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Friday, 22 August 2014

Pauline Johnson: Pioneer Environmentalist (John Bacher)


Pauline Johnson: Pioneer Environmentalist

   Pauline Johnson’s contribution through the full impact of her life as a performance artist and writer of both prose and poetry, is best appreciated as being the part of the launching pad of Canada’s environmental movement. She was a pioneer, but not of cutting trees, but saving them. Her life was that of a pioneer environmentalist.

            Sometimes Pauline Johnson has been criticised for remembering and transmitting little of the huge wealth of oral tradition accumulated by her grandfather, John Smoke Johnson. Often her dying words that she regretted not listening more to his stories are cited as evidence for this. While there is a validity to such criticism, what is remarkable about Pauline Johnson’s life is how much of the big story of the Iroquois she remembered and taught to others. Her understanding of the constitutional Great Law was formed in her adolescence and she was able to understand the differences between the actual epic, and William Wadsworth Longfellow’s blending it with Ojibway stories. [1]

            Pauline Johnson most importantly remembered the stories of her grandfather of how much more ecologically pristine, diverse and healthy the landscape of the Grand River watershed was under the stewardship of the Iroquois than it became after this territory was invaded by squatters, speculators and the Grand River Navigation Company following the War of 1812. Her awareness of this basic reality fuelled the outrage against the Canadian government’s assault on the Plains Cree in 1885 expressed vividly in “The Cry of An Indian Wife.”

            Pauline’s ability to recall her grandfather’s wealth of ecologically relevant stories was expressed in her essay on canoeing the Grand River, “Forty-Five Miles on the Grand.” The essay has a lot of laments on human disruptions to the Grand River, especially how its waters in
different locales have created stagnant water which afford little pleasure for recreational canoeists.  What makes the essay so significant is its recollections of the “olden days”, which would have had to come from John Smoke Johnson.

            Pauline recorded how in the “olden days”, “the industrious beaver dammed the creeks and bears haunted the almost impenetrable forests where the shy red deer stole lightly down to slake his thirst in the crystal stream.”  Now the Grand River had been degraded into a “semi-sluggish stretch of water”. However, John Smoke Johnson could remember when it was a “narrow, turbulent watercourse, abounding in fish of all kinds.” [2]

            The stories passed on by John Smoke Johnson to Pauline were quite accurate. An ecological history by the Grand River Conservation Authority, (GRCA)  describes the Grand River watershed on the eve of the War of 1812 with very similar language. It notes that then the river “was quite pristine and productive. Native species of fish included sturgeon, muskellunge and brook trout. The Grand River valley had about 95% tree cover. Extensive floodplains and pools blanketed the valley.” [3]

            The GRCA history goes on further to describe in terms similar to Pauline Johnson the degradation of the watershed following   the War of 1812 after  the invasion of the watershed by squatters and speculators. It notes that then the river became “sluggish and shallow, filled with undiluted human wastes.”  At the same time, “shops dumped spoiled food products, factories dumped dyes and chemicals and communities dumped garbage all along the river.” Ruthless burning of trees by farmers caused forest cover to crash to around five per cent of the watershed. Much of this hostility to the forest was caused by it being viewed as alien, foreign territory
the domain of hostile “wolves, bears and Indians.” The remaining forests moreover, became

mere “relics and bones” of what had been there before. With  subjection of such skeletal woodland to grazing, regeneration of trees halted, root systems and bark were damaged, soil compacted and native herbaceous plants were mostly eliminated. [4]

            It is astonishing how the close to a million people who now live in the Grand watershed at the start of the 21st century have a less of a negative  impact than the population of a tenth that number when Pauline Johnson died on March 7, 1913. More land is now in forest cover, and the river itself, which was degraded into an open sewer frequently dry and devoid of most fish in the summer, has returned to life. While Pauline Johnson did not live to see these changes, she along the three generations of the Johnson family starting with John Smoke Johnson and his wife, born as Helen Martin, changed attitudes.  Her mother, Emily Johnson organized a lively salon with the help of her husband and four children that rocked Ontario with new ecological thinking. This eventually led to the major changes in the province orchestrated by the Ontario Premier, E. C. Drury, whose father’s Charles,  thinking was heavily influenced by Pauline’s father, George Herbert Martin Johnson. [5]

            Although the Grand River and its watershed was quite degraded on March 10, 1861 Pauline  would to much with her family to turn this situation around.  John Smoke Johnson remembered the Grand River watershed when it was under protective native stewardship. His son, George Johnson, would work valiantly to maintain forest cover on the shrunken Six Nations Reserve through heroic efforts to enforce the timber harvesting regulations of the government of the Iroquois Confederacy. Pauline would work to bring her family’s beliefs to a broader audience. Through  her first agent, Frank Yeigh, Pauline would  change the hostility towards conservation originally shared by the Premier of Ontario, Frank Hardy.
            The most intense drama that shaped Pauline’s life from her birth to the age of 16 in 1878 were the three assaults on her father, George Johnson in connection with his efforts to protect forests according to the regulations approved by the ancient government of the Great Law of Peace, the Iroquois Confederacy. The first took place in 1865, involving a murder attempt outside a hotel in a border village by a saloon owner, took when she was three. The second involved a confrontation with invaders of Indian lands to plunder timber in 1878 when she was 11.  They shot her father and left him for dead. The final assault was in 1878, when George Johnson was ambushed while on his customary three mile hike to a meeting of the Iroquois Confederacy Council.  Pauline was then 16 and developing a friendship with the future Private Secretary of an Ontario Premier, Frank Yeigh. [6]

            The assaults on her father  had a major impact on Pauline’s life. The injuries he received from the first two were quite life threatening. All required lengthy convalescence.  He was only able to survive by crawling home until he was rescued by the intervention of friends who supported his brave efforts to protect forests.  They became the basis for two of her fictional short story works, “Her Majesty’s Guest” and “My Mother.”

            The fact that Pauline  understood what her father was doing well enough to have  published two short stories that effectively popularized his achievements for a wide audience, explains her outrage towards the Canadian government’s treatment of the Plains Cree.  She could see the manipulation of public opinion against her father’s conservation efforts while attending high school in Brantford where she met Yeigh. In these circumstances it is understandable that no youthful  romance developed between them since he was a supporter of
the Liberal Party and the local MPP for Brant South, Eric Hardy. He denounced her father’s
forest conservation efforts in the provincial legislature. His attacks on her father were widely popular.  Although  Brant County had a powerful Conservative Party machine, Hardy  was twice elected   by acclamation during the period he denounced the forest conservation efforts spearheaded by Johnson. In these circumstances she could understand how public opinion could be similarly whipped up against the Plains Cree, when the issue of expansion into the prairies involving potential  profits and fortunes  of colossal  amounts  was at stake.  [7]

            Pauline described the essentials of the deadly barter trees for whiskey trade. She observed in “My Mother”, that “The entire plan of the white liquor dealer’s campaign was simply an effort to exchange a quart of bad whiskey for a cord of first-class firewood, or timber, which could be hauled off the Indian Reserve and sold in the nearby town markets for five or six dollars, thus a hundred dollars worth of bad whiskey, if judiciously traded, would net the white dealer a thousand dollars cash. And the traffic went on, to the depletion of the Indian forests and the degradation of the Indian souls.”

            In “My Mother”, Pauline also provides a moving account of the nature of her father’s patrols to protect forests. She describes how he was appointed as a “special forest warden” and given a “V. R. Hammer, with which he was to stamp each and every stick of timber he could catch being hauled off the Reserve by white men.” It “licensed him to carry firearms for self-protection and told him to go ahead. He ‘went ahead’. In the patrols, “Night after night, he lay, concealing himself in the marshes, the forests, the trails, the concession lines, the river road, the Queen’s highway, seizing all the timber he could, destroying all the whisky, turning the white
liquor traders off Indian lands and fighting as only a young, inspired man can fight.” [8]

            In “Her Majesty’s Guest”, the fictional villain Dan McLeod is based upon the man
who made the first attempt on her father’s life, John Mills. As with the fictional Dan McLeod the historical John Mills would spend “five years in the Kingston Penitentiary, the guest of her most Gracious Majesty, Queen Victoria. “ Like Mills McLeod was a man “reduced to getting his side issues and small deals”, for which opportunity thrived “around the borders of some Indian reserve.”  McLeod’s  fictional bragging approximated Mills’ criminality. This was in his words that, “I had outwitted the law for six years, I had smuggled more liquor into the Indian Bush on the Grand River Reserve and drawn more timber out of it to the Hamilton and Brantford markets than any forty dealers put together. Gradually, the law thinned the whole lot out-all but me, but I was slippery as an eel and my bottles of whiskey went in, and my load of ties and lumber came off, until every officer and preacher in the place got up and demanded an inspection.”  This caused the area around the border villages to be marked with official posters. McLeod complains how, “The Government at Ottawa awoke, stretched, yawned, then printed some flaring posters and stuck them around border villages. The posters were headed by a big print of the British Coat of Arms and some large type beneath announced terrible fines and imprisonment for anyone caught hauling timber off the Reserve or hauling whiskey to it.”

            Much of the drama of “Her Majesty’s Guest” revolves around a sting operation, where the hero, Tom Barrett a theological student on his way to becoming an Anglican priest,  connives to entrap McLeod.  Barrett appears in reality to be a composite  of several Anglican priests who helped her father to suppress illegal logging. These included her an uncle, the Reverend Adam Elliott, the Reverend R. J. Roberts, and a Reverend Johnson.  The story’s excitement is intensified by the efforts of McLeod to elude arrest by Barrett through the unexpected appearance of the “Onondaga Jam.”

            The “Onondaga Jam” was a description of flooding of ice flows crashing into land, a situation made worse on the Grand River as a consequence of deforestation. Such ice flows could do considerable damage, hurling enormous ice blocks into buildings and damaging them. Barrett secures McLeod’s arrest with shouts of joy heard “above the grinding jam”. This happy ending followed “the deafening thunder of the Onondaga Jam, that loosened by the rain, was shouldering its terrible force downwards with the strength of a million drunken demons.” [9]

            Flooding incidents such as the Onondaga Jam, which Pauline Johnson indicated took place in 1873,  were responsible for the very different attitudes towards deforestation by the 1890s when Frank Yeigh was first Pauline Johnson’s events manager and later Hardy’s Executive Assistant as Premier. Their supportive working relationship was increased by her rescuing Yeigh from an otherwise disastrous Canadian authors reading he organized for the Liberal Party. The passion she invoked in the “Cry of an Indian Wife” lamented ecological ruin as well as native land dispossession. The Indian wife’s husband is a “forest brave”, who seeks to protect the “roaming bison.” This brave is in a similar situation to her father who struggled courageously to defend the forests of the Six Nations reserve. Her waking up the crowd of slumbering Toronto Liberals helped to shake up the province to the realities of ecological devastation in Ontario, one of whose consequences was increased flooding.   [10]

            Pauline’s writings on the Onondaga Jam based on her father’s efforts to defend forests in the Grand River watershed did have an impact. In terms of ecological harm, as opposed to economic damage, deforestation in the Grand River watershed and its consequentially violent floods is the principal harm cited the Hardy government’s 1899 Report of the Royal Commission on Forest Protection. It warned that, “Long observation and experience has demonstrated that,
aside from the need of timber and fuel the community requires that 20 to 25 per cent of the total
area of a county should be in tree cover. Instead of 25 per cent forest, some of the counties in this Southern Division have not five per cent and this in such scattered clumps of scraggy trees to be of little use for climatic change  or water supply. Nearly every spring the Grand River overflows its banks and causes heavy damages at Brantford and elsewhere. The stream flows through Brant, Waterloo and Peel. None of these counties have over 15 per cent of woodland-Brant has only 7 per cent, Peel about the same, Waterloo about 13 per cent.” [11]

            Pauline Johnson was a pioneer environmentalist who was able to publicize, shake up public opinion and alter the policies of governments. This is so vividly illustrated in her relationship to her fellow residents of the Brant County area, Hardy and Yeigh. She changed their scoffing and ridiculing of her father’s ideas on saving forests, to realizing the necessity of doing so to avert the  flooding disasters she described vividly in “Her Majesty’s Guest.”

John Bacher

presented at the Purdy Country Literary Festival #8 symposium  (PurdyFest #8)

footnotes available on request

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