Many decades ago I learned of Pauline Johnson, poet and performer, who crossed Canada many times, by train, between 1892 and 1909. She was a performance poet before we actually knew that term.

I expect I picked up a copy of Legends of Vancouver when I travelled from Toronto, across Canada, mostly by train, ending up in Vancouver with a trip over to Vancouver Island. I was twenty years old. I have vague memories of the legend of Vancouver’s mountains, The Lions.

“The True Story of Vancouver’s Lions” was the first of twenty-one of Pauline Johnson’s stories to be published in the Daily Province Magazine. She had learned the legends from Chief Joe Capilano (Su-a-pu-luck) and his wife Mary Agnes Capilano (Lixwelut).

Johnson was a Native advocate, a skilled canoeist and among her 165 poems are love poems about women’s desire. There’s a Nanaimo connection to Pauline Johnson as she visited Nanaimo to do a performance in the 1890s. And storyteller Margaret Murphy, co-founder of the Around Town Tellers, tells the story of Pauline Johnson in performances of varying lengths.

Margaret told an audience in Parksville about the Nanaimo connection to Pauline’s story following her wondrous performance which Margaret calls Double Life: The Life and Times of E. Pauline Johnson.

In a day of special effects to tell stories, what a pleasure to watch one woman on stage re-enacting the spirit of Pauline Johnson. Margaret Murphy is a wonder. I’m so grateful for her lively yet gentle spirit in the world.

I had Margaret over for tea recently so I could talk to her further about her connection to Pauline Johnson and learned lots about Margaret’s connection to storytelling as well.

margaretpaulinejohnsonPauline Johnson was born on March 10, 1861 at Chiefswood, her family’s home on the Six Nations Reserve at Ohsweken, about 20 km from Brantford, Ontario. Her father was Mohawk, an elected chief, and her mother was English. Following the death of her father in 1886, Pauline turned to writing as a means of support. She adopted her great-grandfather’s Mohawk name, Tekahionwake, meaning “double wampum”, and began to perform her poems.

For the first part of the program she would appear in buckskin dress with her hair down and for the second half she would appear as if a Victorian lady in an evening dress with her hair up. Margaret does that too in her 90-minute portrayal of Pauline Johnson. (You can see some video clips of Margaret’s performance on her website under Programs at

Margaret’s passion for storytelling goes back to her childhood when she put on her own puppet shows at the age of ten in Ottawa. She studied theatre arts and English literature at the University of Ottawa. Secretly, she always wanted to perform but didn’t want the auditions.

After university, she volunteered at the Eric Martin Psychiatric Institute in Victoria and found her tribe, children with developmental disabilities.

In 1997, Margaret was teaching Special Education with children and adults in Toronto, and discovered the Toronto International Storytelling Festival. She said it felt like a hand reached out and invited her in. Margaret enrolled in several storytelling courses and workshops and never looked back!

When coming to Nanaimo via ferry in 2000, from Vancouver where Margaret lived at the time, a copy of Legends of Vancouver by Pauline Johnson literally fell on her from the shelf in the ferry gift shop. Then her husband Noel Lewis-Watts gave her a copy and a friend gave her the book as well.

Margaret went to see Simon Johnston in Vancouver as he had directed a play called “Wild Cat” in 2002. That was the name of Pauline Johnson’s canoe.

“I know why you’re here. Pauline has a way of reaching through time,” Simon said to Margaret.

He suggested she read his play and talk to Sheila Johnston who wrote a biography of Pauline Johnson. Margaret wondered how she would do that and he said: “I think we can arrange that. She’s my wife.”

margaretatchiefswoodMargaret spent at least two years working on her story and performance of Pauline Johnson. She’s performed in the garden at Chiefswood (as shown in the photo) and in 2004 launched her performance at the Vancouver Museum on January 24th, Margaret’s birthday.

A few years later after giving school performances and at Hill’s Native Gallery in Nanaimo, Margaret thought she’d retire Pauline. Then she bought a second hand purse in Qualicum Beach with a handwritten note inside that read: Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake) March 10, 1861 – March 7, 1913.

As Simon Johnston told Margaret, Pauline Johnson has a way of reaching through time. She “created new territory with her words, new territory for herself and those she intuitively knew would come after her, in which to live freely, as she did,” Janet Rogers, Victoria’s Poet Laureate, has written. She’s also Mohawk.

It seems Pauline Johnson has chosen Margaret Murphy to continue her story. I wonder if any books fell on Margaret Atwood? She wrote a libretto for the opera,”Pauline”, performed by City Opera Vancouver at the York Theatre in Vancouver in May. In a Vancouver Sun interview, Margaret Atwood said Pauline Johnson had been in the school reader and then was “dropped out of the cannon until 1983, when I put her back into the New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English.”

It was local author/historian Jan Peterson who said to Margaret: “Pauline was here.” It was the 1890s and Pauline Johnson has been at the Empress Hotel in Victoria before coming to Nanaimo. As a single woman Pauline travelled with male business managers and at that time it was Owen Smiley. Owen got one look at the Royal Hotel on Nanaimo’s waterfront and proclaimed: “This is a dump.”

Pauline and Owen moved to another hotel and later learned there had been a fire at the Royal and three people had died.

Pauline Johnson was here and it appears she still is. And the term “double life” has taken on new meaning.