Lillian Dyck

Lillian Eva Quan Dyck, OC, scholar, feminist, senator, advocate for Indigenous rights (born 24 August 1945 in North Battleford, SK). Lillian Dyck was the first Indigenous woman in Canada to earn a PhD in science. She was also the first Indigenous female senator and the first Chinese Canadian senator. During her time in the Senate, she was part of several actions to improve life for Indigenous people in Canada. This includes work on criminal justice and Indigenous education reform, and bills to reinstate Indian Status to women who had lost it based on sexist laws. Dyck was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2021.

Lillian Eva Quan Dyck, OC, scholar, feminist, senator, advocate for Indigenous rights (born 24 August 1945 in North Battleford, SK). Lillian Dyck was the first Indigenous woman in Canada to earn a PhD in science. She was also the first Indigenous female senator and the first Chinese Canadian senator. During her time in the Senate, she was part of several actions to improve life for Indigenous people in Canada. This includes work on criminal justice and Indigenous education reform, and bills to reinstate Indian Status to women who had lost it based on sexist laws. Dyck was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2021.

Early Life and Education

Lillian Dyck was born to a Cree mother and Chinese father. She has a brother, Winston. They are members of the George Gordon First Nation, in Treaty 4 territory. When Dyck was young, her family moved several times. They finally settled in Swift Current, where her father ran a café.

Her mother, Eva McNab, was a residential school survivor. Eva had been taught in school to be ashamed of her Cree heritage. She told her children that they should claim to be Chinese Canadian. Dyck’s appearance and maiden name — Quan — made the deception easy. Dyck grew up with no Indigenous friends or deep understanding of her Indigenous culture. She said of this experience, “That left within me a deficit.” Dyck later connected with Elders who taught her to find strength in her Indigenous identity.

Dyck attended the University of Saskatchewan in the 1960s. At the time, few Indigenous students had access to post-secondary education due to racism and related socio-economic issues. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1968 and, two years later, a Master of Science degree in biochemistry. In 1981, Dyck did what at that point no other First Nations woman in Canada had done before and earned her PhD.

Did You Know?
A play called Café Daughter (2011) was based on Lillian Dyck’s early life. The play is set in a small town in Saskatchewan in the 1950s and 1960s. Yvette Wong, a nine-year-old Chinese-Cree girl struggles to find her place in the world. An unexpected friend helps the girl find her own path in life. The play starred Tiffany Ayalik of the Juno-award-winning duo, Quantum Tangle.


Academic Career

Lillian Dyck accepted a position as a professor in the University of Saskatchewan’s Neuropsychiatry Research Unit. She conducted brain research to better understand diseases such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and Parkinson’s. Dyck’s 1996 article, “An Analysis of Western, Feminist and Aboriginal Science Using the Medicine Wheel of the Plains Indians,” spoke of ways Indigenous medicine is effective in treating disease.

Dyck was appointed associate dean, College of Graduate Studies & Research at the University of Saskatchewan. She has said that she experienced sexist and racist discriminationas a female Indigenous scholar and scientist.

Senator

In 2005, Prime Minister Paul Martin appointed 59-year-old Lillian Dyck to the Canadian Senate. Dyck became the first senator of Chinese descent and the first Indigenous woman senator.

Dyck sat first as an independent for the New Democratic Party and then, in 2009, as a Liberal. In January 2014, Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau removed senators from his caucus and Dyck joined all other Liberal senators in becoming independents. (See also Canadian Party System.)

As a senator, Dyck brought attention to the racist laws that from 1885 to 1923 sought to reduce the number of Chinese immigrants by imposing a Head Tax. Her father was among those forced to pay the tax. She was pleased when in June 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an official apology on behalf of Canadians.

As the Chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, she worked to improve Indigenous education. Dyck played a significant role in the writing of the December 2011 report Reforming First Nations Education: From Crisis to Hope. It advocated improving funding for on-reserve education and making sweeping curriculum changes to include an emphasis on traditional knowledge. Additionally, it advocated more support for Indigenous students seeking post-secondary education.

Dyck was involved in matters concerning Indigenous women. In January 2016, Dyck introduced Bill S-215 to address violence against Indigenous women. It proposed changing the Criminal Code so that judges would need to take Indigenous females’ identities into account when sentencing their abusers and make sentences harsher. The bill was opposed by some legal experts but supported by many Indigenous groups, including the Assembly of First Nations and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations. It passed the Senate but was rejected by the House of Commons. Undaunted, she was instrumental in seeing that the law was amended. On 29 March 2018, the federal government introduced an amendment to the Criminal Code, Bill C-75. The Criminal Code now acknowledged Indigenous women and their vulnerability to abuse and violent crimes. (See also Indigenous Women’s Issues in Canada and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada.)

Dyck also led the effort to pass Bill S-3, which aimed to restore Indian Status to more than 80,000 Indigenous women who had lost their Status because they married a non-Indigenous man. One of those women was her mother. The bill passed the Senate unanimously in 2017. By 2019, Status was restored to women and the descendants of women who had lost Status going back to 1869. (See also Women and the Indian Act.)

Dyck worked toward creating meaningful actions and discussions about reconciliation. She was instrumental in creating the report How Did We Get Here? A Concise, Unvarnished Account of the History of the Relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Canada. The report explained how few Canadian students learned the full truth about colonization, the Indian Act, residential schools, and related issues. She explained that a better understanding of that history is crucial to achieving reconciliation.

In August 2020, Dyck announced that, because she had reached the mandatory retirement age of 75, she was leaving the Senate. She looked forward to relaxing with friends and family and pursuing her passion for photography and bird watching.

Awards and Honours

  • National Aboriginal Achievement Award (now Indspire) for Science & Technology (1999)
  • YWCA Woman of Distinction Award for Science, Technology & the Environment (2003)
  • YWCA Lifetime Achievement Award (2019)
  • Officer of the Order of Canada (2021)