Olive Dickason rewrote the history of Aboriginal contributions to Canada

(Edmonton) On March 12, the University of Alberta lost a dedicated professor whose work rewrote the history of the Aboriginal contribution to the building of Canada. Canadian history professor Olive Dickason was 91.

Dickason was born in Manitoba in 1920 and graduated high school by correspondence because her English father and Métis mother earned their living in the province’s remote northern region. She would go onto get her bachelor of arts degree in philosophy and French from Notre Dame College in 1943, before starting what would become a distinguished career in journalism that lasted for 23 years and culminated in a job at the Globe and Mail newspaper.

Acutely aware of the inaccuracy and paucity of Canadian Aboriginal history, Dickason left journalism for a master's degree in Canadian history in 1972 and a PhD in 1977, both from the University of Ottawa, and joined the U of A’s Department of History and Classics in 1976 at the tail end of her PhD.

Her work and lectures illustrated the overlooked Aboriginal contribution to the fortification of the Canadian economy, particularly in the areas of the fur trade, whaling and forestry sectors.

“Most of my adolescent and teen years I spent up North on the trap lines and you learn a view of life that you certainly don't get in the cities and in the schools. When I [was first introduced to] Canadian history, Aboriginal history was just dismissed,” she once said of her motivation to pursue a new career setting the Canadian-history record straight.

"This country is deeply founded and deeply linked with Aboriginals. When I realized that the courses being taught didn't refer to this at all, I got very disturbed."

Although her academic career was relatively short, Dickason made the most of it. Her passion for early Canadian history and her pride and interest in her Métis heritage are reflected in subsequent work. She wrote Indian Arts in Canada, which won three awards for conception and design. Dickason is also the author of the highly touted, The Myth of the Savage and the Beginnings of French Colonization in the Americas, numerous scholarly articles and co-author of The Law of Nations and the New World.

As an author, Olive has been instrumental in researching and documenting the importance of Aboriginal participation at every stage of Canadian history.  In her seminal Canada's First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples From Earliest Times, published in 1992, Dickason tried, she says, to “reverse the perspective of the standard history.” Her textbook, A Concise History of Canada's First Nations, became an essential contribution to history courses at the high-school level.  Dickason and her books figure importantly in Quebec’s Canadian Museum of Civilization’s display honouring the achievements of prominent First Nations individuals in Canada.

Among her many honours, Dickason, who was made a professor emerita when she retired from the U of A in 1992, was awarded the Order of Canada in 1996 and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation in 1997.

“She was highly regarded as a scholar, and treasured as a human being,” said Andie Palmer, associate chair in the Department of Anthropology and long-time friend of Dickason. “She had the care for [the U of A], and took a continued and supportive interest in her colleagues and students.”