“Remarkable woman citizen” featured in new biography

First female high school teacher and principal in B.C. featured in new biography

The story of Agnes Deans Cameron — school principal, traveller, author, and athlete — has “nagged” at author Cathy Converse for years.

While teaching sociology at Camosun College in the 1980s, Converse noticed very few books had been written about British Columbian women. She and colleague Barbara Latham asked their sociology students to research important women in the province. Agnes Deans Cameron was one of those women. She had written a book chapter on Cameron, but not a full book.

“Whenever I’d forget about her, her name would pop up somewhere,” said Cameron.

RELATED: Victoria Poet Laureate Yvonne Blomer on a 4,000 km cycle journey through Asia

Five years ago, Converse said the story nagged at her so long she said “Fine, I’ll write your story if you leave me alone!” The result is Against the Current: The Remarkable Life of Agnes Deans Cameron, which she will present at a public reading on Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. at the SHOAL Centre. Converse will share the stage with Victoria Poet Laureate Yvonne Blomer.

Cameron was a “bright, precocious child, who was interested in absolutely everything,” said Converse.

“No matter what happened to her, she always bounced back.”

Cameron was B.C.’s first female high school teacher (at Victoria High) and first female principal (of South Park). She was a well-regarded educator who advocated a liberal education, supported women’s suffrage and pay equity. She was suspended as a teacher for three years after her students were found to have used rulers to draw shapes during an exam (read the book), but picked herself up and became a traveller of Canada’s northwest, going to Athabasca River, Great Slave Lake, the Beaufort Sea, and many places in between all in one trip. Her resulting books put Canada’s northwest on the map for the rest of Canada, as well as America and Britain.

Cameron died at the age of 49 from pneumonia after an operation, and editorials of the day called her “the most remarkable woman citizen of the province.”

To date, all of Converse’s six books have been about extraordinary Canadian women. She said her interest in the subject came from her academic background as a sociology and women’s studies teacher at Camosun College, but also from her personal life. When Converse’s daughter was in high school in the early 1980s, she was asked to do a high school project on women. All the examples provided to her were American women, and her mother felt that it was “absolutely not right,” which she surmised took her on this path.

Converse learned from her subject as well, who taught her to be bold, not follow the crowd, and to believe in one’s self.

“The greater hindrance to anything, she said, was self-distrust and lack of originality,” said Converse.

Converse said she had polio as a child, leaving her completely paralyzed and in hospital for six months. She recovered, but about 1986 she became bedridden for two years with no answer as to why. It was finally determined to be the result of post-polio syndrome. She lacked physical energy, but not mental energy, so she found writing to be a good outlet.

Accustomed to academic-style writing, Converse said she struggled at first to write for the general public, but after a profile of rower Silken Laumann, “I wanted to get people’s stories out there and do it in a language that was clear and concise.”

After this book, Converse said she will take a long break.

“This may be my last book, but I’ve said that for six books.”

Cathy Converse and Yvonne Blomer will read at the SHOAL Centre (10030 Resthaven Dr.) on Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 and available from sidneyliteraryfestival.ca or from Tanner’s Books. Proceeds support the 2019 Sidney and Peninsula Literary Festival.


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