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Marguerite Downes was the first black woman to be honorary aide-de-camp in Ontario.

Major Marguerite Downes, the highest ranking black female officer in the Ontario Canadian Army Reserves, died on June 4 in Toronto of respiratory failure. She was 70.

Serving in the reserves for more than 45 years, she was a former deputy commander of the 709 Toronto Communications Regiment and the administrative officer with the Queen's York Rangers army cadets.

The army reserve is a part-time component to the Canadian Army. It provides the framework or structure in the event of army mobilization in times of crisis.

She was also commissionaire with the Superior Court of Justice, and the first black woman appointed as honorary aide-de-camp in Ontario. She served as an ADC under lieutenant-governors John Black Aird, Lincoln Alexander, Hal Jackman, Hilary Weston and James K. Bartleman.

"I fondly recall my pride when visiting the chambers of the lieutenant-governor Lincoln Alexander," said Rosemary Sadlier, president of the Ontario Black History Society. "That there was an ADC that also reflected the achievement of African-Canadians."

As a young woman, Ms. Downes promised to make her father proud through winning a military medal. "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 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."

In a second career, Major Downes directed and played the piano in the Voices of Joy gospel choir in Toronto. She was mentored in part by her ex-husband, renowned Canadian pianist and jazz educator Wray Downes, and in part by her Aunt Gladys in Dartmouth. This highly respected choir moved beyond church pews to perform in television, films, and commercials with such musical luminaries as singer Jackie Richardson and Canada's premiere drummer Archie Alleyne. Her contribution to the church and vitality through her choir activities were widely appreciated in the community.

Major Downes was also a registered nurse, but worked only as a volunteer with the elderly and despondent, particularly in Toronto's Beach community, where she lived for more than 40 years and was a Neighbourhood Watch captain. Her involvement in the community led her to be recognized as an influential East Ender.

As a day job, Major Downes worked as a field representative for OHIP in Toronto during the mid-1960s. She took another demanding job a few years later at the Ontario Ministry of Labour as an employment standards officer. She retired from this position in 1997, but never seemed to lose a beat when it came to continuing in her numerous volunteer capacities.

Peggy (Scampy) Brown was born in Dartmouth on March 4, 1939, to James and Rita Brown when her parents were in their 40s. Her father, a Guyanese immigrant, worked as a carpenter for the railway. Her mother was an artist who inspired her love for music. Peggy's childhood was filled with the sounds of pump organs and women's voices. In the Sweet Bye and Bye , Down by the Riverside , and Mary Don't You Weep , were spirituals that floated from her family's house on Commercial Street.

In 1955, after graduating from Darmouth High, Peggy enlisted as a driver with the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps in Halifax. She remembered the challenging physical fitness demands in the army and particularly how swimming in the pool damaged her hair. "I sent off to the States for a Perma Straight Kit and it took two months to arrive," she said. "Viola Desmond, the only black hairdresser in Halifax, after several hours, was finally able to apply this solution to my hair, but the smell was incredible."

Major Downes transferred to the Toronto Reserves in 1956 and was promoted to Lieutenant of the Highland Creek Cadet Corps. A short while later she became deputy commanding officer and was put in charge of evaluations, goal-setting, and discipline enforcement. She also interviewed and counselled officers concerning their personal and career development.

Upon arriving in Toronto, Major Downes joined the First Baptist Church, which was founded in 1826 by former slaves fleeing the United States. She also began a long, committed career as a single mother after the births of her first two children. A short time later she married musician Wray Downes, with whom she had two more children, but the marriage was short-lived. In the mid-60s, she returned to the task of raising her children on her own. Her many achievements, including motherhood, were duly noted by friends and colleagues.

"This was a woman who was very high rank in the military, so she knew how to organize her life," said Jackie Richardson. "… she was able to do everything and catalogue it."

In 1968, Major Downes received a military decoration for 12 years of continuous service and exemplary behaviour. This was, sadly, two years after her father died and so he wasn't able to appreciate her early promise to him.

"My father couldn't join the army because he had flat feet, and my brothers weren't really interested. But he always wanted one of us to get him a medal," she said.

Major Downes became musical director and pianist in the Voices of Joy gospel choir in 1977 and kept this position for more than 30 years. "She was a person who really believed in service," Ms. Richardson said, referring to Major Downes as a "minister of music."

"It was total dedication and lots of love and lots of fun. It was with the true Baptist spirit that she played the piano … it came from the heart … whenever I sang with her, it would just be her and I singing, and it was like we breathed together."

Major Downes was appointed honorary aide-de-camp in 1980 and served a succession of five lieutenant-governors in Ontario. Aids-de-camp attend the lieutenant-governor at events and liaise with organizers on questions of protocol and ceremony. They are drawn from officers in the regular and reserve units of the Canadian Forces, as well as the Ontario Provincial Police, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, St John Ambulance Brigade, Canadian Corps of Commissionaires, and other police, firefighter and EMS services.

In 1988, she was awarded the Order of Military Merit. She also received the 125th anniversary of the Confederation of Canada medal in 1992 for her significant military contributions. She was a member of many military organizations, including the now-defunct Toronto Negro Coloured Guard, the Royal Canadian Military Institute, and the Canadian Women's Army Corp. She was the first African-Canadian woman affiliated to the Royal Canadian Military Institute.

Major Downes received the Vice-Regal commendation and Lieutenant-Governor's Volunteer Award in 2001; an honorary doctorate of humanities in 2001 from North Carolina Theological Institute; a Lifetime Achievement Award at the African Canadian Achievement Awards in 2002. In 2002, she was also included in the directory Who's Who in Black Canada and in 2006 was given a Planet Africa award honouring her work for those in the African Diaspora worldwide.

"Peggy is excellent in every sense of the word," wrote former lieutenant-governor Alexander in a letter of recommendation. "She has been singled out for awards because of her outstanding work in the church, in the military, and in the lieutenant-governor's office."

Historian and curator Sheldon Taylor said Major Downes was a stalwart in the black community of Nova Scotia and continued to make an important contribution even after she left the province.

"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," Dr. Taylor said. "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."

With obligations to family, military, church, choir and community, Major Downes continued, inexhaustibly, to keep a steady footprint. She did her father proud.

She leaves children Deborah, Mark, Jacqueline, and Wraylene, seven grandchildren and one great-grandson.

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