Margaret Charlotte Fisher Mahood (1918-2013): Musings on a Feminist Foremother

63676741_fc78976f47I was reading the obituary column in the Globe and Mail recently (17 May 2013) and noticed a fulsome account of the life of Dr. Margaret Mahood, a name I did not know, even though she had been involved in feminist and progressive causes most of her long life. Born at the end of World War I in Saskatchewan, just at the moment when most women obtained the vote in federal elections, she, like many other ambitious young women who needed to earn a living, became a teacher in small town Saskatchewan where she met and later married Ed Mahood. With two small children to care for and a supportive husband, she studied medicine at the University of Saskatchewan and McGill University, one of very few women in the graduating class of 1955. While women practitioners had been fighting for a place in Canadian medical schools since the 1870s (Strong-Boag; Warsh), a woman doctor and one who specialized (in psychiatry) was highly unusual in the 1950s.

When Margaret and Ed returned to Saskatchewan, they became involved in the battle for Medicare in Saskatchewan, a sure sign of their progressive politics. The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation government had passed the Medical Care Insurance Act in 1961 which provided a universal and compulsory health insurance system, administered by the newly-created Medical Care Insurance Commission. Most doctors in the province, led by the College of Physicians and Surgeons which refused to send representatives to the Commission, opposed the new system. In July 1962 most physicians, with the exception of a skeletal staff in the major hospitals, went on strike. Dr. Mahood was one of the minority who did not participate; instead she helped organize a community clinic in Saskatoon that still exists today (Rands). There, according to the obituary, she “helped establish a group of progressive physicians from far and wide…”. As oral testimony and the historical narratives tell us, many of these doctors came from England where doctors practiced under the National Health Service system, a state-based health insurance plan. Those participating in the community clinics were often labelled as “communists”, a label that persisted into at least the 1970s, as Dr. John Bury, an English doctor who emigrated to Saskatchewan in 1963 to join the Saskatoon Community Clinic, made clear (Bury). In the era of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union, state funding of health insurance was highly suspect in more reactionary circles.

Margaret was part of a small band of progressive Canadian physicians who challenged such orthodoxy. In contrast, as the obituary proudly notes, she “emphasized the community, cultural and social determinants of health in general, and mental health in particular.”. Her activism was not restricted to the province. A strong supporter of women’s rights and reproductive choice, she participated in the Abortion Caravan of 1970 (Rebick). The Caravan began in Vancouver and travelled to Ottawa to protest a 1969 abortion law passed by Parliament. While it legalized abortion, the law limited the procedure to accredited hospitals where a therapeutic abortion committee of four doctors had to agree that the woman’s health was in danger. Often women turned to psychiatrists like Margaret Mahood for help. It took long years of trials and protests before abortion was removed from the Criminal Code in 1988.

Margaret had many and varied interests—art, opera, travel, to name a few and was hailed as a woman of strong opinions, “engaging, intellectually curious, and formidable.” a “woman of her time, and of our time, right to the end.” At her death, admirers were directed to her many political causes, including Canadian Physicians for Medicare, community clinics, peace and justice in the Middle East, Palestinian refugees and the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. While I did not have the pleasure of her acquaintance, Margaret and her progressive feminism provide a role model and an inspiration for women young and old. Her obituary offers an important reminder of Canada’s history of feminist activists, a story that began in the 19th century and that continues today in movements such as Idle No More .


Bury, John D., “A Physician on the Front Line of Medicare,” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, v. 26, no. 2, (2009), 534-38.

“Margaret Charlotte Mahood,” Globe and Mail (17 May 2013).

Rands, Stan. Privilege and Policy: A History of Community Clinics in Saskatchewan. Saskatoon: Community Health Cooperative Federation. 1994.

Rebick, Judy. “The Women Are Coming: The Abortion Caravan” in Gender and Women’s Studies in Canada: Critical Terrain, eds. Margaret Hobbs and Carla Rice. Toronto: Women’s Press, 2013. 464-72.

Strong-Boag, Veronica. “Canada’s Women Doctors: Feminism Constrained” in L. Kealey, ed., A Not Unreasonable Claim: Women and Reform in Canada, 1880s-1920s. Toronto: the Women’s Press, 1979. 109-29.

Warsh, Cheryl Krasnick. Prescribed Norms: Women and Health in Canada and the United States since 1800. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.

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.

The National Day of Remembrance and Action Against Violence Against Women

National Day of Remembrance.

National Day of Remembrance.

December 6th marks the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women in Canada. Twenty-two years ago the day was established by the Parliament of Canada to commemorate the death of 14 young women, thirteen students and one staff, at l’École Polytechnique de Montréal; all were murdered because they were women.  In marking this day, it remains critical to consider exactly what ought to be remembered and what actions ought to result.

Remember who to remember.
On the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, remember who should be remembered – the victims and survivors of violence. We live in a time where information travels with speed and 24-news cycles repeat, seemingly endlessly, the faces and names of offenders and perpetrators. That onslaught sometimes obscures the message. The Day of Remembrance makes the politics of memory explicit: we need to remember the women who lose their lives or struggle to survive simply by virtue of being women, whether in school, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside or in Canada’s unsafe homes and streets. They should be named, not anonymous, and rescued, not abandoned.

Remember who victims of violence are.
Survivors of violence are not ‘the other’, they are friends, neighbours, classmates, colleagues, they are sisters, mothers, daughters. As a victim service worker with a sexual assault centre, I know from experience that women who experience violence are old, young, rich, and poor. No one is guaranteed immunity.
But women victims of economic, racial, or colonial oppression and those who live with disabilities are especially vulnerable. The context and intersections of oppression, exclusion, and vulnerability always matter.

Remember the role of government.
We all have a responsibility to act against violence against women, but laws and policy are an essential bulwark. After the shooting at l’École Polytechnique de Montréal, the federal long-gun registry was created as a major deterrent. When the registry was eliminated in 2012, anti-violence activists, including parents of the murdered 14, were rightly outraged. A registry offers a practical expression of the guarantee of “equality, including life, liberty, and security of the person” gained in Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Similarly essential are laws such as the 1983 long overdue criminalization of the sexual assault of an intimate partner and government funding for interventions such transition houses, sexual assault centres, victims’ service workers, and advocates. If human rights have any meaning, they should be backed by legal enactment. The return of the long gun registry is an obvious necessity.

Remember the importance of women’s voices.
1989’s loss of women in Montreal’s engineering class should serve as only one more reminder of the necessity of women’s voices in determining the future. In the drafting Canada’s 1982 Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, diverse women’s groups presented submissions on the inclusion of rights. They were instrumental in the inclusion of ‘sex’ in Section 15 and the inclusion of Section 25. But Charter rights are not enough. The judiciary and elected office are similarly essential sites of action. In at least two cases, the women judges on the Supreme Court of Canada decided differently (in dissent) than their male colleagues on violations of women’s right to equality – (Symes v. Canada and Thibaudeau v. Canada). In 1982 a male-dominated House of Commons responded with jeers, shouts, and laughter when NDP MP Margaret Mitchell raised domestic violence as an important political issue – “I don’t beat my wife. Do you, George?” said one Conservative MP. Thirty years later Canadian women have yet to achieve the critical mass of 30% in most political institutions. Countless formal and informal women’s organizations continue to raise their voices against violence against women – from the First Nations women protesting against the Missing Women’s Inquiry to hundreds of ‘Take Back the Night’ marches.

Ultimately, December the 6th offers more than a moment to remember losses. It asks for action. This means donating your time, expertise, or resources to a women’s organization, writing to your MP or MLA, speaking out against violence against women, challenging violence myths, and encouraging support for survivors. Such actions do much to ensure that 14 women and many more are not forgotten.


Women’s Anti-Violence Organizations in Vancouver
Battered Women’s Support Services –
Canadian Women’s Foundation –
Vancouver Rape Relieve and Women’s Shelter –
Women Against Violence Against Women –
UBC Sexual Assault Support Centre –

Further Reading
Wikipedia has a list of the victims on the downtown east side ( and the women who did at Polytechnique ( )
For a story marking the anniversary of the shooting and the concern over the ending of the gun registry—but-tories-arent-welcome/article619817/?service=mobile
Mitchell, M. (2008). No Laughing Matter. Adventure, Activism, & Politics. Vancouver: Granville Island Publishing.
Status of Women – an introduction to the National Day of Remembrance and Action as well as some statistics –