ARCHIVED - Forging the “Boxing Downeys”

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Article / February 26, 2015 / Project number: 15-0049

Ottawa, Ontario — No. 2 Construction Battalion veteran George Downey’s fighting spirit continues to inspire the Downey family.

Ottawa resident Robert Douglas Downey is proud of his family’s fighting spirit. He’s equally proud of the tradition of service to community passed down through his family. He traces both these traits back to his grandfather, the late Private George Alexander Downey, who served in the No. 2 Construction Battalion during the First World War.

Not only did senior patriarch George Downey, along with several other members of the extended Downey family, overcome racist attitudes to answer the call of duty in 1916, he served his country again in the Veterans Guard of Canada during the Second World War. “There’s a history of leadership, there’s a history of commitment, there’s a history of service to community and country,” said grandson Robert Downey, who attended one year at the Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean in Quebec in 1976.

That history continues to shape the lives of George Downey’s descendants.  “We’re leaders versus followers and when we do something, we jump in with both feet and we’re fully committed,” Robert Downey said.

Commitment and leadership have manifested in different ways through the generations. Robert Downey’s branch of the family is known as the “Boxing Downeys,” because of the remarkable number of Downey men who have picked up the gloves. 

All seven of George Downey’s sons boxed, either professionally or as amateurs. David Downey, Senior (Sr.) is a member of the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame and was Canadian Professional Middleweight Boxing Champion for more than 10 years.

Robert Downey’s father, Sergeant (Retired) Robert John “Bobby” Downey, Sr., also a member of the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame, was Eastern Command Boxing Champion and Canadian Amateur Boxing Association Lightweight Champion (1960) while a member of the 2nd Battalion, The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada boxing team from 1957 to 1965.

The next generation was equally talented in the ring. George Downey’s grandson, Raymond “Sugar Ray” Downey, was a two-time Olympian (1988 and 1992) and a bronze medalist in the 71 kg (light middleweight) boxing category at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Another cousin, the late Billy “Dynamite” Downey, was a gold medalist and best overall boxer at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1986 and at one time ranked number 5 in the world in the 57 kg (featherweight) category by the Association Internationale de Boxe Amateur (AIBA), the world amateur boxing governing body.

Noting that, to his knowledge, his grandfather did not box, Robert Downey said he nevertheless epitomized the fighting spirit for which the family is known.  “He was a no-nonsense man. His method of conflict resolution was, ‘Take it to the back yard and may the best Downey win.'” George Downey also greatly valued family loyalty, teaching his sons that if you fought one Downey, you fought them all.

The Downey family traces its roots to North Preston, one of the oldest and largest indigenous black communities in Canada, located in eastern Halifax Regional Municipality, Nova Scotia. The desire to serve the community seems to be as ingrained in the fabric of the family as fighting. Robert Downey’s uncle, Graham Downey, Sr. was the first black city counsellor in Halifax and the first black Deputy Mayor of the city.

Robert Downey was among the organizers of the original Black History Week in Halifax in 1984 and is a 29-year federal public servant in the field of human resources (including 18 ½ years as a civilian human resources practitioner with the Department of National Defence).

Robert Downey feels the celebration of his family history is important to all Canadians, because the story helps fill in the gaps in the history books about early black military veterans.  “Unfortunately, because of the mixed treatment they received, many of these veterans who have now gone on to Glory probably didn’t sit down and talk to their families and their grandchildren about their experience in the way others did,” he said.

According to Robert Downey, that silence means many descendants of black Canadian veterans may not know their family’s history of service, which in turn may affect how many of the younger generation consider the military as a career.  “There’s a stronger sense of pride when you know members of your family or your neighbour or people from your community have served and they played a vital role.

The need for black representation in the military is clear to the grandson of a man who had to fight for the right to serve.  “Canada is becoming a more diverse country. We have to rely on our military and when and if it comes to combat operations, we will have to rely on a more diverse population,” he said.

 “It’s important to my mind as we move forward as Canadians to know that whenever the call of duty has been sounded, the African-Canadian community in general and the Downey family in particular have always answered with a resounding ‘Yes, we’re ready, when do you want us!’

By Gerry Weaver, Army Public Affairs

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