New Woman, New North: The Arctic Journey of Agnes Deans Cameron

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Agnes Deans Cameron, “A Magnificent Trophy,” Agnes Deans Cameron, The New North: Being Some Account of a Woman’s Journey through Canada to the Arctic, 1909 (New York & London: D. Appleton and Company, 1910), ii, Frontispiece.

Agnes Deans Cameron, “A Magnificent Trophy,” Agnes Deans Cameron, The New North: Being Some Account of a Woman’s Journey through Canada to the Arctic, 1909 (New York & London: D. Appleton and Company, 1910), ii, Frontispiece.

By Tiffany Johnstone

As the 19th century drew to a close, the completion of the western portion of the C.P.R., along with the Klondike Gold Rush, spurred international interest in remote regions of Canada. In particular, well-known U.S. authors and journalists such as Hamlin Garland, Jack London, and W.H.H. Murray wrote about the Canadian northwest as a kind of mythic last frontier in which American (and by extension Canadian) men could somehow test their masculinity and relive frontier individualism (Bloom; Doyle). While the region has been generally remembered in the North American imagination as a site of masculine adventure and enterprise, recent scholarship has uncovered prominent 19th and early 20th century female writers who challenged such dominant masculinist perceptions (Grace; Kelcey; Roy). In particular, studies of B.C. women writers such as Constance Lindsay Skinner (Barman) and Pauline Johnson (Gray; Gerson and Strong-Boag) have helped put women writers back on the northwestern Canadian map and have shown how influential professional women writers of the period engaged with wilderness discourses from explicitly feminist perspectives. Vancouver Opera’s production, Lillian Alling (2010), about a young Russian immigrant who is believed to have walked from British Columbia back to Russia in the 1920s, testifies to growing public awareness of proto-feminist perspectives on the northwest.

Agnes Deans Cameron (1863-1912), a Victoria, B.C., teacher, explorer, activist, and writer has been relatively overlooked in contemporary scholarship and public memory. However, she too deserves recognition for her unprecedented New Woman perspective in the frontier literature of the Canadian northwest. Raised by Scottish immigrants in Victoria, Cameron went on to become the first woman in B.C. to teach high school and to serve as a school principal. She served as the vice-president of the Canadian Women’s Press Club and wrote as a journalist for local publications on topics such as suffrage and education reform. Controversy sparked by Cameron’s outspoken advocacy for increased gender equality in the school system seems to have led to the loss of her teaching certificate in 1906 (Pazdro). That same year, she moved to Chicago to start a new career as a professional writer. There she began to plan the northern trip that would make her name as a travel writer.

In 1908, Agnes Deans Cameron set out on a six-month journey to the Arctic that she would immortalize in the extraordinary autobiographical adventure book, The New North, published in New York in 1909. Armed with a typewriter and a Kodak camera, both signifiers of the New Woman, Cameron ventured north with her niece, Jessie Cameron Brown, to follow in the footsteps of 18th century explorer, Alexander Mackenzie. The two women travelled north to the Mackenzie Delta by way of the Athabaska River, Great Slave Lake, and the Mackenzie River. Cameron describes in intimate detail their encounters with northern people including trappers, fur traders, and missionaries. On the surface, the volume appeals to popular American perceptions of the Canadian Northwest as a mythic northern frontier open to economic development by prospective immigrants, investors, and speculators. Her earlier work in Chicago for the Western Canada Immigration Association would have familiarized her with popular American perceptions of northwestern Canada. She frequently draws on American manifest destiny rhetoric not only to promote American immigration to northwestern Canada, but also to describe Canada itself as the next great imperial power (Johnstone). For instance, she ends the book describing the increased settlement and development of the region as divinely ordained, stating: “God has intended this to be the cradle of a new race, a race born of the diverse entities now fusing in its crucible” (299). As with American manifest destiny rhetoric, frontier expansion and assimilation are characterized as inevitable through religious and social Darwinist tropes. However, as with other politically-minded professional women writers of the day such as Sui Sin Far and Pauline Johnson who had to cater to mainstream expectations of publishers and readers, Cameron found ways of embedding her social activism in popular writing (Johnstone). For all its recurring descent into a discourse of imperialist expansion, The New North also offers a radical gender-bending New Woman persona and unusual advocacy of the rights of Canadian First Nations people.

Cameron’s New Woman pervades The New North. Unlike most other Canadian women travellers of the period she adopts a deliberately masculine appearance in her clothing and demeanour. Her photographs directly challenge assumptions about gender and race. In the unforgettable frontispiece image, Cameron offers a self-portrait with the severed head of a moose. No one could miss her invocation of the era’s popular masculinist genre of hunting illustrations and photographs. Avoiding any semblance of stereotypical feminine modesty, she stares squarely at the camera with confidence and impish delight. Unlike Mina Benson Hubbard and Pauline Johnson who, despite being wilderness icons of their day, sought audience acceptance by donning feminine attire, Cameron rejects such codes of middle-class femininity. Instead she chooses an RCMP style hat and a heavy coat that looks as though they were made for a man.

Cameron’s American stunt-girl journalist contemporaries often sensationalized their own personal experiences in a way that fore-grounded new opportunities for women in the public sphere and destabilized the mystique of objectivity in the press (Lutes). In true stunt-girl fashion, Cameron uses the combined grotesquery of the moose head and her gender-bending appearance to shock and disrupt expectations. By deliberately flouting middle-class gender conventions, Cameron contests assumptions about gender and race that underlie mainstream representations of the northwestern Canadian frontier.

The New North is equally unusual for Cameron’s challenge to racist stereotypes about the Aboriginal people. While describing her visit to a residential school for Cree children, she suggests that the English curriculum does not adequately represent or engage with students’ cultural background. Her text even includes a Cree translation of a missionary hymn. Most notably, Cameron spends ten days with an Inuit family in Arctic Red River and warns readers against popular racist assumptions about the Inuit. In particular, she expresses special interest in First Nations women (Roy) and sponsors and lends her name to a Cree baby girl so that her mother can receive a treaty payment. In a telling contradiction (and perhaps revelation of her own conflicted emotions) of the manifest destiny rhetoric at the end of the book, she refers to the “intrusion of the whites,” observing that it can hardly be referred to as “the coming of civilisation” (175). Constantly asking readers to question textbook-, encyclopedia-, and dictionary-style definitions of the north, Cameron forces consideration of the ways that institutionalized knowledge surrounding notions of progress and civilization injure Aboriginal people.

Cameron’s The New North and her subsequent book tours in Canada, the United States, and Britain received wide acclaim from the general public and from feminist readers (Pazdro; Reid). By the time she returned to Victoria in 1911, she had carved out a niche as a famous feminist traveller (“Cameron”). In a sign of changing times, or perhaps of Canadians’ propensity for honouring compatriots who’ve won recognition elsewhere, the town from which she had once been virtually exiled seemed enthusiastic about her return. The city council planned a reception in her honour and she was invited to share in the welcome planned for well-known British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst (“Cameron”). Good times did not last long. In 1912, just four years after her famous Arctic journey, Cameron succumbed to pneumonia and died at age 48. Like many others who wrote to make a living and died relatively young, Cameron’s work, while contributing in important ways to frontier discourses of the time, was soon enough barely remembered.

At a time when northwestern Canada was hyped as one of the last great frontier spaces for masculinist adventure and imperialist expansion, trailblazing feminist adventure travellers and writers such as Cameron had something of their own to contribute. The New North exposes the patriarchal and ethnocentric bias beneath mainstream concepts of the northwest. Cameron extends the frontier symbolism of individualism and opportunity to women and First Nations people. As with other New Woman writers of the day, Cameron claimed the northwestern frontier for herself and redefined it as a site, not simply of industry and opportunity, but also of potential equality. Amidst 21st century oil pipeline controversies in B.C., it is important to remember that resource-rich Canada has long loomed as an El Dorado. Writing a century earlier, Agnes Deans Cameron encourages readers then and now to see the costs of development to First Nations people and, perhaps, to envision the possibility of more equitable relations.

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Lillian Alling. By John Estacio and John Murrell. Dir. Kelly Robinson. Perf. Frédérique Vézina, Judith Forst, Aaron St. Clair Nicholson, Roger Honeywell, Thomas Goerz. Vancouver Opera. Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver. 23 Oct. 2010. Performance.

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