Cynthia (Cindy) Cowan loved street theatre and pulling stunts, almost as much as she adored her cats. A couple of months before her death on May 25, she tried to combine all three in a crazy spectacle to attract public attention to her campaign to abolish the law against assisted suicide for mentally competent adults.
Diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer in January, 2010, Ms. Cowan underwent genetic testing and learned that she carried the same BRCA 1 and 2 gene mutations as actress Angelina Jolie. In April, with her treatment options exhausted, Ms. Cowan, 47, decided it was time for a final piece of performance art. She planned to dress up like a cat, complete with whiskers, pointy ears and a tail – as she frequently did on Halloween, her favourite day of the year. This time, though, she tried to persuade her friend and fellow activist Rhonda Roffey to get into the act.
The scheme called for Ms. Roffey to alert the media and then deliver Ms. Cowan in her cat costume to a local veterinarian’s office. The next part of the script had Ms. Roffey saying, “I want to put my cat down. She is dying from cancer and I want her to have a humane death,” while Ms. Cowan mewed piteously. Ms. Roffey was game because she believes it is “ridiculous that we are much more humane with our animals in ending their suffering, than we are with people,” but Ms. Cowan was too sick to play her part.
She no longer had the energy to pull off the dramatic stunts that had highlighted a long career in social justice that began with helping street youth and groups such as Sistering and the YWCA. In 1998 she became the executive director of Nellie’s Hostel, rebuilding the organization after the allegations of racism that had been levelled against founder June Callwood in the early 1990s. “She cleaned that joint up,” said Ms. Roffey, now a justice of the peace.
After nearly a decade running anti-violence programs for women and children at Nellie’s, Ms. Cowan moved to a new challenge at Interim Place in Mississauga. “She was a relentless worker,” said Ms. Roffey. “She was one of the most competent executive directors in the city.” She “brought all of the shelters together” and led them in working co-operatively with child welfare agencies on systemic issues and developing action protocols.
When rampaging cancer prevented Ms. Cowan from working, she volunteered with Dying with Dignity, a national charity dedicated to providing end-of-life choices, and Ovarian Cancer Canada. Ms. Cowan died in the arms of her partner Rishika Williams, while she sang her a Sinhalese lullaby called Dilhani.
Close to 300 people, including several members of the ovarian support group that Ms. Cowan had organized, gathered in a community centre in the heart of the gay village in Toronto on Saturday afternoon to sing songs, tell stories, and listen to her final “instructions.” An indefatigable planner, Ms. Cowan left nothing to chance. Her list of requests, or the strategic plan, as her friends jokingly called it, included decorating the hall with purple (her favourite colour) and white balloons, asking Ms. Williams to sing the lullaby in public, providing Latin American, Caribbean, Indian and African food for the diverse group of mourners and organizing an open mic session. Tears would be okay, she had told her friends, if they were shed in the spirit of “clarity” about her favourite cause: resisting racism and oppression wherever it exists.
She also had a playlist, including a recording of British soul singer Heather Small belting out Proud with its inspirational challenge: “What have you done today to feel proud?” That’s a question that lingers in the memory.