In 1970, a 50-year-old woman applied to a masters of history program at the University of Ottawa. That, by itself, was highly unusual. At the time, mature students were still a novelty. Very mature students of 50 were virtually unknown.
Even more surprising: She wanted to write her thesis on aboriginal Canadians in French Canada. Her adviser, Cornelius Jaenen, was supportive and suggested the topic: the relationship between Mi’kmaq Indians and the French community at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island in the 18th century.
Three months later, Olive Dickason returned with a finished thesis – Louisburg and the Indians: A Study in Imperial Race Relations 1713-1760 – and a new ambition: to complete a PhD in native Canadian history.
The proposal posed an even greater problem for the university: The scholarly field of aboriginal studies barely existed in Canada, and certainly not at the U of O. Indeed, to that point, not a single Canadian PhD candidate in history had ever written a dissertation on aboriginal history, a telling commentary in itself.
Fortunately, Jaenen knew someone capable of adjudicating Dickason’s work – the Smithsonian Institution’s Wilcomb Washburn, an historian, anthropologist and native American.
Four years later, at 57, Dickason’s doctoral dissertation, The Myth of the Savage and the Beginning of French Colonialism in the Americas, was published by the University of Alberta Press. It was the first in a series of books by Dickason that have since become canonical, including Canada’s First Nations – A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times (now in its fourth printing). Respected both for their cogent argument and meticulous scholarship, these texts are included on university curricula around the world.
“She was extremely single-minded,” recalls Jaenen, now emeritus professor at the U of O. “One of the most outstanding students. One doesn’t see many like her.”
Dickason herself later recalled that when she started work in the field, her professors were puzzled. “ ‘What on earth do you want to work in that area for? There’s no historical evidence.’ The Indians were an oral society and without written documentation, you can’t have history. That was the attitude.”
It was precisely this attitude that she felt driven to change – to prove that Canada, indeed North America, had been home to thriving, productive aboriginal civilizations for centuries before the arrival of Europeans. Without their knowledge and support, British, French and Spanish communities would never have survived and taken root.
Dickason died in Ottawa on March 12, at the age of 91 – a long life that, by any measure, was also extraordinary.
Her interest in aboriginal issues was no accident. Born Olive Patricia Williamson on March 6, 1920, in Winnipeg, she was the son of a British accountant, Frank, and a Métis mother, Phoebe Philomena Cote, a descendent of a man that had emigrated to Canada from France in 1634 and married an aboriginal woman. Her family enjoyed a certain degree of affluence. Olive attended a private Catholic school and studied piano. But the Depression wiped out her father’s assets, and the family moved to Manitoba’s Interlake region, living on his last remaining asset, a piece of largely worthless land.
There, with her younger sister, Alice, the adolescent Williamson completed high school by correspondence and learned the essential skills of trapping and fishing. She learned them from her mother. In the north, just as the early Europeans had been, her father was lost. “Living in the bush,” she later said, “I very soon learned that survival depended upon assessing each situation as it arose, which calls for common sense and realism. You neither give up, nor play games.”
Not many would have regarded her situation as fortunate, but she did. Unlikely as it seemed, a retired Scotsman lived nearby; in addition to owning an extensive classical library, he subscribed to the London Times and London Observer. “So, though I only had Grade 10 education, I could discuss the Greek philosophers, [and]what Marx thought on certain subjects. I just was extremely well informed.”