The tale of Agnes Deans Cameron

By Norman K Archer

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"Irate Parents Received After 3 p.m."

The walls of South Park School, across from Beacon Hill Park, must still echo to the acid tones of British Columbia's first female Principal, Agnes Deans Cameron. She was bad-tempered, opinionated, cantankerous and argumentative. Yet, as her contemporary Emily Carr said, "Agnes was very clever." She was also a gifted teacher and many students spoke appreciatively of her skill in making learning fun.

Agnes Cameron and Emily Carr had much in common. Both were eccentric, both were not influenced by the flood of negative public opinion that came their way, both were born in Victoria of British immigrant fathers who had come to Victoria in the wake of the gold rush to seek their fortunes. Both were extremely intelligent and both had remarkably creative gifts. Both taught children. Both were avid exponents of native culture. Both travelled widely in search of new experiences and neither married.

But there, the similarities end. Agnes was a passionate advocate of women's rights and female suffrage and, as such, she became British Columbia's first high school teacher in 1890, the province's first female principal in 1894 and a founder of the British Columbia Teachers' Institute. She rose to become president of the National Educational Association in 1906. When it came to her career, she followed in her mother's footsteps. Jessie Anderson was a schoolteacher in Dalkeith, Scotland before immigrating with her brother to the California Gold Fields, where she married Duncan Cameron. In 1860, Jessie and Duncan came to Victoria with their first four children and where their fifth child, Agnes Deans Cameron, was born in 1863. Agnes was a member of the first graduating class from Victoria High School.

She began teaching in 1876 and three years later was on the staff of Angela College. She had teaching stints at Comox and Granville before returning to Victoria in 1884. While teaching at Victoria Boys' School in 1890, she hit the headlines for thrashing a disobedient student, Herbert Burkholder. The case was brought before the authorities with the accusation that she had beat him around the head. Agnes stoutly refuted the allegation, but in her own defence, she admitted, "I whipped him severely, just as severely as I possibly could. It is within the range of possibility," she continued, "that in throwing up his arms to avoid punishment he may have been touched on the head, if so it was only a touch and caused by the boy himself." She reinforced her point by emphasizing that every blow she administered had left its mark and if she had hit him on the head, the blows would be evident.

This somewhat dubious defence did not impress the authorities, but she was allowed to resume her position. However, she was by no means finished with Herbert. When he next appeared in her geography class, she lost no time in humiliating him to the extreme. However, Agnes was generally loved by her students because her creative ability made her lessons imaginative and fascinating, but she infuriated parents whose anger was exacerbated by a sign that hung on her door, "Irate parents received after 3 p.m."

She soon found herself in trouble again for publicly criticizing the school trustees for paying unequal salaries to female teachers and for showing discrimination in favour of men. She received a response from the School Board dismissing her for insubordination, but she was quickly reinstated because no one wanted a public scandal.

Her rollercoaster career continued until 1906, when, as principal of South Park School, she was fired for ignoring the rules for setting examinations for her students preparing to enter high school. The affair might easily have been resolved by an apology but instead, her belligerent attitude provoked a judicial inquiry. The case dragged on for weeks and Judge Lampton's 33-page report resulted in her dismissal. Her somewhat checkered teaching career was over. But, totally unfazed, she got herself elected as a School Trustee, topping the polls in the process and putting her in the uncomfortable position of working alongside those who had dismissed her! Her opponents were more than ever determined to bring her into disgrace, but before they were able to achieve their objective, the irrepressible Agnes Cameron plunged into a new venture. She became a travelling reporter.

She started as a journalist in Chicago, writing about the Canadian West. But by the age of 44, she was able to fulfill a lifelong dream to explore the McKenzie River as far as the Arctic Circle. Outfitted with a Kodak camera and a typewriter and in the company of her niece, she set out in 1908 to make the 10,000-mile [16,093 km] journey over a period of six months. Her journalistic skills were superb as she described in detail the Athabasca River, the Great Slave Lake and the McKenzie River in a most interesting book, The New North. This highly acclaimed volume opened the eyes of its readers to an area of Canada that was virtually unknown and it gave insight into the warm heart of a woman that most people had dismissed as crusty, opinionated and frosty. But more importantly, she invested an immense amount of energy in studying and describing the Inuit culture - polygamy, the repressed role of women and the primitive attitude to children where "even dogs are given a better place to sleep."

Her book is still available as a free Internet download and is delightfully vivid and readable. She has earned the reputation as the first significant female writer born in British Columbia, and the first white woman to travel overland to the Arctic.

Upon her return to civilization, Agnes was invited to England to give a two-year lecture tour on behalf of the Canadian Government. Her lantern slide shows on such themes as "Wheat, the Wizard of the North," "From Wheat to Whales" and "The Witchery of the Peace" were immensely popular. She lectured in Oxford, Cambridge and St. Andrew's Universities as well as at the Royal Geographical Society in London. She also wrote a daily column for four months in the *Daily Mail* newspaper.

When she returned to Canada, wherever she went, she was treated as a celebrity. In 1912, she had an appendectomy, but a sudden attack of pneumonia immediately following the operation took her life four days later. She was only 48. Hers was one of the largest funeral processions in Victoria's history and hundreds of wreaths were laid at the family vault in Ross Bay Cemetery. But, ever the rebel, her body was not there. It had been shipped across the water for cremation in Seattle and her ashes were scattered in Georgia Strait.

The local newspaper had this to say about her: "It is possible that when the history of British Columbia comes to be written, the name of Agnes Deans Cameron will be inscribed therein as the most remarkable woman citizen of the province."


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Showing 1 to 3 of 3 comments.

Funny to find this scrolling the Internet. I was born victoria bc. I was named after , my aunt, who died young, she was named after her aunt, Agnus Deans Cameron, my fathers great Aunt. Funny how this sort of thing shows up.

Posted by Dean Cameron | July 13, 2013 Report Violation

Very good read, I happen to be named after Agnes Deans Cameron, she was my great Aunt. As I periodically search for names elder family members mention, I am very happy to know some of where my heritage was born.

Posted by Robert Dean Arthur Cameron | June 16, 2012 Report Violation

I just wanted to say thanks for this great article. You see Anges is a great ancestor of mine and I plan on making the same trip she made in the near future. Thanks for keeping her memory alive!

Posted by Jennifer Earle | February 14, 2011 Report Violation

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