Studying at night while working during the day at the National Gallery, Dickason was shocked to hear lecturers “talking about the savages and all the good things the Europeans brought them. That these people were locked in time, hadn’t progressed. I realized then that I would have to put my efforts where my mouth was. The Europeans didn’t come along and just spread good tidings to a passive, receptive people who had no particular social forms. The Indians had as rational a position from their point of view as the Europeans had from theirs. I was trying to honour my ancestors.”
Doing research for her PhD, she taught herself Spanish in order to read historic documents in their original language. History, she insisted, wasn’t only what was written down. It was also contained in a people’s art and culture, its fashion, architecture, design, rituals and philosophy. “Scholarship, very often, concentrates on specific areas,” she explained. “It’s much tidier. You can get a complete picture of a specific area. In the meantime, you miss the context. I’m a great believer of trying to incorporate everything into as a large picture as you possibly can.”
Former U of A historian Rod MacLeod, now retired, sat on the committee that hired Dickason for a junior faculty position in 1976. “We were lucky to get her. Olive’s work was unique at the time. Teaching was not her strong point.… She was totally focused on rescuing the history of the first nations from oblivion. She transformed the landscape and inspired a whole generation of new scholars.”
There was, of course, canny method to the European madness. With the decline of the fur trading economy after the mid-19th century, French, British and Spanish officials faced the problem of what to do with large native communities. And they wanted their land for settlement expansion.
“Occupants of the land are the natural owners of that land,” Dickason said. “It’s unequivocally in the Justinian Code, the functioning international principle of Europe and a principle in Roman law. So how did the Europeans get around that? ‘That they were human in form only’– you see that expression in the early writings – and therefore, didn’t have the same rights as real humans, which the Europeans were. Very quickly, the Indians got classed as savages and uncivilized. This set a pattern, an idea that persists to this day.”
Dickson taught at the U of A for eight years, until the administration exercised its right to effect mandatory retirement at age 65. Dickason fought the ruling, citing Charter rights. But after winning before the human rights commission and in the lower courts, she lost at the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that the effects of prima facie discrimination were proportional to the legitimate objectives served by the policy.
“The university actually expected to lose,” says MacLeod. “It had actually set aside a lot of money to fight all the other cases it expected to arise as a result of hers.”
Disappointed, Dickason reconciled herself to life as a sessional lecturer and continued her research. A decade ago, she moved to Ottawa to be closer to her daughter, Anne. A stroke in the mid-90s set her back, but even after that, she thought nothing of 40-minute walks in sub-zero temperatures.
In a short documentary film about Dickason, composer John Kim Bell says that it was her academic rigour that made possible the later victories that aboriginals won in Canadian courts – “the Delgamuk, Nisga’a and Supreme Court cases, our fundamental rights and recognitions by non-aboriginal people. That, in fact, yes, we did live here as sovereign nations and we lived here with rich cultures and histories.”
Dickason leaves her daughters, Anne, Clare and Roberta, and seven grandchildren.