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,
"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
"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
"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
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.
PEOPLE OF HONOUR