Danièle and Michèle, and divorced in the mid-1960s.

She continued to live at her home in Senneville and also had a house in Montreal. While working as a real estate agent in the city, she met and eventually married Colonel William Bowen, a decorated officer who had fought in Normandy and Holland.

“Despite having three military husbands, she hated the military and most governments,” family friend Roman Jarymowycz said, adding that she once had “a doormat of Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan at her front door.”

“She was a great woman,” he said, “and a unique, quite indescribable, Canadian.”

Her friend Pamela Sachs recalled that Mrs. Bowen attended Remembrance Day ceremonies in Montreal wearing her first husband’s medals as a symbol of respect for those who died in the war. But she would never refer to Germany as “the enemy,” as she thought that too militaristic.

In 1982, the Bowens sold their home on the family estate in Senneville and moved to a 100-acre farm in Elgin in southern Quebec. They worked their small holding, with a large vegetable garden, geese, ducks and chickens, which she exhibited at the annual Havelock Fair, and some sheep and pigs.

After her husband’s death in 1998, she lived alone, although two of her daughters had properties nearby. Her last political battle was against the establishment of a large commercial pig farm near her property.

She leaves her son, Nick Farrell, and her daughters, Marianne, Danièle and Michèle Roy.

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