Still of author and historian Olive Dickason from a documentary of her life.

Setting the Record Straight: Trailblazer Shone a Light on Aboriginals’ Role in Canada

Elle Andra-Warner
4/10/11

When Olive Patricia Dickason entered academia at age 50, the award-winning Métis journalist was appalled at the historical descriptions she heard and read of Canada’s aboriginals.

“I went back to the university and was absolutely shocked,” she recalled in the 2003 documentary Olive Dickason’s First Nations, by Villagers Media Productions Inc. “Got into the classroom and heard the professor talk about savages, and all the good things that the Europeans brought them, or that these people were locked in time, or they hadn’t progressed and so on.”

The trailblazing author, who died in Ottawa in March at 91, responded by launching into a teaching and writing career that changed the mainstream perception of aboriginal history. Dickason’s books, some of which are still considered indispensable texts today, pay tribute to aboriginal peoples’ history and their contribution to Canada’s development as a nation. Her work made aboriginal history a serious field of study and inspired a new generation of aboriginal, Métis and Canadian scholars.

“She was a maverick, a pioneer, a visionary,” said her daughter, Anne Dickason, to the Ottawa Citizen on March 20. Others thought so, too: The author was awarded the Order of Canada in 1996 and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation in 1997.

Dickason was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1920 to an English father and a Métis mother. She spent her youth in northern Manitoba before moving to Saskatchewan, where she was the first woman to study at the Athol Murray College of Notre Dame (affiliated with the University of Ottawa).

Graduating in 1943 with a degree in philosophy and French, she married, had three children, divorced and went on to win numerous awards as a journalist with four major Canadian newspapers. In 1967 she left journalism, cashed in her pension, moved to Ottawa, became chief of information services at the National Gallery of Art and began taking evening university classes.

Dickason’s three children, whom she raised as a single parent, were nearly grown when she switched from a 23-year journalism career to academia.

Fueled by a passion for history and by pride in her Métis heritage, Dickason earned a master’s degree in 1972 with the thesis “Louisbourg and the Indians: A Study in Imperial Race Relations, 1713–1716,” and a Ph.D. in 1977, both from the University of Ottawa. While studying she wrote Indian Arts in Canada (Department of Indian Affairs & Northern Development, Ottawa, Canada, first edition 1972, second edition 1974), which won three awards for conception and design. After graduation she taught the history of New France at the University of Ottawa and then at the University of Alberta starting in 1985. She retired from teaching in 1996.

Dickason’s quest to right the misconceptions of history didn’t end with her degrees, though. In 1984, based on her doctoral research, she wrote The Myth of the Savage and the Beginnings of French Colonization in the Americas (University of Alberta Press, 1984; $24.95). In it, she explored the “savage myth” from its emergence to its deconstruction, looking at issues and colonial times from the Amerindian perspective. Here, for example, is her take on the impressions formed by the Indians when they first visited France: “What the Amerindians saw in Europe only confirmed them in the belief that they were at least equal, if not superior, to the French, both as individuals and as a separate civilization.”

Dickason also co-authored The Law of Nations and the New World and numerous scholarly articles before her seminal work, the groundbreaking Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples From Earliest Times (Oxford University Press, fourth edition 2009; $65), which first came out in 1992. Dickason called it her attempt to “reverse the perspective of the standard history” with “a history of founding peoples from earliest times,” refuting the notion that Canadian history began when Europeans arrived.

Not only were Amerindian and Inuit peoples not savages, she argued, but they also were essential to the development of modern-day Canada. “More than 500 drugs in the medical pharmacopoeia today were originally used by Amerindians,” she wrote by way of example. Her 2006 A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations (Oxford University Press, second edition 2010; $55), written with William Newbigging, has become standard in high school history courses.

Olivia Patricia Dickason is gone. But she leaves a singular academic legacy.

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