Lillian Dyck

copyright Canadian Senate

copyright Canadian Senate


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.


Still Reason to March: the Valentine’s Day Women’s Memorial March

By Kelsey Wrightson

Crowd sourced map of incidents of violence against indigenous women from Operation Thunderbird

Crowd sourced map of incidents of violence against indigenous women from Operation Thunderbird

The Women’s Memorial March Committee (WMMC) is a grassroots organization working in Coast Salish Territory (Vancouver, BC). Each year on Valentine’s Day, family members and their allies memorialize over 3000 missing and murdered women across Canada. February 14th, 2013 marks the 21st year of the annual demonstration that honours victims, directs national and international attention to this tragedy, and builds alliances with other groups calling for justice and substantive social change. These marches join a long history of public protest. During the height of the suffrage movement, women-centred demonstrations highlighted electoral and other forms of inequality. As 1000s walk Canadian streets on Valentine’s Day in the 21st century, they likewise demand justice, this time for Canada’s missing and murdered women.

The number of victims and the diversity of their backgrounds have resulted in many organizational alliances. This cooperation between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous activists has been developing since at least the 1980s. The campaign of the WMMC has been strengthened by the support of groups such as Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) and the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC).

February 14th 2013, Vancouver, BC

February 14th 2013, Vancouver, BC

Such alliances are critical  because violence against women scars the whole world, and gender is rarely the only cause. While Canada’s missing and murdered women  come from many different backgrounds, Indigenous women are disproportionately targets. They are 3.5 times more likely than non-Indigenous women to suffer violence during their lifetime and five more times more likely to die violently. This tragedy is especially evident in British Columbia, home to both Canada’s poorest postal code, that of the Downtown Eastside (DTES), and to Highway 16, dubbed the “Highway of Tears” because of the  girls and women who have gone missing while traveling along it.

The challenge of WMMC activists, allies and supporters has not gone unnoticed as rallies across Canada attest. The protest against gender- and race-inspired violence has also gained international attention. The 2004 Stolen Sisters Report from Amnesty International documented systemic abuse and concluded that the Canadian state had failed in its duties to protect women and girls. In 2008 the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (UNCEDW) reprimanded Canada. Following appeals from many organizations, notably the FAFIA, the UN Committee announced its own investigation in late 2011.  In February 2013, Human Rights Watch documented and condemned abusive and neglectful policing in Northern British Columbia.

Provincial and federal governments have also begun to respond. In 2005 Ottawa announced $10 million for a national database on missing and murdered women. $5 million was allocated to NWAC for the creation of the “Sisters in Spirit” group to compile data on missing and murdered indigenous women. However, after the Conservatives’ 2006 election victory, this funding was cut and reallocated

In 2010, the British Columbia government created the “Missing Women Commission of Inquiry”. Its mandate asked whether the police had properly investigated the cases of Vancouver’s missing and murdered women and whether the 1998 attempted murder charges against convicted serial killer Robert Pickton should have been stayed. The inquiry was also to recommend revisions to investigatory procedures. Despite initial welcome as a step towards reform, the Commission’s obvious shortcomings soon seized the spotlight. The lack of representation from victim advocacy groups and DTES community organizations was especially noted. On his own initiative, Commissioner Wally Oppal, BC’s former Attorney General, granted official standing to several groups, including the NWAC. However, unlike the precedent of other commissions of inquiry, the BC government refused to fund the participation of community groups. Once again the voices of victims receded from view. Despite its good intentions, procedural and funding problems undermined the credibility of the Commission. Its final report, appropriately titled Forsaken: the Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry (Nov. 2012), highlighted serious flaws at multiple levels of the judicial system.

In face of persisting violence against women and systemic official failure, the need for alliances and for marching remains.  The 2013 Valentine’s Day March organized by the WMMC reminds all Canadians that the nation is not yet safe for women and for Aboriginal women in particular. In face of that reality, democracy remains at best an uncertain project.



Amnesty International, Stolen Sisters: A human rights response to discrimination and violence against Indigenous women in Canada, October 4 2004

B.C. Government, Researched to Death: B.C. Aboriginal Women and Violence. B.C. Women’s Hospital and Health Centre, 2005

Feminist Alliance for International Action, ‘Disappearances and Murders of Aboriginal Women and Girls in Canada’ : FAFIA Submission to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, January 2012

Human Rights Watch, Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia, Canada, February 2013

Missing Women’s Inquiry of Action, Forsaken: the Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, November 2012

Smith, Andrea, Conquest: sexual violence and American Indian genocide, South End Press, Cambridge MA, 2005



Media Coverage of Chief Theresa Spence and Idle No More Winter 2012-13

By Kelsey Wrightson

In the winter of 2012-13 the Canadian media accelerated its coverage of Indigenous peoples, largely in response to the actions of one individual and one movement. The first was Chief Theresa Spence, who had first been elected chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation in Northern Ontario in August 2010; the second were the Idle No More protests that originated in Saskatchewan in December 2010.  At its best, media coverage provides an important forum for public education and discussion, a key foundation for the healthy functioning of democracy. However, coverage of Chief Spence and Idle No More provoked both backlash and debate.

December 28, 2012 Edmonton Alberta

December 28, 2012 Edmonton Alberta

Chief Spence first came to prominent media attention in the fall of 2011 when poor housing conditions on her reserve drove her to declare a state of emergency. On December 11, 2012, Chief Spence re-emerged in Canadian news headlines when she went on a 44 day long hunger strike to highlight the desperate conditions at Attawapiskat and elsewhere on Turtle Island.  In particular, she requested a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General David Johnston (the representative of the Crown) to discuss Canada’s treaties and the obligations of a nation-to-nation relationship.

Spence’s initiative occurred at two critical junctions. First, it emerged in the context of the government’s continuing rejection of both the recommendations of the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and the principles of the Kelowna Accord (2005) agreed upon by the previous Liberal administration. Second, Spence’s hunger strike took place just after the grass-roots protest movement, Idle No More, had begun to highlight both widespread racism in the Canadian political and social system, and the shortcomings of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and the Canadian state-sanctioned leadership mandated through the Indian Act.

Since her emergence on a Canada-wide stage, Chief Spence has faced serious media scrutiny. In itself, this is hardly surprising. A healthy democracy requires persistent investigation by journalists. All public leaders should be subject to the same examination, and all administrations should be held responsible for financial mismanagement. In this instance, however, much of the Canadian media appear to have promoted and joined in a chorus of denunciation and personal assault.  In the process, any sense of history, especially the history of colonialism, went conspicuously missing.

In their fascination with the supposed flaws of their targets, some journalists deserted their posts as critical guardians of a well-functioning democracy. Rather than investigating the specifics of Chief Spence’s political messages or examining the structures that led to the conflicts within Canada’s Indigenous communities and between them and the federal government, many commentators in both the “mainstream” media and alternative social media forums such as Twitter, Facebook and blog sites resorted to gendered and racialized stereotypes.

The media’s coverage of Chief Spence is disturbing. When it was learned that Spence was taking fluids and traditional medicines in the form of tea and fish broth, her action was downgraded to a “so called” hunger strike. Although the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers (1991) states that clear liquids can be consumed during a hunger strike, the media court largely decided otherwise. Further dismissals referred to her “liquids only diet” and questioned the danger to her health. Michael Coran of Sun media invoked a cultural (and often racist as well as sexist) ideal in prefacing his disparaging comments by saying “I mean no disrespect- but this is a heavy woman.” He was not alone in focusing on Spence’s physical appearance whle largely ignoring her political message. Sun Newspaper columnist Ezra Levant tweeted “Tomorrow is Day 40 in Chief Snackalot’s hunger strike. She still weights a deuce, deuce and a half.”  The same network held a contest for descriptions of Chief Spence. The published results included “fat, oink, garbage, chief two-chins, and Stop sucking Lysol.” Only certain kinds of people, with particular kinds of bodies are effectively credited with endangering themselves on hunger strikes. Nor was this all. Another Sun reporter further trivialized her protest by targeting “Theresa Spence’s mood swings.” Like many others of her sex, she was effectively deemed biologically predisposed to be unreliable.

The repeated dismissal of Chief Spence’s fast reveals the media’s pervasive ignorance of Indigenous ways of life. As Leanne Simpson has highlighted, fish soup serves as a key signifier in Anishinaabeg history and governance. The designation of Chief Spence’s fast as a “liquid diet” originates in a modern western discourse of enormous privilege. For her community, fish broth serves instead as a potent symbol of  hardship and sacrifice: the yoke of  “colonialism” left little else but watery soup for “generations upon generations.” Much like the potato symbolized physical and cultural suffering in British ruled Ireland, fish broth is both a metaphorical and literal invocation of the starvation experienced by colonized peoples in Canada.

Chief Spence also become the primary media target of accusations of financial mismanagement of Attawapiskat funds. While the independent audit by Deloitte and Touche reveals shortcomings, it does not directly condemn the chief. The National Post, however,  typically singled her out with its headline “Federal Government audit ‘severely critical’ of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence. ” Most media chose to ignore the joint responsibility for spending and the fact that Spence was chief in only one of the five years audited. Such assessment left the public prey to  ready prejudices about the supposed extravagance and mismanagement of both Indigenous people and women.

Racist and gendered stereotypes went well beyond Spence herself. Social media forums have attacked contemporary Indigenous protest generally, notably Idle No More. In a typical example, one Twitter user claimed non-racism even as he repeatedly invoked old arguments that justified imperial occupation: “You see that’s the problem with a good percentage of F[irst] N[ations] there (sic) uneducated and know very little about what’s really going on in the world.” Particularly worrying have been threats of violence.  When a human skull was found north of Toronto, National Post readers responded with “jokes” about Chief Spence. One twitter user posted photos of his gun and ammunition when he insisted that no blockade would stop him getting to work.  The Winnipeg Free Press had to delete numerous abusive comments from its coverage of both the movement and the hunger strike. One editorial by Matt Henderson concluded that much of the outpouring was “so offensive that one wonders where this hatred comes from. The comments attack indigenous people in this country because of who they are and what they look like.” Even his outrage, however, did not deter observers determined to flaunt their distain for Indigenous people.

The efforts of the Winnipeg Free Press demonstrate the existence of an alternative, more respectful point of view. A few mainstream journalists have taken their colleagues to task. Of particular note is Stephen Hume of the Vancouver Sun. His column on 25 January challenged rampant hypocrisy in the treatment of Attawapiskat spending. Perhaps still more important are the ways that Twitter and Facebook have hosted diverse discussion and practices of ‘speaking back to power.’ On Twitter, a user employing  the hashtag #Ottawapiskat brilliantly took official Ottawa to task in a devastating portrait of ill-spent millions, including the apparently doomed F-35’s. Elsewhere, the commonly progressive Huffington Post Canada has republished critical blogs, most notably a detailed breakdown of Attawapiskat funding by Chelsea Vowel. has also supplied alternative perspectives that address the historical context of colonization and systemic racism and sexism.

Unfortunately, this alternate discourse still struggles for space. Given the racism and sexism, detailed in the recent Missing Women Commission of Inquiry reports (November 22, 2012), this is not surprising. The coverage of Chief Spence and Idle No More cannot be disconnected from a history of oppression. Until more of Canada’s press does its homework in investigating relations between Native and non-Native Canada,  the legacy of colonialism will hobble Canadian democracy.

Newspaper Articles:

Coren, Michael “Chief Theresa Spence and Attawapiskat Exposed” Sun News Network January 3, 2013

Driscoll, Kent “Chief Spence meets the spin cycleAPTN January 4, 2013

Henderson, Matt “Idle No More commenters could use some lessons in critical thinking,Winnipeg Free Press, January 19, 2013

Hume, Stephen “Finger-pointing at Attawapiskat more than a little hypocriticalVancouver Sun, January 25, 2013

MacCharles, Tonda “Federal government audit ‘severely critical’ of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence,The Star, January 7, 2013

Morrison, Kristopher “Human skull found on highway on-ramp north of TorontoNational Post, January 14, 2013

Piapot, Ntawnis, “Racial Tensions rise along the edges of Idle No More Rallies” January 3, 2013

Simpson, Leanne “Fish Broth and Fasting,” Divided No More, January 16, 2013

Taylor-Vaisey, Nick, “What is Known about Chief Spence,” Macleans, January 10, 2013

Vowel, Chelsea “The Idiot’s Guide to First Nations TaxationHuffington Post, December 13, 2011


Further Resources:

Ipsos Reid Poll “Fast Fallout: Chief Spence and Idle No More Movement Galvanizes Canadians Around Money Management and Accountability” January 15, 2013

National Film Board, “People of Kattawappiskak River”  2012