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.
Calls for reformation and even abolition of the Senate predated Muriel McQueen Fergusson’s appointment to that body as a representative for New Brunswick in 1953. As she recalled, ‘one story told me soon after my appointment was that there were two brothers, and one went to sea and the other to the Senate and neither had been heard of since.’ But her own experience taught her that ‘though senators may not be heard of very much by the general public, many of them are working hard in ways that are very important to the country,’ and she became one of the Senate’s most eloquent defenders (1954). Her defence of the Senate remains relevant today.
‘Most people in Canada who criticize the Senate’, she asserted, ‘don’t realize the reason why it was set up.’ The Senate, she explained, ‘was the price of Confederation, for the Maritime Provinces declined to enter Confederation if the law-making powers were … committed exclusively to a body constituted entirely on the principle of representation according to population. They … realized that, in such a scheme of things, Ontario and Quebec, or either of these provinces alone, would be in a position to ignore the voice of the minority from the shores of the Atlantic.’ The principle of equivalent representation with other parts of Canada safeguarded not only the Atlantic region but also Quebec and the smaller populations of the Western Provinces when they were admitted to Confederation, making the Senate ‘a symbol of National Unity in our Constitution’ (1954).
But the Upper House served another purpose: to provide what Sir John A. Macdonald referred to as ‘the sober second thought in legislation.’ The Senate, argued Fergusson, ‘would be of no value whatever were it a mere Chamber for registering the decrees of the Lower House. It must be an independent House having a free action of its own.’ The role of the Senate was ‘to study very thoroughly the legislation that comes before it, to reject what it considers on sober second thought is not in the true or best interest of the nation’ and to ensure that legislation that is passed ‘will be a true and adequate instrument of business and not merely a breeding place for litigation, which will make work for lawyers and unnecessary expense and trouble for those making use of it’ (1954).
For Senator Fergusson, an independent Senate meant both the freedom and the obligation to be non-partisan, something that could not be achieved in an elected body. Quoting a former senator, Fergusson characterized the Senate as ‘a work shop, not a theatre,’ explaining that, whereas ‘in the House of Commons the speakers on a bill address themselves primarily to the electors of the country … the Senators address themselves to the Bill and that is a much shorter procedure.’ Moreover, although ‘the hours that the Senate sits in the Senate Chamber seem to give some justification to the criticism that the Senate members are not hard worked,’ this ignores the time spent sitting on Senate committees, ‘that are doing hard work for long hours’ (1954).
By the time she became Speaker of the Senate in 1972, Senator Fergusson had honed her response to calls to ‘Abolish the Senate’, complaints that ‘It serves no useful purpose!’, accusations that it is just ‘An expensive way to pension off deserving party followers’ and characterizations of the upper house as ‘The Chamber of note and dotage.’ According to one interviewer, when faced with such critiques, ‘She points out how senators bring a wealth of experience to their government tasks. They have been scholars, doctors, teachers, lawyers, politicians, bankers, professionals, businessmen, farmers …This varied background and the fact senators are appointed and are not involved in electioneering gives them the time, she says, to study proposed legislation thoroughly…. She recalls [that] the Agricultural and Rural Development Act was the… result of a Senate committee on land use … and that the report of the Senate committee on aging formed the basis of government’s recognition of the need for income supplements’ (Irving, 1974).
Aware that women had but a precarious foothold in both Houses of Parliament, Senator Fergusson believed that ‘the absence of a reasonable number of women in our government makes Canada the poorer’ (1973). Discussing Canada’s bicameral parliamentary system in 1963, she noted that although eight women had been appointed to the Canadian Senate since 1929, when women first became eligible, deaths had reduced this number to six. By comparison, 15 women had been elected to the House of Commons since 1920, when women first became eligible. Yet by 1963 only two women had ever attained Cabinet rank and, in that year, there were only four female MPs. Recognizing shared concerns, Senator Fergusson was instrumental in bringing both senators and MPs together in a non-partisan women’s caucus in the mid-1950s.
Senator Fergusson viewed an appointed Senate as necessary to ensure that the voices of knowledgeable women would be heard in government. And in 1990, at age 91, she remained convinced that ‘keeping an appointed Senate could help the cause of women who rise to eminence in their professions … but can’t hustle votes. If we’re going to elect senators too,’ she warned, ‘then we’re going to have a lot of people that don’t know much.’ In 2012, the notion of a non-partisan women’s caucus is passé and women MPs outnumber women senators by 72 to 38. And even though, proportionately, senators retain the edge, with women accounting for 38 per cent of senators, as compared to just 23 per cent of MPs, it can scarcely be argued that today’s patronage-driven Senate is likely to play an effective role in bringing the talents of more than one-half of Canada’s population to bear on the questions of the day. Perhaps it is too late to hope for the kind of Senate Fergusson and her predecessors envisioned, for her dream of ‘wise women’ senators can, at best, be measured in the contributions of a small handful. Yet if there is anything to be learned from the way our current electoral system works, it is that an elected Senate is not the answer, for it would surely include proportionately fewer women.
Campbell, G. G. (2010). “‘Are we going to do the most important things?’ Senator Muriel McQueen Fergusson, feminist identities, and the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.” In J. Guildford and S. Morton (Eds.). Making Up the State: Women in 20th-Century Atlantic Canada. Fredericton, Acadiensis Press.
Irving, K. (1974, May 4). ‘Muriel McQueen Fergusson: A lifetime of service to her country,’ The Ottawa Journal.
Muriel McQueen Fergusson Papers, MS 1372, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.
Speech to Media Press Club of Canada, Ottawa, 25 October 1973, Box 98.
Speech given 1954, File Speeches, 1948-1950s, Box 51.
Speech to Altrusa Clubs International Convention as a member of the Panel on the Status of Women, Philadelphia, 22 July 1963.Waters, S. (1990). ‘At 91, former senator still fights for women’s rights.’The Evening Times-Globe.
Diminutive in stature and self-deprecating in manner, Muriel McQueen Fergusson possessed an incisive mind and sharp wit. A lawyer by profession, she served as New Brunswick’s Regional Enforcement Counsel for the Wartime Prices and Trade Board during the Second World War and subsequently as Regional Director of Family Allowances and Old Age Security. Called to the Senate in 1953, she was appointed its first female Speaker in 1972.
Born in 1899, in Shediac, New Brunswick, Muriel McQueen was the middle child and only daughter of Julia Jackson and James McQueen, a lawyer. When, during the First World War, she entered Mount Allison University, many of her male peers were at the front, resulting in a gender balance at the university unmatched until the 1980s, when women first took the lead. An active participant in campus life, Muriel represented Mount Allison at the founding meeting of the Student Christian Movement (S.C.M.) and served on the national executive. By the time she graduated in 1921, returning veterans, including Aubrey Fergusson (1894-1942) who shared both Muriel’s love of acting and her ambition to study law, had swelled the undergraduate ranks.
Muriel’s hope to attend Dalhousie Law School was frustrated by her mother, who saw this as a waste of money for a daughter who was already planning to marry. As an alternative, her father encouraged her to read law in his office. Following the traditional apprenticeship route did not slow her progress. Along with Aubrey, she passed the bar examinations in 1924 and, in 1925, became the fourth woman admitted to the New Brunswick Bar. At the urging of her father, a leading member of the provincial Liberal Party, Muriel also gained political experience during this period, delivering speeches encouraging women to support the Liberal candidate in a 1924 by-election.
Married in 1926, Muriel and Aubrey moved to Grand Falls, N.B., where he practised law and sold insurance, and she, apparently true to her mother’s prediction, settled into a more traditional woman’s role. She took up gardening and volunteer work. In Shediac she had been a C.G.I.T. leader and at Mount Allison she had been a leader in the newly emerging S.C.M. In Grand Falls she became involved with the Girl Guides, the Red Cross and the Women’s Institute, and was a founding member of the Grand Falls Literary Club. In 1931, she established a bed and breakfast and tea room. Then, as Aubrey’s health deteriorated and as no children arrived, Muriel gradually took over his practice as well as the insurance business. In 1935 she was appointed New Brunswick’s first female judge of probate. By 1941, she had effectively inherited Aubrey’s positions as acting county court clerk, circuit court clerk, supreme court clerk, and crown prosecutor.
After Aubrey’s death in 1942, Muriel became dissatisfied with life as a ‘country lawyer’. ‘Restless and anxious to spread [her] wings’, she applied for the new post of assistant regional enforcement counsel for the Wartime Prices and Trade Board in Saint John, and not only landed the job, but also negotiated an increase in salary. A year later she became chief enforcement counsel and, at war’s end, was invited to serve on the New Brunswick Reconstruction Council. Since moving to the city, Muriel Fergusson had become a member of the local Women’s Council, the University Women’s Club and the group with which she identified most closely, the Business and Professional Women’s Club. She soon emerged as a leader in these groups, and a popular speaker on such topics as wills and pay equity. As the Reconstruction Council concluded its work, Muriel set her sights on becoming provincial Director of Family Allowances, although the ad was directed to male persons. The letter writing campaign undertaken by her women’s groups resulted in a revised job description and the appointment of their candidate.
Fergusson had earned such support. In 1945 she campaigned to gain the municipal franchise for Fredericton housewives and, later, for women’s right to be elected to City Council. She urged the use of the franchise: ‘When you consider that over 50 percent of the voters of this country are women, you will realize what a tremendous power we have in our hands.’ She believed women should seek public office and, in 1951, became the first woman to run for Fredericton’s City Council. Elected by acclamation, she embarked on a long public career as an advocate for the less privileged, very often women.
Shortly before her 54th birthday, Muriel McQueen Fergusson was appointed to the Senate. While this was undoubtedly a reward for decades of loyalty to the Liberal party, she was likely not too far from the mark when she suggested: ‘My own opportunity, I feel, was due mostly to involvement in women’s and welfare organizations and being an alderman in my home city.’ Aware of the significance for women of her appointment, during more than 20 years in the Senate, Senator Fergusson rose again and again to question legislation that privileged men over women. She served on Senate committees investigating unemployment, divorce, women’s prisons, poverty, and old age. Her energy, incisiveness and good judgement were recognized in 1972, when Pierre Elliott Trudeau appointed her to be the first female Speaker of the Senate. She never ceased to work towards equality of the sexes. In 1974, less than a year before her retirement, she asserted that the Liberal government had been too slow in implementing the 1970 recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.
Senator Fergusson stands among the generation of women whose activism has been less recognized and recorded than that of the suffragists of the ‘first wave’ of feminists or the women’s liberationists of the ‘second wave.’ Marriage and professional training were early preoccupations, but widowhood changed the course of Muriel’s life, propelling her back into a career she had all but abandoned. But her political trajectory was grounded in the research and activism undertaken among the community of women she found in the Business and Professional Women’s Club, under whose auspices she became involved in campaigns to improve the lot of widows, women in poverty, separated and divorced women and women prisoners.
After her retirement from the Senate in 1975, until her death in 1997, Muriel McQueen Fergusson continued to work for women, lending her name and public support to numerous endeavours, ranging from a women’s halfway house in Ottawa to the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research in Fredericton.
Further Reading & Resources
Campbell, G. G. (2010) ‘“Are we going to do the most important things?” Senator Muriel McQueen Fergusson, feminist identities, and the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.’ In J. Guildford and S. Morton (eds.). Making up the state: Women in 20th-century Atlantic Canada. Fredericton: Acadiensis Press.
Irving, K. (1974, May 4) ‘Senator Muriel McQueen Fergusson: A lifetime of service to her country’, Ottawa Journal.
Muriel McQueen Fergusson Papers, MS 1372, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.
‘Laws which affect women and children’, Speech to the Moncton Local Council of Women, 1946, Box 51.
Letter to ‘Ferg’, 29 October 1943, Box 22.
Letter to Prime Minister Lester Pearson, 25 September 1964, Box 31.
Rough notes for speech to Insurance Women in Saint John, 1975, Box 51.
‘The Senate of Canada’, Speech to Administrative Assistants/ Private Secretaries, Toronto, Ontario, 25 October, 1971, Box 51.
Waite, P. B., Lord of Point Grey: Larry MacKenzie of U.B.C. (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987).