Historian Dickason rejected “myth of the savage”
- Julia Peterson | November 24, 2021
Ten years ago, Darren Préfontaine thought he knew about Olive Patricia Dickason.
“She was a renowned historian who specialized in Indigenous history,” he recalled.
But after Dickason’s daughters donated her papers and collections to Gabriel Dumont Institute (GDI) following her death in 2011, Préfontaine - who works at GDI’s Métis Heritage and Culture Department - discovered much more about her.
His new book, Changing Canadian History: The Life and Works of Olive Patricia Dickason, takes a deep dive into the extraordinary life of the celebrated historian, journalist and advocate.
“I could have written several books about Olive Dickason… I knew about her as a historian and I knew her writing, but I didn’t know about her as a person.
“She was a kindhearted person who always rooted for the underdog. She was a champion for Indigenous women and children’s rights. She fought for the rights of the elderly.”
As Préfontaine went through Dickason’s papers, he was particularly struck by her drive and ability to overcome obstacles.
“Since she was a little girl in the Depression, she faced every obstacle you could imagine,” he said. “She was living in poverty. She was a woman journalist in the 1940s, 50s and 60s - a really sexist era. She had to place her daughters in foster care in her early career because she couldn’t look after them. Then she was able to get the family back and reunite them.”
Dickason was born in Manitoba but moved to Saskatchewan when she was in high school. She worked at the Regina Leader-Post, the Winnipeg Free Press, the Montreal Gazette and the Globe and mail.ß
In 1970, when Dickason was 50, she left journalism to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Ottawa. She then went on to author multiple scholarly books including Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from the Earliest Times and Indian Arts in Canada, and taught at the University of Alberta from 1976 to 1992.
During her academic career, Dickason faced many misconceptions from “clueless people” about what it really means to study Indigenous history, Préfontaine said.
“What I found interesting - and she goes into this in her book, The Myth of the Savage - was (her) resistance to the idea that Indigenous people had no history,” he said. “That they were more or less static props, that there was nothing really to discern from the Indigenous past and that everything you needed to know about Indigenous people was through anthropologists’ viewpoints.
“And Olive was really one of the pioneering academics to challenge this. She said, ‘Of course Indigenous people have a history.’”
“Probably the biggest revelation in the book is that Olive herself, by today’s criteria, would not be considered a Métis person,” he said. “She had some remote Indigenous ancestry, but at the time no one called her out on that and she was accepted as Métis - and she was able to produce and write a lot of groundbreaking work that contributed immensely to the university community and to the larger society.”
Changing Canadian History: The Life and Works of Olive Patricia Dickason is available for purchase at the Gabriel Dumont Institute.