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Ninety-year-old statue in Vancouver park honours First Nations icon

Pauline Johnson only known person buried legitimately in Stanley Park since 1886

Most Vancouverites know where to find Siwash Rock. But if it wasn't for the person buried nearby, it's name and story could well have been lost to time.

May 26 marks the 90th anniversary of the unveiling of the memorial in Stanley Park to Pauline Johnson, a complex figure who is at once one of the city's most famous poets, an early feminist and a First Nations advocate.

Johnson is perhaps most famous for her work The Legends of Vancouver. A collection of Coast Salish legends about the area's people and geography. The stories were related to her by Chief Joseph Capilano of the Squamish First Nation.

In the legends, Siwash Rock was "a warrior man... a man who fought for everything that was noble and upright."

Johnson was born in Brantford, Ont. in 1861. Her mother was white, and her father was a Mohawk chief of the Six Nations. She was educated by her mother in Western literature and wrote poetry from a early age. She made a name for herself performing and publishing her poetry in Ontario before moving to Vancouver in 1909.

According to Carole Gerson, a professor in the English department at Simon Fraser University, Johnson reached across complex cultural divides in the early history of Vancouver.

"She was given the role of a First Nations champion," said Gerson. "There were very few highly educated, articulate, visible First Nations social figures at the timeespecially female."

Johnson's talents were more than literary. Gerson coauthored a book on Johnson with University of B.C. Women's Studies professor Veronica Strong-Boag called Paddling Her Own Canoe. Johnson was renowned for her skill with a paddle.

Johnson was eventually diagnosed with breast cancer. In the lead up to her death, the Women's Canadian Club raised money to publish Legends of Vancouver, which ran in serialized format in The Vancouver Province. A phenomenal 10,000 copies were sold, according to Gerson.

When she passed away in March 1913, The Globe and Mail ran the story of her death on the front page.

"When she died, the day of her funeral was declared a civic holiday, and there are photos of thousands of people watching her funeral procession," said Gerson. "That didn't happen very often in Vancouver."

Johnson is the only known person to be buried legitimately in Stanley Park since it became a park in 1886.

The Friends of the Vancouver Archives Society is inviting people to visit the memorial, located near Siwash Rock and the Teahouse, between 10 a.m. and noon on Saturday May 26. The archives recently acquired the original plans for the 1922 monument, according to board member Jolene Cumming. The blueprints were discovered and donated to the city by J.B. Newall Memorials, the original architects.

Cumming said the Archives Society will have historical photos and Johnson related items on site for those interested in one of the city's most fascinating historical figures.

Twitter: @jonnywakefield

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