Downes, Marguerite “Peggy”
Marguerite A.“ Peggy” Brown was born in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia on March 4, 1939, to James and Rita Brown. Her father, a Guyanese immigrant, worked as a carpenter for the railway. Her mother was an artist who inspired her love for music.
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.
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 at The First Baptist Church and kept this position for more than 30 years. She served for over 45 years as a Canadian Armed Forces Reservist, rising to the rank of Major. This made her one of the highest ranking Black female officers in Canada at the time. She was a former Deputy Commander of the 709 Toronto Communications Regiment and was the administrative officer with the Queens York Rangers army cadets.
She received the prestigious Order of Military Merit, the Canadian Forces Decoration and the Canadian Forces 125 Centennial Medal. She was the first Black female to receive the appointment of Aide de Camp serving 5 Lieutenant Governors of Ontario in succession.
She worked for the Ontario Ministry of Labour and was a Commissionaire with the Superior Court of Justice. She was also a registered nurse and devoted caregiver for the elderly and despondent. She was a member of many organizations including, The Toronto Negro Coloured Guard, The Royal Canadian Military Institute, The Empire Club of Canada and The Canadian Women's Army Corps Association.
She lived in the Beach area of Toronto for 40 plus years and was Neighbourhood Watch Block Captain. Her involvement in her community lead her to be recognized one the most influential East Enders.
She enjoyed being a role model for young people and for many years volunteered and supported programs like the 100 Breakfast Club, Out of Cold and Camp Jamoke to name a few. Her faith in God was first and foremost in her life. She was a devout member of the First Baptist Church for 50 years.
Honours: Inductee WP Oliver Wall of Fame (2006); inclusion in Who’s Who in Black Canada 2 (2006); Lifetime Achievement Award, ACAA (2002); Vice-Regal commendation & Lieutenant Governor’s Volunteer Award (2001); Honourary Doctor of Humanities (2001), named one of the “100 Most Influential East Enders” (2000); Order of Military Merit (1988); Canadian Forces Medal, three bars; Governor General 125th (1992).