#WhenIGrowUp Wednesdays: Olive Dickason


When Olive Dickason was 12 years old, her family left Winnipeg, and moved to the bush. Her father, Frank Williamson, had just lost everything he owned in the Great Depression – except for a “worthless” piece of land in the interlake region of Manitoba. Olive, and her younger sister hunted and trapped with their Métis mother Phoebe Cote, to keep the family alive. Olive completed Grade 10 via correspondence.

Olive DickasonAt the age of 19, Dickason left the bush for Saskatchewan where she found a job selling subscriptions. Two random meet-ups there would influence the course of her life. The first was with a Catholic priest who, as improbable as it sounds, secured sponsorship for her university education at Notre Dame College in Ottawa. The second was with her mother’s Métis relatives in Regina, and would eventually determine her path to reinvention.

With her B.A. in Philosophy and French, Olive worked a series of journalism jobs at a variety of newspapers, moving from reporter, to writer, to editor. She married Anthony Dickason, had three children, and divorced. Without financial support from her ex-husband, she was forced to surrender her daughters to foster care for seven years – until she was hired to work at The Globe with a paycheque sufficient to support the four of them. Then, in 1970 at 50 years of age, when her daughters were grown, Olive went back to school.

The Myth of the SavageDickason had to fight the system the entire way. She wanted to become an Indigenous historian, but there was no such thing as Aboriginal history in the 1970s. So, she gathered her resources and made her case; then she found her own advisor and was allowed to proceed. After completing graduate studies in 1976, Olive taught full-time at the University of Alberta for eight years until she reached their mandatory retirement age of 65. At this point, she was supposed to retire, but instead, filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission, which made it to the Supreme Court of Canada. The case was ultimately unsuccessful, but she was able to stay on as a sessional instructor until 1992, when she retired at the age of 72.

 Canada's First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples From Earliest TimesOlive Dickason’s doctoral thesis was published in 1984 as The Myth of the Savage, and was the first of her books to become a bestseller. In 1992, she published the first written account of Indigenous people in Canada: Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples From Earliest Times, another bestseller that has become a “major, path-breaking resource.” She received 10 honorary degrees, earned a National Aboriginal Lifetime Achievement Award, and was named to the Order of Canada in 1996. She passed away in 2011 at the age of 91.

Olive’s work was unique at the time. She was totally focused on rescuing the history of the First Nations from oblivion. She transformed the landscape and inspired a whole generation of new scholars. – Rod MacLeod

Let’s be inspired by the successes of others, and let’s continue to dream ‘the impossible.’ Put aside the obstacles, close your eyes, and finish the sentence: When I grow up, I want to be…

Sources: Globe and MailUniversity of Alberta History & Classics, University of Alberta Newsletter, Wikipedia

Photo: Olive Dickason

~ Debbie MacLeod

The CREATIVE CHANGE-MAKING Conference has been organized to showcase local heroes, individuals from within our own communities, who are creating their own path, leading by example, and following their dreams through purposeful work.

Intrigued? Come listen to the stories. Ask questions. Be inspired to change your life!

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