This Week in History: Agnes Deans Cameron

This Week in History:  Agnes Deans Cameron

Many of this province’s early settlers lived fascinating lives, full of courage, determination and resilience.

And that includes Agnes Deans Cameron, who became the first female principal in B.C.’s public school system.

Cameron was born in Victoria in 1863.

“At the time,” says Royal B.C. Museum archivist Katey Watson, “there really wasn’t a public school system, so if you were educated it was mostly private schools.”

But that changed in 1872, when the public school act was created.  Cameron attended Victoria High School, then became one of the province’s first provincially trained teachers.

In 1891, Watson explains that Cameron “actually got hired on at Victoria High School and was the first female teacher at a high school in British Columbia.”

“A few years later she became the first female school principal, at South Park Elementary School right across from Beacon Hill Park,” says Watson.

A suffragette, Cameron was never one to shy away from controversy.

“The School Board of Trustees wanted to increase the pay for male assistant teachers, but not for women” says Watson.

Cameron fought, and lost that fight, but wrote about it in the Daily Colonist newspaper, gaining public support.

Controversy arose again in 1905, when her South Park Elementary School students were writing their high school entrance exams.

“They had to make technical drawings to scale, without using any rulers or anything like that,” says Watson.

“And there was evidence of ‘ruling,’ apparently, in the South Park drawing book exams, as well as three other schools.”

“So the decision was made not to give any of the students marks, from those four schools.”

Cameron fought the decision.

“She went to the Superintendent, the Minister of Education, and the School Board of Trustees, and the decision was made to fire her for insubordination,” says Watson.

But, because she was loved by her community, there was a petition circulated asking that she be reinstated.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry was ordered, but after questioning witnesses, the Commission agreed that Cameron be fired.

Already an accomplished writer, she joined the Canadian Women’s Press Club and traveled across Western Canada, writing many articles promoting immigration to the West.

“And this inspired her to go up to the Arctic,” explains Watson, “all the way up to the Beaufort Sea.

“So her and her cousin, Jessie Cameron Brown, went from Winnipeg all the way up to Hershel Island.

“They claim to be the first female colonial settlers to go that far north in Canada.”

Cameron wrote a book about her trip to the Arctic Circle, which was published in 1910.

Agnes Deans Cameron died in 1912, at age 49.

Veronica CooperVeronica Cooper

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