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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.

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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.

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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."

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."

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"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.

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"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."

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.

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"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.

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