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.

Social Departures: Sara Jeannette Duncan (1861-1922)


By Tiffany Johnstone


Sara Jeannette Duncan, of Scottish Presbyterian ancestry, is one of Canada’s most iconic turn of the 20th century literary figures. Her journalism and novels stand as literary companions to suffrage debates. Raised in Brantford Ontario and trained as a teacher, Duncan went on to write for Canadian and American publications such as the Globe (Toronto) and the Washington Post (D.C.). In 1887, she became the parliamentary correspondent for the Montreal Star. She wrote a column in the Globe addressed to female readers and shared progressive politics on issues relating to nationalism and suffrage. Duncan married a British civil servant working in India where she then lived and worked as a novelist and journalist for her adult life in the “Anglo-Indian community of Calcutta and Simla” (Dean 19). In her lifetime she published over 20 novels and she remains one of the most prolific and influential figures of Canadian literature.

Anon, “You Feel with Wonder that you are not doing Anything very Extraordinary after all,” Duncan, A Social Departure, 96.

Anon, “You Feel with Wonder that you are not doing Anything very Extraordinary after all,” Duncan, A Social Departure, 96.

In 1888, Duncan went on a trip around the world with Canadian journalist Lilly Lewis (1866 or 1867-1929). This led to her first semi-autobiographical novel, A Social Departure: How Orthodocia Went Around the World By Ourselves (1890). One of the most memorable illustrations from this text portrays Duncan and a character based on Lewis perching on a Canadian Pacific Railway cowcatcher as they set off through western Canada. That adventurous spirit also characterized many of the women described in subsequent novels, including A Daughter of Today (1894) and The Imperialist (1904). Duncan is known for her complex and antagonistic heroines and her ironic, cutting wit. It is important to note that Duncan’s subjects remained, for the most part, middle-class settler women and imperial visitors in other lands. The future opportunities associated with the proverbial new woman in Duncan’s texts were mainly limited to a white, middle- class, Anglo female readership in Canada, the United States, and Britain. Women of other nationalities are conspicuously absent from her stories while First Nations women appeared as little more than figures of the past, not the future.

However, while Duncan’s feminist perspective was limited in its treatment of race and class, she firmly avoided a universalizing idea of womanhood in her writing. She often emphasized conflicting layers of identity relating to gender, nation, and empire. For this reason, her body of work is not easy to sum up. For one thing, while she always identified with Canada, she published abroad and represented a more? transnational perspective on gender, politics, culture, and literature. Secondly, while Duncan showed a strong interest in pushing the boundaries of women’s lives in her writing, she neither explicitly nor consistently aligned herself with suffragist struggles. Such ambivalence was common in the work of many women writers of the day. Their professional lives often depended on tempering their personal or political views and tactfully confronting the expectations of publishers and readers.

Contemporary feminists, scholars, or readers with an interest in the history of women in politics in Canada must learn to read between the lines in texts by Canada’s turn of the 20th century female literary figures. Duncan’s expression of impish delight as she rides the rails in A Social Departure seems to express what she could not explicitly say in her writing and even perhaps in her life. Female readers were invited to embark on literal and metaphorical social departures from conventional gender roles and more broadly to question their roles as citizens. On the edge of the train, hurtling beyond the conventionally known at the dawn of a new century, Duncan embodied the complexity of the new woman persona of her day—one that was all the more radical for its very avoidance of a fixed national or political affiliation. Virginia Woolf’s famous observation in 1938 that “as a woman, I have no country” (109) emerged between the lines of earlier women authors in the years leading up to suffrage. Duncan’s invocation of what we now understand as a transnational perspective reveals the recurring struggle of many feminist writers to broaden women’s horizons across national, geographical, and political boundaries. She reminds us that it is such institutional boundaries that keep women off the map by limiting their imaginations and opportunities.

Further Reading & Resources

Dean, Misao. A Different Point of View: Sara Jeannette Duncan. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991.
– – -. Introduction. The Imperialist. 1904. By Sara Jeannette Duncan. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2005. 9-31.
Devereux, Cecily. “Colonial Space/Imperial Identity: How Sara Jeannette Duncan Navigated Victorian Canada, Americanization, and the Empire of the Race by Herself.” Diversity and Change in Early Canadian Women’s Writing. Ed and Introd. Jennifer Chambers. Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars, 2008. 36-54.
Duncan, Sara Jeannette. A Social Departure: How Orthodocia and I Went Round the World By Ourselves. London, Edinburgh, Dublin, and New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1890.
– – -. The Imperialist. Ottawa: Tecumseh Press, 1996.
– – -. Selected Journalism. Ed. Thomas E. Tausky. Ottawa: Tecumseh Press, 1978.
Fiamengo, Janice. “‘Baptized with Tears and Sighs’: Sara Jeannette Duncan and the Rhetoric of Feminism.” ReCalling Early Canada: Reading the Political in Literary and Cultural Production. Ed and Introd. Jennifer Blair, Daniel Coleman, Kate Higginson, Larraine York, Carole Gerson (foreword). Edmonton, AB: U of Alberta, 2005. 257-80.
Milne, Heather. “Narrating Nation, Travel, and Gender: Sara Jeannette Duncan’s A Social Departure and/in the Literary Marketplace.” Popular Nineteenth-Century American Women. 432-450.
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. 1938. New York and Burlingame: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1963.