Lillian Dyck (b 24 Aug 1945-)
Lillian Dyck is a Canadian Senator from Saskatchewan, appointed by Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2005. As one of the first Aboriginal women in Canada to pursue an academic career in the natural sciences, Dyck has been recognized as both a scholar and a leader for Aboriginal women. Reflecting the complexities of Canadian multiculturalism, she was both the first female Indigenous senator and the first Canadian-born senator of Chinese origin.
Dyck was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, to a China-born father, Yook Chun Quan, and a Saskatchewan-born Cree mother, Eva Muriel McNab, who was a member of the Gordon First Nation. Her family moved frequently through small towns in Alberta and Saskatchewan while Dyck and her brother worked in her father’s Chinese cafe, a common institution in mid-20th century Canada (Choi). Her mother died when Dyck was eleven and her father as she finished high school. Before her death, her mother told Dyck not to tell anyone she was Indian as “life would be too difficult.” Dyck later reflected that she believed her mother, a former residential school pupil, had used marriage as a “survival strategy” to escape an abusive home life (“Lillian Dyck – Not Just Chinese”). She personally also found that there was “more discrimination against Indians than against Chinese” (ibid). Only as an adult did she feel sufficiently confident to present herself publicly as both Chinese and Indian.
Dyck holds a Bachelor of Arts (1968) and a Master of Science in Biochemistry (1970). She earned a doctorate in Biological Psychiatry (1981), when her only child, a son, was aged seven. That same year, she decided that it was “time to come out of the closet” and acknowledge her Cree ancestry. Prior to entering the Senate, Dyck worked as a neuroscientist at the University of Saskatchewan. Initially she sought to represent the New Democratic Party but since it advocated the Senate’s dissolution, she identified as ‘Independent New Democratic Party.’ In 2009 she joined the Liberal Senate caucus.
Dyck’s Parliament of Canada website highlights advocacy for equity in the education and employment of women, Chinese Canadians and Aboriginal people. Her Senate biography describes her as an activist, as well as university dean, neurochemist, and professor. Her awards include a National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Science & Technology in 1999; A YWCA Woman of Distinction Award for Science, Technology & the Environment in 2003; and two eagle feathers in 2005. She has also been honoured by a play, Café Daughter, by Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams, based on her life. It premiered in 2011 in Whitehorse, Yukon (Nahwegahbow).
As protests against government policies escalated in the second decade of the 20th century, Dyck proved an unusual patronage appointment. In December 2012, she protested the Conservative government’s passage of controversial Bill C-45 (now known as the Jobs and Growth Act, 2012). She also highlighted Chinese Head Tax redress funding and the Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women Inquiry. In January 2013, she identified with the Idle No More Movement, speaking at a rally in Saskatoon on 5 January alongside Indigenous historian Dr. Winona Wheeler, whose family also originated in the Gordon First Nation. On 6 February 2013, Dyck was one of three senators to walk out of a meeting of the Senate Aboriginal Affairs Committee meetings, dramatically indicating her opposition to a proposed Conservative ‘First Nations Accountability Act’.
Dyck’s determined activism and championship of democratic movements from the Canadian Senate, traditionally a symbol of male and white authority, like that of New Brunswick’s Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, suggests that the warning of poet Audre Lorde that ‘the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house’ may be worth at least somewhat reconsidering. In the meantime, she is a provocative reminder of the many identities that Canadians bring to the struggle for greater equality.
Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “Aboriginal Senators Walk Out on Aboriginal Affairs Minister.” February 7, 2013.
Canadian Senate, “Biography of Lillian Dyck,” Accessed April 5, 2012
Chinese Canadian Stories. “Lillian Dyck – Not Just Chinese.” Film. July 14, 2011.
Cho, Lily. Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.
Nahwegahbow, Barb. “Café Daughter reveals the secret and a dream,” Windspeaker, v. 20, iss. 11. 2013
Roy, Marc “Liberal Senators Taking Action in support of missing and murdered Aboriginal women,”Liberal Senate Forum. December 5, 2012.