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Senator Lillian Dyck

Senator Lillian Dyck looks through family photos at her home in Saskatoon.

Senator Lillian Dyck is a woman of firsts. She’s the first First Nations woman appointed to the Canadian Senate. She’s the first Canadian-born Chinese person appointed to the Senate. She received a master’s of science from the University of Saskatchewan the first year it awarded them and she is one of the firsts, if not the first, First Nations woman to obtain a PhD in the sciences in Canada, and likely worldwide.She’s an advocate for women, Chinese-Canadians and First Nations. And she’s proud of her First Nations heritage. But it wasn’t always that way. There was a time when hardly anyone knew she was aboriginal.

Dyck was born in 1945 in North Battleford to a Chinese father and Cree mother who was about 20 years his junior. Her father immigrated to Canada in 1912 and was ordered to pay a Chinese head tax of $500 (equivalent to around two years’ salary) to the Canadian government. By law, he could not hire white women at his café; an act that was put in place to deter intermarriage. Dyck’s father hired a Cree woman — Dyck’s mother — to work at the Victory Café, appropriately named to commemorate the end of the Second World War.

Dyck remembers her family being well-off, and then one day, they weren’t. She isn’t quite sure why; perhaps due to her father’s gambling or legal trouble with his business. Since he hardly read or wrote English, he could have been easily manipulated, she explains. While growing up, her family moved around to different small towns in Saskatchewan and Alberta. When Dyck was 10, her mother died after her health deteriorated. She had a “weak heart” due to rheumatic fever. The burden on her father increased.

“I’m sure when she passed away it made it that much harder for him to run a business because she would help him with the language,” Dyck says.

It was up to the kids to pitch in. Dyck and her older brother Winston helped run the café when they got home from school. She says Winston remembers their father debating if he should put the two up for adoption after their mother died. As was common with the time and his culture, he wasn’t a particularly loving father, explains Dyck. But he would always be proud when Dyck brought her report card home from school.

“He would take it to the Chinese bachelor’s group and would be bragging about how smart his daughter was,” she says. “I think that being smart was the thing that saved us. Even though people picked on you, you could still pass your grades.”

Although Dyck did experience some racism, Winston’s experience was worse. He was beat up and suffered racial slurs. As for being Aboriginal, “because our last name was Quan, everybody thought we were just Chinese. Our mom had said to us, ‘Don’t tell anybody that you’re also Indian because it’ll be too difficult. There will be too much discrimination,” Dyck explains.

The family would visit the Gordon First Nation where her mother grew up, but before she passed, she told the kids not to visit and to “forget about them.” Her mother, who went to a residential school, also forbade the learning of Cree or a Chinese language because she feared her children would be picked on if they developed an accent.

Dyck’s story fascinated Aboriginal playwright Kenneth Williams, especially since he found out he and Dyck are distant relatives.

“Wow! Someone who I’m related to is living a piece of history that we’ve either ignored or don’t want know,” he says. “(It’s important to) understand where our stories come from and who we are. It’s necessary to tell these stories.”

So, he did. In April, a play based on Dyck’s childhood debuted in Canada. He says that Café Daughter is his best work so far, and it taught him to be more of an empathetic person.

“She’s a very fascinating person. To come from that background and then fight your way into an academic environment. … I’m proud of her.”Dyck’s Varsity View home in Saskatoon is an intersection of her two cultures; Chinese decorations and artifacts dress the fireplace mantle and side tables in her living room. A large carving in an antler, given to her by a residential school survivor, sits in the centre of her dining table. A white leather accent chair is draped with a blanket donning an Aboriginal design; two decorative Chinese pillows sit atop the blanket. The home is humble and lived-in with warm colours on the walls and rugs on the floor. Dyck was picking apples from a large tree in her backyard. She hung a tarp halfway up the tree; when apples fall, they don’t get bruised. She explains that her son, Nathan, can reach the apples way up at the top.

“Teddy (her dog) helps me keep sane, and my son. I guess you need a balance,” she says sitting at her patio set on the back deck. Her iPad, papers and two empty coffee mugs sit on the table. After the apple picking, she was getting some work done. She’s busy these days.

After an “out of the blue” appointment to the Canadian Senate by Paul Martin in 2005, Dyck has been travelling back and forth between Ottawa and Saskatoon, and other places for speeches and conferences. Her work focuses on advocating for Aboriginal peoples (missing women, education and employment), the status of women, women in science, Chinese-Canadian issues and mental health.

“Those were the things I had done before and the things I was passionate about and important to me in my own life,” Dyck explains.

In the early 1990s Dyck worked with U of S English professor Susan Gingell on the President’s Advisory Committee on the Status of Women. Gingell remembers taking to Dyck right away and thought of her as a strong, embattled woman who was never shy at rallies or protests.

“She’s the type of person who would feel a strong responsibility to use the opportunity and the position that she has in order to try and make things better for other people,” Gingell says.

Dyck was completely caught off guard. In fact, she thought maybe it was an early April fool’s joke. Dyck never saw herself in politics and she wasn’t very politically involved.

“I hate politics,” she says with a deep laugh. Although she was extremely nervous, to the point of shaking when she walked up to sign the charter, Dyck decided to go through with it because she saw it as an opportunity.

Her naivety got the best of her at the beginning when she chose to represent the NDP party, because provincially, Saskatchewan is home of the NDP and because she identifies herself as a socialist. But then she learned that federally, the NDP doesn’t believe in the Senate. Dyck says Jack Layton thought Martin asked her to be an NDP Senator, but that wasn’t the case.

“They ejected me instantly. I thought, ‘Oh my God what have I done?’ I felt so hurt.”

Afterward, Layton apologized, but never made it public. However, the women NDP invited Dyck to their caucus meetings and after a year or so she changed her designation to Independent NDP.

“If I were politically involved I would have respected the wishes of the person who appointed me. I’d be grateful and say, ‘Thank you. I’ll be a liberal,” she says.

Eventually, she came around. In 2009 she joined the Liberal caucus.

“To be effective in this senate you have to be part of a party.”

She appreciates the Liberals’ policies on multiculturalism and Aboriginal issues like the Kelowna Accord.

“I got to understand how deeply the Liberal party, especially Paul Martin, was concerned about Aboriginal people.”

When it comes to politics today, Dyck says that sometimes it’s difficult to stay positive. She compares the recent senate scandals to a chipped tooth. “Everything else in your mouth and all the other teeth are perfectly fine, but the little chip will get your attention.”

She does say that she was upset and disappointed when she read a copy of Sen. Pamela Wallin’s audit. She was confused with some of the expenses and says it’s “such a waste.”

Dyck adds she understands why many would like to see the Senate abolished, but adds that Canadians are confusing the actions of a few Senators with the purpose of the senate itself.

“If there wasn’t a Senate, people then could not have a second chance to amend or stop a bill once the House of Commons passed it. That would be it. Shouldn’t the citizen have a second chance? I think they should.”

Gingell says that Dyck’s work in the senate is extremely important and points to Dyck recognizing and honouring Aboriginals’ contributions to society and also advocating to “make things better.”

“We stand a better chance of making change with people like Lillian in the Senate and speaking out,” Gingell says.

But it wasn’t easy for Dyck to get there.

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Regardless of being a full professor in the neuropsychiatry research unit and later the Associate Dean of the College of Graduate Studies and Research at the U of S, Dyck experienced explicit sexism. Her supervisor, whom she calls the Bully, would make comments about her not needing full-time work because she had a husband. She believes the sexism was heightened because of her race; once, she was told she was sitting like a “true Native person” because she sitting cross-legged at a staff barbecue. She won a number of awards during her time and none of her colleagues congratulated her. The Bully didn’t even acknowledge her appointment to the Senate. Her stress at work infiltrated her home life and eventually she got a divorce in the early 1990s.

“It got to the point where it did almost totally demolish me. At one point, I actually had to go for counselling.”

In the end, remembering her mother gave her the strength to keep going. She remembers one particularly difficult day when she was ready to give up. She was walking home from the university and crying. Then, a “sort of light” came on; it felt like her mother came to her in that moment. Dyck realized if her mom could withstand residential school, get married and have kids, then she could make it.

“If she could live with that, I was damned if I was going to let that guy push me out of my job because I was a woman.” Her voice shakes with passion. “From that moment on, I felt nobody, nobody could ever push me back. I was there to stay.”

She broke into tears when she told this story to a group of about 50 women at a Canadian Federation of University Women’s luncheon in mid-September in Saskatoon. She told the women she believes women’s issues are getting better on campus, but there’s still sexism. She adds that the presence of women’s group on campus and a gender studies department is integral in gender equality in education.

Dyck became a go-to for many young women in science, one of them being Jennifer Chlan-Fourney. Chlan-Fourney says her experience as a woman in science has been fine, and she has Dyck to thank for that.

“People like her paved the way for us. … I know she would have done anything to protect me. You wouldn’t be able to stop her,” she says, adding that Dyck is smart, amicable and has a great sense of humour.

Chlan-Fourney admits she isn’t very assertive by nature, but Dyck taught her to be confident, strong and to stand up for her beliefs.

“I still think about her quite a bit. I think, ‘What would Lillian say? What would Lillian do in this situation?’ I think I’d be looking at things a lot differently if she hadn’t been around.”

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At the age of 36, the same age her mother was when she died, Dyck finally came to terms with being First Nations. It took a PhD to get her to that point.

“I thought, ‘OK, now I am Dr. Lillian Dyck now I can admit to anyone that I’m an Indian because I’ve proved myself,” she says. “All people who are minorities I think (feel) they have to prove themselves … you have to be better than them in order to be seen as equal.”

After all the great things she’s accomplished, Dyck has a simple answer for what she sees as her biggest accomplishment: “I’ve never backed down from a bully.”

And she’s stood up to others’ bullies, too.

“You don’t just live for yourself. You live for those around you.”

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Editorial Note:  Senator Dyck is an active board member of the council's charity, Kocihta

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