Connecting Links: Race and Gender in the work of Edith Maude Eaton (Sui Sin Far)

Public domain image of Edith Eaton (provided by Dr. Mary Chapman, UBC).

Public domain image of Edith Eaton (provided by Dr. Mary Chapman, UBC).


By Tiffany Johnstone


“I give my right hand to the Occidentals and my left to the Orientals, hoping that between them they will not utterly destroy the insignificant connecting link.”
-Edith Maude Eaton, “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian,” 230.

The history of women’s suffrage in North America is best understood within the context of historical debates about borders, nationality, race, and citizenship. Edith Eaton (1865-1914), also known by her frequent penname, Sui Sin Far, a journalist and fiction writer who wrote and lived in Canada and the United States at the turn of the 20th century, is a prime example of a writer who crossed geographical and political borders to explore the gender- and race-discrimination surrounding political definitions of citizenship. Eaton travelled throughout Canada, and the United States, promoting the rights of women and people of Chinese, Eurasian, and mixed racial descent. While she is known for her ambivalent and even critical perspective on suffrage discourses for their lack of attention to class and race, her work illuminates the ways in which types of race-, class-, and gender-discrimination intersect in definitions of citizenship (Chapman).

‘Race’ is not the only explanation for Eaton’s relative obscurity in Canada. She also readily disappeared because much of her life and work unfolded in the United States. Recently, however, she has been coined the “‘mother’ of Asian North American literature” (Chapman) and her work has begun to receive increased critical attention in Canada for her bold engagement in political debates that traversed primarily the Pacific Ocean and the Canadian/American border (Chapman; Lape). Like the better-known Sara Jeanette Duncan, she was a prolific journalist and prose writer with an incisive style of cultural commentary, an interest in politics and women’s rights, and what scholars would now define as a transnational cultural perspective. Eaton often highlighted her mix of British, Chinese, Canadian, and American cultural backgrounds and took particular advantage of the permeability of the Canadian/American border at the time. She wrote boldly about being half Chinese and like E. Pauline Johnson she drew on her own experience of racial hybridity to promote racial tolerance. She wrote extensively about the experiences of Chinese and Eurasian people in North America. As with Johnson, Eaton struggled with health and financial issues, but was nonetheless prolific and politically outspoken throughout her life.

Eaton was born in Cheshire, England in 1865. Her father, an English merchant, met her Chinese mother on a business trip to Shanghai. After spending the first few years of her life in England, Eaton emigrated with her family (which would later include 13 siblings) to New York and then to Montreal around 1872. The family suffered financial setbacks. Like other literate and ambitious young women, such as the slightly older Winnipeger, Cora Hind (1861-1942), she turned to the new career of stenography to put bread on the table. That employment remained a standby throughout her life but she also slowly developed a market for her writing on the issues of the day.

The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) in the United States and the Chinese head tax in Canada in 1885, both of which sought to discourage Chinese immigration, followed hard upon Eaton’s arrival, shaping both her politics and her reception. Her publications stand out for their efforts to expose and combat growing anti-Asian sentiments in North America. Eaton’s fiction and non-fiction appeared in popular magazines such as Walter Blackburn Harte’s Lotus (Kansas City, Mo.), Youth’s Companion (Boston), Delineator (New York), Good Housekeeping (New York), Land of Sunshine (Los Angeles), New York Evening Post, and Montreal Daily Witness. In 1912, she published a collection of short stories about Chinese and Eurasian immigrants called Mrs. Spring Fragrance in Chicago. In the 21st century, that volume has been regarded as the hall-mark of her literary career. Amidst failing health in her forties, she returned to Montreal and her family to die and was interred at the city’s Mount Royal Cemetery.

Edith was not the only member of her family to take up writing as a career. Her much younger sister, Winnifred Babcock (1875-1954), was a successful novelist and screenwriter who went by the name Onoto Watanna. Unlike Eaton, Babcock sought to evade pervasive racism against Chinese immigrants by assuming an ostensibly Japanese name and persona as a writer. The diverging paths of these sisters indicate the fallibility and subjectivity of racial definitions at the time, as well as, ironically, the cultural weight placed on such definitions by the reading and voting public. As Eaton pointed out in her writing, the problem with citizenship was that it readily limited the rights of the individual according not only to gender and race, but also to supposedly fixed racial categories to which she, as a woman of mixed race, did not belong.

This sense of not belonging, which consumed many professional women journalists and writers, took centre stage for Eaton. In one of her most powerful articles, “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian,” published in Independent (Boston) in 1909, she weaves her personal experiences of racism and sexism in England and North America with accounts of the struggles of (often impoverished) Chinese immigrants to find acceptance in North American culture. In her anecdote about a poor female Chinese immigrant who rejects her white fiancé after he encourages her to deny her Chinese heritage, Eaton shows how economic hardship and racism exacerbate the disenfranchisement of women. She also draws similar connections between racism and misogyny in her account of a proposition from a man who equates her Chinese heritage with sexual submissiveness.

Eaton regularly fore-grounds her own racial and cultural hybridity by pointing out that she experiences prejudice from both sides of the racial divide she traverses. “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian” focuses on the struggles of Caucasians and even Chinese immigrants to decipher and label her racial identity. In this article, Eaton criticizes the very idea of citizenship as it was evolving before World War One. She portrays her mixed history and regular experience of not fitting in as somehow more authentic and interesting than exclusionary stereotypes of the ideal national subject (Chapman). Her refusal to ‘pass’ as either categorically Chinese or Caucasian or according to any specific nationality reminds readers of the long history of fluidity and negotiation when it comes to citizenship, race, and gender.

Eaton closes “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian” by confidently identifying herself as a politically self-conscious biracial woman at the opening of the 20th century. Anticipating Virginia Woolf’s famous 1938 statement, “as a woman, I have no country” (109), Eaton celebrates her individuality in this piece. She effectively dismisses North American concepts of citizenship as insufficiently advanced, stating: “After all I have no nationality and am not anxious to claim any. Individuality is more than nationality. [. . .]. I give my right hand to the Occidentals and my left to the Orientals, hoping that between them they will not utterly destroy the insignificant connecting link” (230). This extraordinary statement, which is hard to match among her contemporaries, invokes the complicated history of Asian-Caucasian relations in North America.

Her metaphor of the “connecting link” lays claim ironically enough to Canada itself. Chinese labour in the building of the transcontinental railways had joined west and east and guaranteed a northern nation. As a human ‘hyphen’, another metaphor used by later mixed-race Canadians (Nakagawa) she also assumes a transnational, cosmopolitan identity that transcends the very notions of citizenship that exclude her as a bi-racial and Eurasian woman. Like Pauline Johnson, she portrays herself as a crucial interpreter across cultural divides. Her choice of the title, “Leaves …”, echoes that of Leaves of Grass (1855), the famous poem by the prominent 19th century American author and cultural icon Walt Whitman. She, however, confidently adapts and extends the New Englander’s dream of inclusivity and diversity in North America to the realm of political advocacy.

Edith Eaton’s self-conscious self-portraiture and political agenda unsettle any static vision of the suffrage generation. While we do not know of any direct campaigning on her part, she too was a ‘New Woman’ of her day. Her contestation of both racial and sexual exclusions should be considered along side the preoccupation with gender of better-known mainstream suffragists. Not unlike the iconical Pauline Johnson, Eaton serves as an invaluable reminder that intersectional approaches to women’s rights characterized the heated debates of professional women writers at the turn of the 20th century just as they do those of many feminist scholars a century later.

Chapman, Mary. “The ‘thrill’ of not belonging: Edith Eaton (Sui Sin Far) and flexible Citizenship.” Canadian Literature 212 (2012): 191.

Eaton, Edith. “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian.” In Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings. Ed. Amy Ling and Annette White-Parks. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995. 218-230.

Lape , Noreen Groover. “Introduction: Rites of Passage, Contact Zones, and the American Frontiers.” In West of the Border: The Multicultural Literature of the Western American Frontiers by Noreen Groover Lape. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2000. 1-18 (234).

Nakagawa, Anne Marie. Director, Between: Living in the Hyphen. National Film Board of Canada (2005)

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. 1938. New York and Burlingame: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1963.

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

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.

Barman, Jean. Constance Lindsay Skinner: Writing on the Frontier. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

Bloom, Lisa. Gender on Ice: American Ideologies of Polar Expeditions. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

“Cameron, Agnes Deans.” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Dictionary of Canadian Biography, 2000. Web. 24 Feb. 2012.

– – -. The New North: An Account of a Woman’s 1908 Journey through Canada to the Arctic. Ed. David Richeson. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1986. Rpt. of The New North: Being Some Account of a Woman’s Journey through Canada to the Arctic. 1909.

Doyle, James. North of America: Images of Canada in the Literature of the United States 1775-1900. Toronto: E.C.W. Press, 1983.

Gerson, Carole, and Veronica Strong-Boag, eds. E. Pauline Johnson Tekahionwake: Collected Poems and Selected Prose. Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

Grace, Sherrill. “A Woman’s Way: From Expedition to Autobiography.” Introduction. A Woman’s Way Through Unknown Labrador. 1908. By Mina Benson-Hubbard. Ed. Sherrill Grace. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004.

Gray, Charlotte. Flint and Feather: The Life And Times of E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2002.

Johnstone, Tiffany. “Seeing for Oneself: Agnes Deans Cameron’s Ironic Critique of American Literary Discourse in The New North.” Nordlit 23 (2008): 69-87.

Kelcey, Barbara E. Alone in Silence: European Women in the Canadian North Before 1940. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2001.

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.

Lutes, Jean Marie. Front Page Girls: Women Journalists in American Culture and Fiction 1880-1930. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Pazdro, Roberta J. “Agnes Deans Cameron: Against the Current.” In Her Own Right: Selected Essays on Women’s History in B.C. Ed. Barbara Latham and Cathy Kess. Victoria: Camosum College, 1980. 101-124.

Reid, Jane E. The Joys of the Long Trail: Three Women Adventure-Travellers in Canada at the Turn of the Century. MA thesis. 1990. Ann Arbor: U.M.I., 1999.

Roy, Wendy. “Primacy, Technology, and Nationalism in Agnes Deans Cameron’s The New North.” Mosaic 38.2 (2006): 53-78.

A Double Life: The Legacy of E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake (1861-1913)

Photo of Tekahionwake courtesy of the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons user Cochran.

Photo of E. Pauline Johnson/Tekahionwake courtesy of the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons user Cochran.


By Tiffany Johnstone


“Be strong, O paddle! be brave, canoe!”

-Johnson, “The Song My Paddle Sings”, 82.


On March 10th, 1913, flags were lowered as Vancouver came to a stand still for the largest funeral in the city’s history.  Huge crowds lined Georgia Street to witness the passage of E. Pauline Johnson’s coffin.  Vancouver was saying goodbye to an icon.  An internationally renowned poet and performance artist, Johnson played the difficult roles of defining Canada on the world stage and of making a place for women and First Nations people on that stage at the turn of the 20th century.  A hundred years after her funeral, Johnson remains an influential, yet challenging and enigmatic, figure in Canadian literature.  Important recent studies have again brought Johnson into the spotlight arguing for the complexity and importance of her work (Gerson and Strong-Boag; Gray).  City Opera Vancouver has even announced an upcoming chamber opera called Pauline, written by Margaret Atwood and composer, Tobin Stokes, though issues of appropriation linger and little information is available about the project.  Since the 1920s, a westward facing monument marks Johnson’s grave in an out of the way clearing near Ferguson Point in Stanley Park.  Half-hidden by the surrounding trees, this monument is a reminder of how easy it has been to overlook Johnson’s contributions to Canadian literature and identity, and of the quiet persistence of her place in our history against so many odds.

Despite Johnson’s impressive send off and continuing legacy, her life and career were marked as much by struggle as by success.  On another March 10th in 1861 Emily Pauline Johnson was born on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford Ontario.  She was also given the Mohawk name, Tekahionwake, which means double life.  In fact, doubleness characterized her life and work.  Her father was a Mohawk chief of mixed Mohawk and European heritage and her mother was born in England.  Johnson was raised and educated according to her mother’s English middle-class background, while encouraged to respect and learn from her Mohawk relatives.  The marriage of Johnson’s parents met disquiet from both families.  In 1884 her father died after a beating by white liquor traders whom he had opposed.  With the loss of the main breadwinner, the family, like many others, faced reduced circumstances. They were forced to leave their prominent home on the reserve and Johnson turned to writing and then to performance to make a living.  From 1884 onward, she published poetry under the name of E. Pauline Johnson in North American magazines such as Outing (New York), Saturday Night (Toronto), and the Weekly Detroit Free Press.  In 1892, she began to recite her poems to captivated audiences.  She designed and wore an elaborate costume inspired by a diverse range of North American Aboriginal groups.  Her trademark move required her to change out of this costume and into an evening gown for the second half of the show.  Johnson toured across Canada, the United States, and England, and finally in 1909 settled in Vancouver where she befriended Squamish chief Joe Capilano (Su-a-u-luck) and his wife Mary Agnes (Lixwelut) and published in local magazines.  Her book, Legends of Vancouver (1911) recounted her conversations with local Aboriginal elders, particularly Capilano.  In the last years of her life, Johnson suffered from breast cancer and had little income.  However, she was supported by a network of female activists and journalists located in B.C. and beyond—members of organizations such as the Women’s Canadian Club and the Women’s Press Club—who aside from arranging her funeral, also oversaw the publication of Legends and the poetry collection, Flint and Feather (1912) during her last years as well as the posthumous publication of other work to pay off her debts.  Despite Johnson’s celebrity status, she died in her early 50s in relative poverty.

The doubleness that Johnson experienced as a mixed race woman in Canada at the turn of the 20th century shaped the way that her work has been published and received.  Right from the beginning, the public had difficulty in classifying her cultural and literary doubleness.  Johnson was always evaluated against the literary backdrop of the mostly white and male so-called ‘Confederation poets’ of the late 19th century.  These contemporaries—Bliss Carmen, Archibald Lampman, and Duncan Campbell Scott—drew on British Victorian poets, and took for their subjects nationalism and the natural environment.  One of the best known of Johnson’s contributions, “The Song My Paddle Sings,” is among the most heavily anthologized Canadians poems of that period and resembles in style and subject the work of her male peers.  However, while this poem was steadily anthologized, Johnson’s overall body of work was publicly disparaged by 20th century male writers and academics, such as Mordecai Richler, Earle Birney (Gerson and Strong-Boag xxvi), Robertson Davies, and Desmond Pacey, the latter of whom employs obvious misogynist hyperbole in describing her work as “cheap, vulgar and almost incredibly bad” (Gray 398).  To be both popular and female was effectively to be exiled from the literary pantheon of ‘greats’.  Such critics found it hard to understand, let alone accept, what was so often difficult to classify.  As with defining citizenship, the task of defining the Canadian literary canon, has relied on fraught systems of classification that, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, enforced assumptions about gender and race behind the veil of ostensibly objective aesthetic standards.

Just as female activists and writers supported Johnson at the end of her life, so too did feminist scholars reclaim her at the end of the 20th century.  This reminds us that the stereotype of the “colonial Other” that Johnson may have seemed to perpetuate was often actively imposed on her by publishers (Gerson and Strong-Boag xx).  Johnson was mostly writing and performing for a white middle-class audience.  Her cultural marginalization and financial insecurity required her to cater, more than her male peers, to the preferences of publishers, readers, and audience members. Feminist scholars have also nevertheless observed Johnson’s ability to epitomize the defiance and independence of the New Woman (Gerson and Strong-Boag xvii).  While Johnson’s poetry has a similar sound and subject to the Confederation poets, it offers a more multifaceted perspective on the surrounding landscape, and by extension, the nation.  Unlike her contemporaries who wrote often of empty wilderness landscapes and of the inevitable dissolution of Aboriginal culture, Johnson confidently inhabited and engaged with the river in “The Song My Paddle Sings” and other verse.  This particular poem offers the innovative point of view of a lone woman in a canoe.  She dauntlessly navigates the rapids and even engages in a kind of conversation with the surrounding environment by directly addressing the paddle, the canoe, and the wind.  According to Johnson, Canadian identity was open to interpretation, dialogue and revision by women and First Nations people.  Her vision of the essential fluidity of Canada also emerged in the aesthetically challenging aspects of her art.  In Legends of Vancouver, she periodically slips between English and Chinoook.  She also tells stories within stories and often self-consciously frames her retelling of the Squamish legends by explaining how she interprets them through her own lens of cultural and racial hybridity.  As was the case with Johnson’s notorious costume changes, readers could not relax and interpret the stories in any single or simple way.

Like many literary figures of her time, Johnson has been adopted as a figurehead of Canadian women’s history, despite her unwillingness to publicly endorse women’s suffrage. She can nevertheless be seen as a literary advocate of women’s rights and of the rights of Aboriginal people and people of mixed race throughout North America.  Even if Johnson employed the stereotypes and hyperboles that shaped the vocabulary of Canadian writers at the time, her most lasting aesthetic and political contribution is the plurality she recognized in Canada.  Forcing audiences to consider her as both Aboriginal and English-Canadian, she removed the wall between the stage and the people, between the self and the other, and encouraged recognition of diversity.  As the Idle No More movement gains international recognition amidst criticism for what some perceive to be its lack of coherence, it is worth considering how and why the literature of E. Pauline Johnson has recently been rediscovered and defended.  Refusing to classify her too easily in either positive or negative terms, scholars argue that it is the very doubleness, innovation, and complexity of Johnson’s message about Canada, the First Nations, and women that speaks to the present, as indeed it did to the past.


Further Reading & Resources

Carole Gerson and Veronica Strong-Boag, eds. E. Pauline Johnson Tekahionwake: Collected Poems and Selected Prose. Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

Gray, Charlotte. Flint and Feather: The Life And Times of E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2002.

Johnson, Pauline. Legends of Vancouver. 1911. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1997.

—. “The Song My Paddle Sings.” E. Pauline Johnson Tekahionwake: Collected Poems and Selected Prose. Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press, 2002.  81-83.