There was no money for university so, at 19, Williamson moved to Saskatchewan to sell magazine subscriptions. There, she had two encounters that would profoundly shape her life. Arriving in Wilcox, Sask., she met a Catholic priest named Athol Murray, who had managed to set up Notre Dame College. Affiliated with the University of Ottawa, it was offering bachelor of arts degrees.
They fell into conversation. Imagine the improbable scene: Murray and the young Dickason, standing on the prairie, discussing Platonic philosophy. Impressed by Williamson’s intelligence and wide reading, Murray persuaded her to enroll. “I have no money,” she said. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take care of it.” Four years later, in 1943, she earned her degree in philosophy and French.
“The smallest thing I could say about him,” she later said of her patron, “is that he gave me my life. He gave me my life. I just wouldn’t have stood a chance otherwise.”
“Olive was by far the best student the school ever turned out,” said Mel Clarke, who was a fellow student in Wilcox. Her exposure to Plato in the Manitoba bush got her into Notre Dame. And Notre Dame was her passport to the world.”
The second significant encounter was a meeting with some of her mother’s Métis relatives in Regina. Until then, she later said, she’d had no real understanding of her roots. Although it would be another quarter century before she began to explore native themes intellectually, it was this exposure that lit the flame.
Armed with her BA, Williamson found work as a reporter with the Regina Leader-Post. Journalism was then a male-dominated domain and the work of female writers was largely confined to the so-called women’s pages. Living by her own formula of common sense and realism, she spent the next 20 years writing about fashion and domestic issues, working later for the Winnipeg Free Press, and, as women’s editor, the Montreal Gazette and The Globe and Mail.
It is believed that she met and married Anthony Dickason, another journalist, in Regina. She later gave birth to three daughters, Anne, Clare and Roberta, and, when the marriage ended, became a single mother. Without financial support from her ex-husband, she reluctantly placed her children in foster homes for the next seven years – the eldest, Anne, was then five years old. Only when Dickason began working at The Globe was she able to reunite with her children.
Anne Dickason, now a senior human resources adviser in Ottawa, recalls that her mother was then a kind of “glamour queen.” She covered the fashion world and was always impeccably dressed, went frequently to the theatre and the art gallery, and hosted parties. “Men loved her,” says Anne. “There were a lot of suitors. But after the break up of the marriage, I don’t think she wanted that again. That did it.”
And then, with her daughters grown, Olive Dickason turned her back on journalism and the social whirl. Undergoing some sort of psychological metamorphosis, she reinvented herself, applying single-minded zeal to the resurrection of aboriginal identity in Canada.
“Olive set the bar for the writing of Aboriginal history in Canada,” says Prof. Ken Munro, who met her during her years in Ottawa and was later a colleague at the University of Alberta. “She wrote the first text. Everyone has to refer to it.” Until Dickason, Indians in Canadian history are mentioned largely in passing, as guides to explorers. “But their real importance to Europeans was never highlighted.” Among other things, she argued, the once formidable Hudson Bay Co. owed its origins and success to the Cree of Northern Ontario, who facilitated their access to the beaver and knew the geography.
Nor was her interest merely academic. In art galleries across the country hung dozens of paintings that depicted nameless Indians. “They were faceless individuals,” says Munro, now professor of interdisciplinary studies at the U of A “They had lost their humanity and she put it back by insisting that these people had a name and making sure the museums put it on the label.”