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Olive Dickason

Woman who changed history wins lifetime achievement award

Olive Patricia Dickason earned her doctorate as a historian at the age of 57 years. Since that time, she's built a career and a reputation that would be the work of most other people's whole lives. She was the 1997 recipient of the National Aboriginal Lifetime Achievement Award for bringing a truer historical perspective to the history of Canada and Aboriginal people.

"For me, to be recognized by the Aboriginal community, it's like the culmination of my work as a historian," Dickason said after the ceremony. "This is just an extraordinarily important award, and one that I am very honored to receive. For the Aboriginal community to recognize my work, I can't ask for more. What more can I say?"

What more is there for her to say?

Dickason has, in the last two decades, single-handedly changed the historical perception of Canada's Aboriginal people and their role in this country's history. Her book Canada's First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times has become a standard and accepted text in history classes across the country. It includes the first consistently accurate portrayals, in a sound academic work, of Indigenous people in history.

It wasn't always that way, however. Dickason had to fight even to study Aboriginal history as a graduate student. The University of Ottawa, which had accepted her as a graduate student, did not acknowledge that Indians had any history, and suggested that she would more properly take anthropology, instead. Dickason insisted, and eventually got her way.

"I was lucky," she explained last year. "A Belgian fellow, who didn't know much about Native people, but knew a lot about discrimination, took up my cause, and the university eventually admitted me."

She came to grad studies in the early 1970s, after a 20-year career as a journalist with the Regina Leader-Post, the Winnipeg Free Press, the Montreal Gazette and the Toronto Globe & Mail. She won numerous awards during her newspaper years. She took a media job after graduating with her BA from the University of Ottawa, based on work done at Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Sask.

"Those were the days when jobs were looking for people instead of people looking for jobs," said the Manitoba-born Métis woman. "I went straight into journalism."

Dickason became the editor of the women's page in Montreal, became the associate women's editor in Toronto, then the women's editor.

"After my family was grown up, I was able to return to university," she said. "I applied, and was accepted at the University of Ottawa and the University of Toronto. But by then, I had to work while I was going to study, so the logistics of the big city were too much. I went to Ottawa, which was a small city.

"I quit the Globe, and was hired on as an information officer at the National Gallery," she continued. "It was just ideal for me." The gallery is just a stone's throw from the University of Ottawa, so she didn't have to waste valuable time commuting.

Dickason earned her MA in the early 1970s, writing a thesis called The French and Indians at Louisbourg, and earned her doctorate in the late '70s. Her doctoral thesis, entitled The Myth of the Savage, was eventually published, and signaled the academic continuation of Dickason's career as a writer. The Native Imprint: The Contribution of First Peoples to Canada's Character - Volume 1: to 1815, of which Dickason was editor, was published in 1995, three years after the first edition of Canada's First Nations.

"The traditional break in Canadian history has been 1867, that is confederation," Dickason said. "But that doesn't make much sense in terms of Aboriginal history. The end of the War of 1812, in which most eastern tribes were participants, makes a much more sensible division point for Native history."

Dickason's next work - a comparative study of first contacts in North America - has been on hold while she prepares a new edition of Canada's First Nations. There has been plenty of new material generated in the last five years.

"The revisions have really kept me jumping," she said. "Just to keep up to date has been a lot of work, especially with the addition of a new chapter on the Royal Commission report."

Dickason retired from a professorship at the University of Alberta in 1992 when she was 72, after successfully fighting the mandatory retirement at 65 in the lower courts. Her fight made headlines, but ended in disappointment when the higher courts, to which the institution had appealed the earlier decisions, ruled against her.

Her time as a professor, and her significant contributions to the literature of history in Canada, have influenced a whole generation of scholars, and will continue to be the basis for much historical work done in the future. She was honored last February with the order of Canada, and this year received the National Aboriginal Lifetime Achievement Award. She was selected over 24 other nominees for the honor.